At the riverine communities of Rivers Niger and Benue, and, even their tributaries, commuting in or out of the communities is a herculean task due to lack of access roads to the villages. It is tales of agony from people living at the bank of the rivers as the risky task of ferrying people and vehicles have caused fatal boat mishaps which have claimed many lives. SOLOMON AYADO reports.
A boat mishap had once claimed no fewer than 33 lives in Niger State. The accident, it was said had occurred between Dere in Niger State and Muritala Bridge on the River Niger. According to reports, the boat accident was said to have occurred when a pipeline patrol team flashed its light on the boat which led to the loss of control by the operator of the passenger boat conveying about 100 persons, causing it to hit a tree in the river before it finally capsized.
The boat, which was transporting passengers to Lokoja market from Katcha local government area of Niger State, was said to have broken into two, leading to several casualties as the passengers had no life vests on. It was learnt that among the victims were people from Yawa and Baka in Lapai Local government area of the state.
While many people were drown and scores were missing in the heavily flowed river, the remains of others involved in the fatality were recovered but several belongings that fell into the waters got lost.
Also, between Garafini-Kodo and Garafini riverine areas of Borgu local government area of Niger state, a boat that was fully loaded with persons had capsized. No fewer than 11 persons died, just as other valuable properties including vehicles and bags of agricultural produce were destroyed. The mishap was said to be fatal and had happened in the middle of the river when the operator of the boat, lost control due to lack of visibility. It was in the night and the darkness prevented a clear vision which caused the accident.
More tragic, at Buruku town in Buruku local government area of Benue state, over 40 persons had died on a Boxing day boat mishap. River Buruku is a tributay of the River Benue.The boat had overloaded with more than fifty of picnickers who had gone to the river for fun fair during the 2013 Yuletide. Seventeen bodies were however, recovered by a security search party.
After the fun seekers had enjoyed their outing, the beach became deserted and there were not enough of the boats to adequately transport the scores of picnickers who were desperately scrambling to secure a space to ferry, before the night fall. Because of that, many of them were obviously tipsy because of excessive intake of alcohol and had equally wanted to depart the place, leading to their forceful overload of the boat.
Some few minutes after, midway into the ferry, the boat collapsed as the operator who pressumably was drunk, missed the way and hit the boat into a rock that was located at some side of the river. Even if the fun seekers had intended to spend the night at the beach after the party, the ugly incident of the boat that capsized ought to have prompted a change of thought. Their lives were cut short and the glamorous Boxing Day became tragic as both family members and associates of the victims were thrown into mourning. These are few examples of fatal boat accidents faced by the riverine communities.
Indeed, there are different sad tales of boat mishap as there are numerous victims of the disaster, some of who may never have their live intact again.
The River, A blessing or curse?
For communities that are not naturally provided with a river that traverse within the areas, the presence of such endowment would forever remain a blessing. Even for areas that are equipped with the natural gift, a river has many benefits that are derivable from its situation in any place. Although it has numerous disadvantages that cannot in anyway be disregarded.
There are residents of riverine communities who have insisted that they cannot relocate or stay nowhere apart from the coaster areas. They transact business in the places including fishing and vegetable planting. The river banks also provides them with a rare opportunity to engage in dry season farming which has seriously enhanced their economy fortunes.
However, the location of a river in some communities can equally be perceived as a curse especially when many riverine areas are lacking government presence. They lack electricity and pipe born water, access roads, schools and hospitals. Most of the agrarian riverine areas are faced with the challenge of transporting agricultural produce from the rural areas to urban centers.
When LEADERSHIP Sunday visited Garafini village in Niger state, the residents of the village who are predominantly of the Gwari tribe decried lack of bridge across the rivers and appealed to government to solve their transportation problems.
“We need government presence in our area. In most of our places, we do not have bridges across the rivers and that is the major cause of the many boat accidents experienced here. Also, we find it difficult to transport our farm inputs to the towns,” Usman Kabiru, a resident of the area, said.
Mr. Tersoo Shom is an indigene of Buruku whose village is located at the bank of the river Buruku. According to him, the advantages of the river in the area are numerous but the grievous problem is that of transportation of persons and vehicles. Many of us cannot locate our villages during rainy season, he said.
“The major problem we have is lack of bridge; we ferry our people and vehicles by boat and most times, especially at night, it is not easy moving across the river because sometimes, the boat operators are not around and even when they have gone to sleep, the fare to ferry is increased hence the boats are not many during the night,” he stated.
