The recent boat accidents on Nigerian waters have raised fresh concerns over regulatory lapses as not less than 320 persons have lost their lives in the last 18 months.
This year alone, over 75 Nigerians have died in boat accidents that occurred in Lagos, Niger, Sokoto, and the Bayelsa states.
Most of the accidents and the attendant deaths can be traceable to night sailing, overloading, non-usage of lifejackets, and use of fake lifejackets, among others, representing regulatory lapses and poor enforcement of safety standards.
For instance, one person was reported dead while many were injured after a boat capsized on July 23, 2022 at Nansa village in Shiroro Local Government Area of Niger State. This happened two weeks after a total of 17 bodies were recovered after a boat sailing from Mile 2 to Ibeshe, a suburb of Lagos, capsized.
Industry analysts, however, believed that the above-listed issues can easily be nipped in the bud if the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) and other state regulatory agencies empowered by the government to oversee water transportation got their act together.
According to Eugene Emeka, a media practitioner, who frequently plies Agbara-Liverpool, there are several factors that cause boat accidents: the presence of submerged logs on the waterway, casting of fishing nets on the right of way by local fishermen, presence of pipes belonging to Chinese dredgers on the waterway, underwater weeds and indiscriminate dumping of waste.
He said that NIWA needs to address those issues to ensure ease of movement by boats, adding that NIWA does not have a presence at the different jetties in Lagos.
“I have also observed that NIWA knows that the life jackets used by these commercial boat operators are locally made and most of them have expired. If NIWA can establish a presence at the jetties, it will deter passengers from refusing to use life jackets and it will also stop late-night trips,” he said.
He said that proper enforcement starts with the regulators establishing their presence at the loading point.
Emeka said the Ibeshe incident occurred because NIWA and LASWA officials were reactionary in their approach while the boat operators refused to obey the rule of not embarking on night trips.
On his part, Abiola Muyiwa, a Lagos resident, who uses boat regularly, blamed the failure of NIWA to deliver on its regulatory responsibilities for the reoccurring boat accidents on inland waters.
According to him, the Federal Government pays serious attention to the aviation sector because it is for the elite while the inland waterway is for the poor.
Joshua Oladapo, a maritime expert, said the passengers also contribute to the accidents by allowing themselves to move at night when the rule says boats should not move at night.
He said many passengers also fail to wear life jackets given to them by boat drivers but faults NIWA for lack of enforcement, which he attributed to a lack of enough manpower and poor funding to carry out regulatory mandates.
While pointing out that the Presidency and the legislatures need to play a major role in curbing boat accidents, Oladapo said that NIWA needs to be empowered through more budgetary allocation to employ more staff that would patrol the waterways 24/7 to arrest boat drivers going against the rules.
Responding, Sarat Braimah, area manager, NIWA Lagos Office, said NIWA is doing a lot to address boat accidents in the southern parts of Nigeria including training and licensing boat drivers to properly equip them to drive professionally.
She said NIWA also holds regular safety awareness as well as security and compliance patrols on the waterways.
“NIWA has established nine Search and Rescue stations and will establish three more this year across various locations in Lagos, Lokoja, Port Harcourt, Yauri, and New Bussa, among others. These stations are intended to prevent but also provide timely rescue. The Authority also ensures that inland river craft is inspected for standards, safety compliance, and seaworthiness before such boats are registered and authorised to operate as passenger boats or even for private use,” she said.
According to her, excessive overloading, use of old wooden boats, presence of tree stumps and snags, flagrant disregard for safety regulations, and night sailing are some of the causes of boat accidents in the North.
Braimah said that NIWA had concluded plans to provide surveillance gadgets along the waterways to enhance safety and security.
“Our personnel are also deployed to the respective loading terminals to provide pre-boarding safety talk to passengers, prevent overloading and night sailing,” she added.
She said that in the North, most of the drivers are not trained and NIWA has discovered that the non-availability of enough passenger boats may be responsible for the overloading, which was why the authority recently intervened by providing some passenger boats.
She said the agency would soon award a contract for the construction of a mass transit passenger boat to be deployed in the North.