Life may have returned to the river banks of Lafiagi in Kwara State and their neighbouring communities across River Niger in Niger State, but the grieving families of the over 10 persons recently drowned when a rescue boat converted to a commercial boat capsized leaving over 20 passengers to scrabble for their lives, are still dabbing their tears. AGBO-PAUL AUGUSTINE (Abuja) and OLADIPO MAGAJI (Ilorin) report
When a boat manufactured for the purpose of rescue operation is converted to a full fledged commercial boat in a country where overload is generally viewed as normal, the recent boat mishap in Lafiagi in Edu local government area of Kwara State is certainly bound to happen.
The victims are most times, innocent people with no iota of idea of the dangers that lurk around the types of boats deployed by commercial maritime operators to make money at the expense of standard and safety.
Idris Salifu, a grieving husband who lost his wife to the recent mishap that claimed over 10 lives on the River Niger in Lafiagi, Kwara State, is still staring at the entrance to his house expecting that his wife will just walk in.
Salifu’s wife was among the 20 passengers on the ill-fated rescue boat converted to a commercial boat heading to Niger State on a social event on December 1.
Ten of the passengers were reported to have manage to escape with their lives while another 10 according to reports are feared dead with six bodies so far recovered as at the time of filling this report.
“Fortunately, we got her corpse,” Salifu told Channels TV, monitored by our correspondent. He was fortunate to have found his dead wife’s body for burial but four other families are still left in the anguish of losing their loved ones and not being able to find their bodies.
When the incident happened, reports carried by several news outlets had indicated that no fewer than 19 children reportedly drowned in the boat mishap. But new facts emerging from the area indicated otherwise.
Speaking on the incident, a middle aged woman simply called Azere narrated how five of her relations died in the boat mishap.
“The boat was conveying the victims across River Niger for a programme, a wedding and religious ceremony in a community in the neighbouring Niger State across the river,”Azere told our correspondent.
Azere, during an interview with LEADERSHIP Weekend, said she lost five relatives to the ‘black Saturday’ boat mishap.
The woman who agonised over the unfortunate incident disclosed that her deceased relatives were going to Bida in Niger State for a Quranic graduation ceremony when the boat in which they were travelling capsized.
LEADERSHIP Weekend gathered that 10 out of the 20 victims, including the driver, survived the accident, while one of the victims earlier rescued, died in the hospital while taking medical treatment.
It was further gathered that the normal commercial passenger boat used by members of the public had been bad for the past six months.
The rescue boat, which reportedly carried over 20 passengers, as against eight which is its standard capacity, also carried goods and was said to be on top speed when the incident happened.
It was learnt that most of the victims were females. A man was also said to have lost his wife and daughter in the boat mishap.
The middle aged man who was inconsolable could not be persuaded to speak with our reporter over his loss.
One of the survivors, who said that she noticed water coming inside the boat, not quite few minutes they boarded it, disclosed that over loading was responsible for the mishap.
She thanked God for her safety and sympathised with family and loved ones of the deceased.
Meanwhile, the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) has confirmed that 12 lives were lost in the boat mishap.
The agency in a statement signed by its spokesman, Tayo Fadile, commiserated with the government and people of Kwara State.
However, information made available to us by NIWA’s area manager in Minna attributed the cause of the accident to failure to adhere to NIWA safety guidelines.
“We will like to use this medium to appeal to the general public, especially river users, to strictly adhere to NIWA safety guidelines.
“The present management is working hard to ensure that such unfortunate incidents are reduced to the barest minimum.
“Finally, NIWA will continue to encourage boat users to use modern and safe water transportation mode on our waterways,” Fadile stated.
The secretary of the Lafiagi Traditional Council, Alhaji Sulyman Aliyu confirmed the incident.
Aliyu said that the number of the victims could not be ascertained yet, noting that there was a conflict in the number.
“Definitely they are up to 12. The figure is between 12 and 19,” he said.
The secretary also confirmed that four corpses were recovered on Saturday and that efforts to remove others would continue.
The spokesman for the Kwara Police command, DSP Ajayi Okasanmi, also confirmed the incident.
He said that the officers of the force and other security agencies had joined the local government council to recover the corpses.
He, however, said that the number of the passengers and the victims could not yet be ascertained as the recovery exercise was still ongoing.
Also, the Kwara State governor, Alhaji Abdulfatah Ahmed, has commiserated with the Emir of Lafiagi, Alhaji Saadu Kawu Haliru over the death of some Lafiagi indigenes who were involved in the boat mishap at the Chewuru Ferry Port while crossing the river.
