First of all, we must condole the people of the various communities of the Patigi Local Government Area of Kwara State; the Etsu Patigi, and all our compatriots in Kwara State, on the death of 110 individuals, as a result of the tragic accident on the waterways of that part of our state. May the Almighty Allah reward them with Aljanna Fir’daus, while giving the loved ones the fortitude to bear their passing. Amin.
As reported by The Punch newspapers and other media outlets, leaders of affected communities stated that their people went to a wedding ceremony in another village called Gboti, in neighbouring Niger State, and the boat carried about 270 people, and almost 110 people were lost.
“The record for each village includes Egbu, 61, Dzakan, 38, Kpada, four, Kuchalu, two, and Sampi, three. This is an unforgettable memory and tragedy in the history of our village.”
Also, sources in the community, who spoke to The Punch newspaper’s correspondent, gave details of the deceased victims to include 69 persons from Egbu village, 36 from Gakpan village and four from Kpada, also in the Patigi LGA of Kwara State.
It was indeed a frightening harvest of deaths, which speaks to the serious problems that we must begin to properly think through, about waterways transportation, in our state in particular, and Nigeria in general. The reason is that we often read of these accidents all around the country, but these have been a consistent pattern on the waterways of Kwara, Niger, Kebbi, and Kogi States. The link between these four states, is the River Niger. I literally grew up on its banks in Jebba, so I have vivid remembrances of the many accidents and loss of lives over the decades.
In practically every instance, these accidents have mainly affected very poor people, often of peasant extraction or petty traders, who regularly travel between riverine communities. And these are in unregulated, locally constructed canoes.
For those whose lives are mainly lived on land, it might be very difficult to visualise the daily transactions of existence on the waterways for riverine communities. But they’re literally wired into an existence where these, often very dangerous waterways, determine the course of daily existence of these communities.
As in the case of this most recent accident, it was travel by night. The reports coming out of this backwater stated that the people involved were returning from the wedding ceremony, and they were travelling around three o’clock in the morning.
The River Niger at this time of year would be overflowing, because of the waters associated with the rainy season. And the river’s flow would be very rapid, and equally treacherous.
The various media reports of the accident also underlined the fact that the boat was overflowing with people, about 270 or so: men, women and children. And because they were returning from a wedding ceremony, the boat was also, likely, to be carrying all kinds of effects too.
Most of these local people do not swim, and the children would especially be the most vulnerable. Of course, there were no life jackets; they probably didn’t have any source of illumination better than lanterns.
It was instructive that The Punch newspapers also spoke to the Area Manager of the National Inland Waterways Authority in charge of Niger-Kwara areas, Akapo Adeboye, on the likely causes of the crash. He attributed the boat accident to overloading and turbulent winds. Turbulence at that time of night, during this time of the year, is not unexpected.
Adeboye in his interview with The Punch also underlined the issue of overloading of the boat as a major cause of the accident: “This is a very sad situation that is avoidable because what led to it was due to overloading of the boat by the operators. They want to make more money and they overload their boats.
“We have educated them through messages in English, Hausa and other languages that are spoken in this area but they won’t listen. We even set up a safety unit and when we apprehend any defaulter, we sanction them through payment of fines which is up to N100,000.
“Despite all our efforts at making sure that they comply with safety standards that they must have life jackets, lifebuoys and other safety equipment on board, many of them (operators) just choose to adopt the easier way out by travelling at night just because they want to avoid our monitoring and safety patrol from being arrested.”
Two things are clear here. First, safety standards are observed more in their breaches by the operators of these canoes/boats. And the second point, is that regulatory powers are weak, improperly enforced, or a combination of both; as well as the notorious tradition of disregard for a consistent pattern of enforcement ethos that pervades the Nigerian public space.
The consequence of this potent combination is the regular and tragic pattern of harvests of accidents and deaths on Nigeria’s inland waterways. The death of 110 of our rural compatriots was a tragedy that could have been foretold, but which, in a much saner social, regulatory, and patriotic respect for the sanctity of human lives, could also have been prevented.
Of course, we would all exchange sad statements, condolences would be offered to the affected people and communities, and nothing in the area of restitution would be effected, by the relevant authorities. Everyone would move on, until the next accident and loss of lives!
But we cannot keep repeating the same mistakes and expect a different outcome. It’s the classic definition of insanity. The waterways have served communities for millenia, as locus of economic activities, water supply for domestic and commercial ends, and means of communication. Surely, we need to concentrate minds on their safety, and their upgrade for national development. That’s the raison d’etre for the Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority. But the jury is out, as to whether the authority is actually living up to it’s responsibilities.
On the other hand, the Kwara State Government too, has to assume a greater level of responsibility for the safety of the lives of people in our communities in the areas served by the majestic River Niger.
We cannot leave safety of our people solely in the hands of a federal authority. If we harvest their votes in the regular rounds of elections, surely, we need to look out for them, by finding ways to ensure their safety on the waterways.
That area is also the rice production hub of our state; and these are some of the most hard-working communities in Africa. There’s plentiful fishing resource and in the old Northern Nigeria, Patigi was the site of an annual Regata which brought people from far and near, for a spectacular fiesta, that should be on the tourism and hospitality calendar of our state and country.
If we can visualise these tremendous opportunities available on, and around our waterways, and can work assiduously with the communities located by these waterways, we can certainly find the ways and means, to stem these tragic accidents and unnecessary harvests of deaths, in tens and hundreds. It diminishes our humanity, that we allow these accidents to recur so regularly on our waterways.
Abuja, Wednesday, June 14th, 2023.