The Great Lakes region in East Africa is a vital economic source as well as an essential thoroughfare for the people in several countries that border the lakes. But these waterways have become deadly, with preventable accidents claiming huge numbers of lives every year. It is about time the authorities put safety, not profits first. Report by Epajjar Ojulu.
Although Africa’s Great Lakes region is the envy of the rest of the continent for its vast natural resources, the many accidents in which hundreds or more people perish annually have become a deadly blight.
Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo are home to the Victoria, Tanganyika, Kivu, Albert, George, Tana and Kyoga lakes. These countries reap rich economic bounties from fishing, hydropower, abundant water for irrigation and tourism.
In addition, Lakes Tanganyika and Albert have been found to be endowed with petroleum and gas deposits, which could in the near future change the economic fortunes of the countries sharing them.
Unfortunately, these waterways have also become deathtraps due to the rising number of accidents that plague the lakes. Violent deaths are not a new feature in these regions and go back to pre-colonial times when inter-tribal wars for control of fishing rights also produced their share of death, says Makerere University’s history lecturer, Bwire Lumumba.
However, the scale of the current carnage is of a different magnitude. “The fighters in the early days moved in canoes. There were no cruise boats or ferries, nor were there ships that would expose travellers to the risk of accidents,” adds Lumumba.
“It is not possible to ascertain the total number of people who have perished on these lakes in the last decade, but they are definitely in their thousands,’’ says an anonymous researcher on marine accidents on Lake Victoria.
Nevertheless, just a few examples of major recent accidents tells the story. Last November, 32 revellers, most of them drunk, perished on a cruise boat on the Uganda side of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest freshwater body. Last September, at least 140 people perished when a ferry, MV Nyerere, capsized, close to the town of Mwanza.
Apart from small-scale accidents, dozens of people die annually in large single accidents. For example in 2011, over 145 people perished in a single accident, while in 2012, the number was 200. However, none of these accidents match the harrowing incident when more than 900 people, on the ferry MV Bukoba, perished in Lake Victoria.
The same grim story of deaths due to accidents is repeated at Lake Tanganyika, the world’s second- deepest water body. In 2014, for example, 30 people drowned.
But while the deaths of scores of people in single incidents makes the news, literally countless people have lost their lives in accidents that have become almost routine on this lake, whose shorelines are shared by Tanzania, DR Congo, Burundi and Zambia. The same can be said of Lake Albert, whose shoreline is shared by Uganda and DR Congo. The UN High Commission for Refugees in Kampala says scores of refugees drowned in the lake last year, while fleeing a new upsurge of violence in DR Congo.
Lake Kivu, shared by Burundi and DR Congo, has its own tragic incidents as well. Among the worst was the 2004 drowning of 68 people on the DR Congo side. As at other lakes, there are virtually daily reports of deaths.
Passing the buck?
In all cases, government authorities in the region blame these accidents on overloading, the poor mechanical condition of boats, ships and ferries – and high winds and frequent storms which are a feature of these inland waterways. While that is true, what is not acknowledged is the weakness or absence of government policies on the regulation of lake transport to ensure that safety standards are adhered to.
The reaction of governments in the region has been reactive, not proactive. Whenever an accident occurs, blame is heaped on the operators of the vessels and it is business as usual the next day.
Despite a long history of accidental deaths at the lakes, successive governments in Tanzania have not changed the status quo. Soon after MV Nyerere sank, President John Magufuli ordered the arrest of the managers of the boat after the police blamed the accident on the overloading of passengers and cargo.
No mention was made of the specific people to be arrested, prompting sceptics to believe it was a public relations ploy to shield the government from blame. The policies of former Presidents Ben Mkapa and Jakaya Kikwete on lake transport, which sought judicial intervention to curb lake accidents, remain the same today.
In a 99-page judgement, the Tanzanian High Court, in 2002, acquitted four people, including the captain of MV Bukoba, the ferry whose sinking caused so many deaths in 1996.
The Bukoba was operated by the state-owned Tanzania Railway Corporation, which has issued certificates of sea-worthiness. Danish experts who had carried out tests on the vessel had recommended that the maximum amount of cargo it should carry was 35 tons and 400 passengers but when it capsized and sank, it was carrying 100 tons of cargo and around 1,000 passengers.
The court verdict was an indirect indictment on the governments in the region for their failure to put in place and implement rules and regulations on marine safety.
When, last November, a cruise boat sank killing 32 people in Lake Victoria, the Ugandan police blamed the mishap on the poor mechanical condition of the boat. It later turned out that the boat had not been licensed, or given the green light by police to ply the lake waters. It was also revealed that the police have only one marine boat for patrolling all the lakes in the country and have no marine ambulance. A senior police officer says the force is underfunded.
The bigger scandal, though, is that the dead retrieved from the waters were young revellers without life jackets on, begging questions about their availability at the time of the disaster.
Like his Tanzanian counterpart, President Yoweri Museveni ordered the arrest and charging of the boat operators for criminal negligence and manslaughter. He was oblivious to the fact that the boat operator and his wife had perished in the same accident. He also ordered the registration of all boats in the country, an admission that for the 33 years his government has been in power, disorganisation has been the modus operandi on the country’s lakes. Going by the past presidential directives, it is anyone’s guess what awaits this one.
Although the poor mechanical condition of boats, ferries and ships is largely blamed for the accidents, weather experts say that because the lakes lie in the Rift Valley, they are susceptible to volatile weather conditions.
“This region is susceptible to tectonic movements, mild earthquakes and big storms,’’ says a meteorologist at the Uganda National Weather Centre, who declined to be named.
He elaborated that few boats can stand the ferocity of the winds in the Rift Valley.
All these issues as well as the fact that boats, ferries and other vessels are a very important part of the transport of people and goods in the regions means that the governments should have made absolutely sure that strict rules of safety, including maximum tonnage and passengers carried, are always followed.
They should have also made sure that all safety equipment, including life-vests, is in place and easily accessible.
This is standard practice elsewhere in the world but local authorities turn a blind eye when it comes to the Great Lakes region – with terrible consequences.
There should be no excuse for even one life lost in the waters and if and when there are lapses, heads should roll and very high fines, and even terms in prison should be imposed. Safety must come first. NA