Statistics of Boat Fatalities
The occurrence of boat mishaps has a wider coverage than one imagines. About 23 out of 36 states in the country have at least recorded a fatal boat accident within some period or another. But most affected coastal states include Niger, Benue, Kogi, Rivers, Bayelsa, Delta, Cross River, Lagos and Taraba states among others.
In the Niger Delta areas however, investigations revealed that boat accident fatalities were rampant due to huge activities of multinational oil companies and the large expanse of water channels. These factors encouraged piracy and militancy which often resulted in incessant attacks on oil barges, passenger boats and security gun boats.
Of course, with 8,600 km of inland waterways and extensive coastland of about 852 kilometers, Nigeria can boast of the second longest waterways in Africa. As such, Niger and Benue Rivers which are regarded as the two longest rivers in the country, run into each other at Lokoja and have dissect the country into east, west, and north sections. These rivers and its tributaries have been utilized for water transportation.
According to Nigeria Watch, a database and research project that monitors lethal violence, conflicts and human security in Nigeria, at least 1607 lives were lost to 180 boat accidents between June 2006 and May, 2015. There was an upward trend of boat accident fatalities from 48 in June 2006 to 197 in 2007 and 241 in 2008 and a fatality drop in 2009 with 168 deaths and a record low of 20 in 2010. The year 2008 saw a large number of boat accidents possibly due to the fact for struggle by groups trying to have more shares of the oil resources from their region.
All over the riverine communities of states that are traversed by major rivers, the cases of boat mishaps are uncountable. But the tragic incidents at the Benue and Niger can only typify what other states are facing. The riverine communities, many of them have considered the rivers a curse, rather than a blessing.
Apart from negligence, several causes including over speeding, overloading, collision which is often propelled by careless riding, loss of control, inexperience to inattention among boat operators are root causes.
Tales of Agonies
Residents of riverine communities that have been hit by lack of bridges to link their riverine areas have groaned the lack of basic amenities in the areas. Some of the communities are said to be abandoned to their fate. But perhaps as a further confirmation of a popular adage that no place is like home, the residents are living happily in the places despite being faced with insurmountable challenges.
A former governor of Benue state, Gabriel Suswam, a native of Anyiin town in Logo local government area of Benue state is one person who is willfully committed to ensuring that a bridge is constructed across the river Buruku to ease the transportation problems of the people.
When he held sway as governor of the agrarian state, Suswam had appealed to former President Goodluck Jonathan to award contract for the construction of a bridge in Buruku. Unfortunately, the appeal did not yield a positive result until the end of the Jonathan administration following the coming on board of the change mantra that ousted the government of People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
According to Suswam, “apart from making it possible for the people to have free access to transport their goods to the market, the bridge would provide a platform where movement of persons and vehicles will not be hindered. Most of the agricultural produce of our people are wasted because there is no bridge across the river and people cannot pass through freely. Our appeal is for government to look into the matter and ameliorate the sufferings of the people of the area.”
Collaborating that the people living in the riverine communities are faced with teething problems, Abdul Isah, a farmer from Kogi state insist that unless the government intervene.He said some of the communities cannot be reached because they are surrounded by water due to the presence of the river.
“At the river bank where we farm, the boat operators make brisk business because there is not other means of transportation apart from the boats. Our people pay money to ferry alongside their vehicles. Also, some women are stationed in the place, selling food and other items. They make money from the business too. But we appeal for bridges to be constructed across the rivers to enable us access our villages,”Isah stated.
Isah’s account was not different with that of Mr Gabriel Suswam, former governor of Benue state. Former Governor Suswam who served eight years as governor in the Benue once declared that, in spite of the businesses that thrive in the areas, the challenges associated with the riverine communities cannot be undermined. He said some of their wards transport to their school through boats which, according to him, is very risky.
Former Governor Suswam, himself a native of one of the riverine communities of Benue state, who uses boat each time he needed to visit his village, can be said to symbolises the age long saying that “he who wears the shoe knows where it pinches”
But the challenges of the people living in the riverine communities are worsening by the day, with more boat mishaps and lack of accessibility to the villages. Interestingly, the residents of the riverine communities are not resting on their oars in calling on the government to urgently address some of the challenges associated with transportation to and from their communities. Even as the plea continues, views are being expressed that whether governments will take measures and, whether the measures being devised to ensure safety and ease the varied transportation problems of the people will come to the fore or not, only time shall tell.
All things said and done, it will not be out of place to suggest that government should, as a matter of urgency, take drastic measures of addressing transportation challenges in riverine areas so as to reduce if not address permanently, the sufferings of those residing in these communities.