The governor, in a statement by his chief press secretary, Abdulwahab Oba, described the demise of the victims as unfortunate and a great loss to their immediate family, the Emirate and the state at large.
“I deeply sympathise with the emir, the good people of Lafiagi and the family of the victims,” the governor said.
He urged families of the victims to take solace in the fact that death is an inevitable end of all mortals.
Ahmed prayed God to grant the deceased eternal rest and give the families and the entire Lafiagi Emirate the fortitude to bear the irreparable loss.
On its own part, the Kwara State House of Assembly called on the Nigerian Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) to make wearing of life jackets mandatory for passengers while traveling on waterways.
The House said the call became imperative to avert frequent loss of lives during boat mishaps in the state.
This was part of the resolution of the House after it considered a motion raised by a member representing Edu Constituency, Hon. Ishaku Aliyu Adams, on the recent boat accident at Chewuru via Lafiagi where about 12 people on board a boat reportedly drowned.
In his motion, Adams regretted that most of the victims of the boat disaster were women and children.
The speaker, Dr Ali Ahmad, who read the resolution, called on NIWA to ensure that no boat or canoe was overloaded to prevent future mishaps.
He also constituted a committee to pay a condolence visit to the Emir of Lafiagi and the family of the victims.
The national president, Lafiagi Descendants Development Union (LADDU), Alhaji Baba Bello Ibrahim, regretted that the boat that conveyed the victims was overloaded resulting in the incident.
Describing the boat mishap as divine will, the LADDU president urged Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) to conduct training for local sailors on their operations to avert loss of lives in the future.
“It is rather unfortunate. It is a serious and unfortunate event because that very Saturday was the day we were mourning and doing the Fidau of the late pioneer speaker of the Kwara State House of Assembly, Senator Shehu Usman. But unfortunately, they just rang me that there is a mishap at Chewuru, which resulted in a colossal loss of lives and I learnt about 20 people were in that boat.
“I was told the boat summersaulted there and at the end of the day, they were able to rescue about five people. For now, they have been able to see about nine corpses. The people in that boat were 20 in number as they said.
“The kind of boat used is a rescue boat. It is not supposed to be a commercial thing and upon that they took about 20 people into that boat, which is rather unfortunate.
“The rule was not followed. The boat was supposed to carry about 10 people, who should wear life jackets. All these things were disregarded.
“I can regard the incident as an act of God. I can’t apportion blame. But one can see that people are taking things for granted. Something that is meant for rescue, you are using it for commercial and eventually, it was overloaded. It is just unfortunate that we have lost lives.”
Meanwhile, for decades, the people of Patigi Kingdom in Patigi local government area of Kwara State have been subjected to untold hardship trying to commute to and from Bida in Niger State.
The daily risk these people are taking trying to cross River Niger separating the two states, has seen hundreds dead on the river in the last decade.
The deaths were mainly from boat mishaps with no proper safety measures in place by the operators. There is no bridge linking Patigi, Lafiagi and other LGAs sharing boundary with Niger State on the Niger River.
Besides the bumpy and mud infested road to the banks of the River Niger, people of the two states that share great historical linkages and must also cross the River Niger to trade and do other businesses, have no other means of meeting each other.
A recent visit to the Niger State side of the River Niger at Nupeko and Kutigi two major crossing harbour to Kwara State, the situation LEADERSHIP Weekend observed is appalling as operators of boats crossing the river appear not to have thrown safety to the wind.
Passengers are loaded in diesel powered canoes made mostly from wood and dangerously without life jackets and speed up the river to Patigi and Lafiagi in Kwara State in minutes.
All that matters is the N100 fare for individual without luggage and N200 to N300 for people with luggages. The lack of bridge connecting some of the towns in Niger and Kwara States has increased the activities of boat operators in the area. A big business for boat owners, a passenger said.
LEADERSHIP Weekend recall that the frequency of accidents on the river involving boats especially the locally paddled boats forced the traditional leadership of Patigi to ban the carrying of passengers on non-engine powered boats.
While the people celebrated the ban, the passengers are constantly faced with the danger of boat capsize from overloading, technical issues, river currents, chumps and other factors that has claimed lives in the past.
Ndanusa Lawal, a local operators told LEADERSHIP Weekend that he has never seen a life jacket in his life. To him, ‘It is a thing for the white man’ “we have our natural ways of protecting ourselves,” he said.
Others who spoke said the situation has been like that for generations and the issue of safety of passengers has never been emphasised by the operators on the busy river routes.