The recent accidents involving passenger boats in Lagos, once again, expose the prevalent danger and lack of safety still inherent in that means of public transportation which ordinarily should make a clear difference for a state so blessed to be surrounded by water.
Sadly, two accidents that claimed about 19 lives within a few days apart, are not exceptional, as the state had recorded many such accidents in various dimensions in the past; while across the country, hundreds of people have died prematurely for reasons ranging from defects in the boats, environmental factors, inadequate facilities, overloading and failure to observe strict regulations laid down by the regulatory authorities.
Water channels are natural facilities meant to be exploited for the social and economic benefit of the government and the people. It is said that the management of water transportation in Lagos in particular and Nigerian riverine communities, in general, has left so much to be desired. There is no record of the number of innocent people who have perished in boat mishaps.
These accidents are rampant everywhere people commute on waterways, thereby showing a breakdown of law and order in the system.
The extant rules and regulations covering the field are sometimes inadequate; more importantly, enforcement is weak, which informs the frequent mishaps. There is need to urgently address this ugly situation in order to save lives and properties of Nigerians using the water ways.
The frequency, by which these fatal accidents occur, seemingly with little official commitment, is unacceptable. It shows the failure of governance at state and local levels.
Following the latest boat accidents, the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) the other day confirmed that a total of 17 bodies had been recovered from the missing victims.
The ill-fated boat was sailing from Mile 2 to Ibeshe, a suburb of Lagos, according to NEMA’s Zonal Coordinator, South-West, Mr. Ibrahim Farinloye. About a week before the incident, two other persons were believed killed or missing in a boat accident.
Farinloye decried the activities of illegal boat operators plying the waterways outside the stipulated official hours, which he said led to avoidable deaths.
Noting that the act is a gross violation of the regulations of the waterways guidelines for operators, he however said nothing about any sanctions that have been applied for non-compliance to curb the menace. Lack of punishment encourages impunity. From indications, the regulatory bodies have tried without success to stamp out illegal operations of small boat operators, who hardly use life jackets after official hours.
Furthermore, it was observed that wooden boats that are not permitted to be used as passenger boats were still employed. But it is only at odd hours that the illegal operators deploy these rickety boats and thereby put the lives of unsuspecting passengers at risk, Farinloye said.
There are agencies of government that share responsibility for water ways safety. These include the Nigerian Navy’s Special Boat Service; the Association of Boat/Ferry Operators of Nigeria and the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA), among others. The LASWA particularly has responsibility for activities on the Lagos waterways.
LASWA was established in 2008 and is responsible for monitoring and ensuring compliance of operators as well as being a resource hub for all manners of marine-related matters. This provides the appropriate enabling environment for potential operators to implement their business strategies and capitalize on the vast number of commuters seeking alternate transport in Lagos.
Under the existing rules, boat operators and passengers are strongly advised to adhere to safety guidelines and measures before embarking on any trip. Relevant unions and associations are further advised to ensure that safety gear are provided by their members for passengers and to enforce the compulsory use of the safety gears by all passengers.
Additionally, boat drivers should be subjected to regular and mandatory training and medical checks. These measures are necessary because most of the mishaps are caused by unprofessional boat drivers with poor judgment and with no regard to the safety of others while plying the waterways.
On its own, the Western Naval Command ought to render necessary assistance in fulfillment of its mandate on aid to civil authority, especially the security and safety of lives and property in its area of responsibility.
Accordingly, members of the public should be patriotic and support measures emplaced by the Command to checkmate untoward actions by criminal elements in the maritime sector.
It has been pointed out on several occasions that the marine environment surrounding Lagos ought to give a veritable advantage to the state in terms of water transportation and tourism. The need to use water transportation to decongest the roads and save people from the traumatic traffic snarl has been emphasized. That, partly, is the reason LASWA was established. But the agency is failing in its duty.
The authorities in Lagos need to show greater commitment toward enforcing safety on the waterways. Government cannot afford to look the other way while illegal operators take charge of the waterways, causing in the process untimely death of innocent boat passengers. Worse still, nobody is being held responsible or sanctioned. In these circumstances, the Lagos government should take responsibility for the accidents.
It is unimaginable how boat operators are left to use the rickety, ill-maintained vessels to transport people under the watch of LASWA and other government agencies. Oftentimes, the boats are overloaded with passengers not putting on safety jackets. The operators operate with impunity ostensibly while the relevant authorities look away.
Around the world, there are cities, such as Venice and Amsterdam that largely depend on water transportation for daily commuting.
In these cities, it is fun to commute by smart elegant boats from one point to the other, without the frequent mishaps as recorded in Nigeria. For a mega city like Lagos without an adequate mass transit system, water transportation ought to complement the roads and rail facilities to give respite to the citizens.
The Lagos State government should insist on stricter regulations and enforcement, to give water transportation a befitting, decent and safe status that Nigerians deserve.