At least 33 Nigerians have died since April this year in three boat accidents on the River Niger in Yauri Emirate of Kebbi State, with two of the mishaps occurring on Wednesday and Thursday last week.
The last two accidents occurred in the area over five months after the Nigerian Senate passed a resolution urging the federal government to urgently implement some measures that could have prevented the accidents.
The first accident occurred in April when a boat ferrying traders to Warra in Ngaski Local Government Area of Kebbi State from Malale market in Borgu Local Government Area of Niger State capsized and killed nine persons. Officials had also declared 25 of the passengers missing after 26 of them were rescued. Initial reports had stated that about 150 passengers were crammed into the boat for the ill-fated trip.
But the captain of the boat, Dantata Dogonawarra, and the Chief of Majinga, Abdulmalik Nuhu, gave the official figures during the burial of the bodies recovered from the accident. The ceremony was attended by the Deputy Leader of the Nigeria Senate, Bala Ibn Na’Allah, at Warra.
“The boat was transporting about 60 passengers when the unfortunate accident occurred and not 150 passengers and 136 people missing as recently reported,” Mr. Nuhu had said.
Although the Chief of Majinga had said at the ceremony that the search for bodies was continuing, no further account was given of the fate of the missing passengers.
“We hit a stump that caused the accident. I also lost three of my relations in the accident. I have never experienced any accident in my over 20 years’ experience as a boat driver on this water,” Mr. Dogonawarra, the boat driver said.
Yusuf Umar, one of the survivors, said the bodies of some of the missing passengers might have been eaten by fish. “Among those who died are teenage hawkers of groundnut cake,” he added.
The third boat mishap on Thursday in Yauri reportedly claimed three lives. Our reporter gathered that the boat had left Binua village with 11 passengers and was rowing to a market in the area when it capsized, killing three of the passengers.
Musa Mohammed, Chairman of Yauri Local Government, however, said only two persons, a Fulani woman and an elderly person, had drowned in the accident.
“The village is close to the market; they were going to trade in Yauri when the wave accompanied by strong wind forced the canoe to capsize. The rest of the passengers were rescued by divers in a nearby boat shortly.”
Mr. Mohammed blamed the incident on the boat driver’s refusal to heed the warning issued by officials of the Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority not to embark on the journey.
“He (the boat driver) was warned by the officials not to embark on the journey because of the unfavourable weather condition, but he refused to heed to the advice,” the chairman said.
The previous day, 22 passengers had reportedly died when their boat capsized and split into pieces after also hitting a stump in the full-flowing River Niger.
But Abdullahi Takwa, Chairman of Yauri Boat Builders and Wakilin Sarkin Ruwa (representative of Chief of the River) on Sunday told our reporter in Yauri that the wooden boat had splintered because it was overloaded with passengers travelling from Jeribago village in Kebbi to Tuteku village in Niger State.
“No, this was due to overloading and not because of a stump as we also heard in earlier reports,” he said.
“15 bodies were first recovered on the day of the accident. The other seven bodies recovered by Kasabo villager were not reported to the authorities. These give a total of 22 death in the Wednesday accident,” Mr. Takwa said.
Mr. Takwa called on the authorities to monitor the activities of boat operators to check their tendency to overload and make them provide life jackets to passengers. He warned that unless strict compliance was enforced with the rules for travel on water, especially in poor weather conditions, the tragedies would continue.
The Acting Executive Director, State Emergency Management Agency, Abbas Kamba, also confirmed the accidents.
Some fish sellers who spoke to our reporter said they sighted some foreign nationals accompanied by heavily armed security operatives conducting a survey around the river bank area of the Yauri river on Friday, the day after the latest in the series of fatal mishaps.
Over 40 persons had also died in a boat accident in the same area in September 2013. That had accident occurred about four kilometres offshore near Malale village in Borgu Local Government Area of Niger State.
The boat was ferrying people from Tungar Na’illo from neighbouring Kebbi State to the local market in Malale when it also hit a stump and broke into two. At least 42 dead bodies were said to have been recovered from the river. Residents said the Village Head of Tungar Na’illo, Garba Maigari, was in the boat and his body was never found.
Following the accident of April, the Nigerian Senate called on the Federal Government to provide Warra community with a modern 50-seater boat to check the disasters.
Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu, who presided over Senate plenary on May 5, while reading the resolution of the Senate, also called on the federal government to assist the communities in blasting the big stones and cutting the big stumps in the river that hinder safe navigation around the area.
“Senate also resolved to urge the Ministry of Transport through the National Inland Waterways Authority to immediately conduct a survey into the stretch of River Niger in the area with a view to putting safe navigational aid in place. The Senate also urge the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) to assist the communities with relief materials in order to cushion the effect of disaster,” Mr. Ekweremadu said.
Earlier, the sponsor of the motion that led to the resolution, Mr. Na’Allah, who represents Kebbi South Senatorial zone, said despite the sacrifice by the same communities which were resettled by the then Northern regional government in order to build the current Kainji Dam to provide electricity for Nigeria, “the communities are without drinking water and electricity. Only plank canoe is used to transport people through the river.”
He also said the incessant boat mishaps and loss of lives in the Yauri end of River Niger called for urgent intervention of the federal government. Mr. Na’Allah said that despite the disturbing development which had become an annual occurrence; nothing had been done to prevent future recurrence.
He also expressed concern that many of the victims were not accounted for due to lack of passenger manifest.
Adamu Aliero, a former governor of Kebbi who is now senator representing Kebbi Central, while contributing to the motion, said the communities had for long been suffering from serious environmental degradation as a result of their resettlement for the building of Kainji Dam.
He described the motion as very timely and apt in order to save lives and facilitate provision of water and electricity as well as relief materials to the victims of mishap in the area.
A former governor of the state, Abubakar Musa, said in Warra that the government needs to provide life jackets and modern passenger boats for trips on the river.
“Most importantly, the chopping off of those stumps under the water. If that problem is not solved we will continue to have this problem of accidents,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mr. Na’Allah, when contacted on Sunday, said he had made a follow up with Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in his effort to address the incessant boat mishaps in the riverine areas of Kebbi South, the senatorial zone he represents.
“I met Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to follow up on federal government intervention, few days before these recent unfortunate accidents. I am quite optimistic that assistance will come from the federal government very soon,” he said.
He condoled with the governor of Kebbi State and the Emir of Yauri and all those who lost their loved ones.
He commended several efforts made by the Yauri Emirate and the state government to ensure safety of lives and properties of boat and passengers in the riverine areas.
However, it is clear that boat accidents will continue to cause avoidable deaths in Kebbi and other communities using rivers for transportation, unless the authorities ensure compliance with safety measures for that mode of transportation.