By Kenneth Jukpor & Michael Saka
Mr. Pius Agbude is the Chairman, United Waterways Passengers Association (UWPA). Following the incessant boat mishaps which has left scores dead in the last few weeks across the country; Mr. Agbude discussed extensively with MMS Plus newspaper, proffering solutions to this recurring disaster even as he expounds on the potentials of water transport and the place of regulation and Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). Enjoy it:
In the last two weeks several boat mishaps have been recorded across Nigeria, with the most traumatic recorded in Sokoto where 21 people died. What’s your take on this problem?
It is unfortunate and regrettable that Nigeria is refusing to learn from the mistakes of boat mishaps. Accidents could happen at anytime and in any location, however, when it happens too often it means we aren’t learning from the mistakes. This is the basis upon which I would be making my comments. Boat mishaps have become a norm on Nigerian waters and when you examine the patterns, you would observe that the same issues are responsible for these accidents. It is either the boats are overloaded or the people aren’t wearing the right apparel such as the life-jackets in the correct sizes that each individual ought to wear. In some other cases, the waterways aren’t navigable hence the boats shouldn’t be on the water in the first place.
What can the government regulatory agencies and boat operators do to correct these problems?
The first thing would be the provision of the right legislation that would give the right regulations such that the laws and guidelines for using the waterways should be clear and enforced. The fishermen, boat operators and passengers should know their rights, the correct number of passengers a boat should carry and the appropriate life-jacket to utilize. Those who transport timber from one part of the country to another should package their commodities in such a way that they don’t leave pieces of logs scattered all over the water. They should also know the appropriate time to sail and how they can transport those cargoes on the water without making them dangerous to other water users.
There should also be some form of regulation on the type of vessels that needs to be used for water transportation. The kind of boats or ferries we have in the country are not commercially designed for public transportation. Most of them are motorized canoes but in civilized places they use ferries. Ferries can contain more people and provide better service to the passengers. The survival rate is also higher in cases of such accidents or mishaps with ferries because there are multiple windows and openings for people to go into the water and float safely. However, the boats in Nigeria are canoes and some of them are founder compounded by coverage making them look like houses and in event of any emergency people can’t jump into the water hence people sink with the boat although they are wearing the right apparel. The boat architecture in Nigeria needs to be regulated. We need ferries and not boats and the number of people the ferry should carry must be specified. People shouldn’t exceed the specified capacity the ferry could carry. Overloading is a major problem especially in places like Adamawa and Sokoto. You find that the capacity of the boat they are using would take 10 people yet they would take 15 and where the appropriate number is 5, they strive to put 10. Hence, when the water rocks the boat, you find someone falling into the water. In other cases, the boat capsizes after water gets into it.
How crucial is the place of enlightenment for boat operators as well as water transport passengers?
While it is important to have enlightened boat operators, it is also important to ensure that people who use the waterways should know that as safe and calm as the waters look, it can also be very dangerous if not properly utilized. Some of these passengers don’t know that the life-jackets they should wear have to be properly fastened. If they don’t tighten the life-jacket properly, when they get into the water the jacket would go its way while the passenger would be left at a loss. The passengers should know that the life-jacket is only a life-jacket when it is properly worn. So, that education is necessary on the part of the passengers. The passengers also need to know how a proper life-jacket should be. They shouldn’t just accept any life-jacket because the regulation in the country doesn’t stress the use of proper life-jackets. People just go to the market to buy jackets randomly as life-jackets. Life-jackets should be made of the proper material and be worn by an individual whose weight matches the jacket. The boat operators just share the jackets to the passengers randomly. There is nothing to show that a particular fat man should put on a life-jacket that can carry his weight. Provision of life-jackets to the passengers would only help if the jackets are shared based on the individual’s weight. For instance, it is never possible for a man that weighs up to a 100kg to survive when wearing a life jacket that can only withstand the weight of 60kg. In this case, such a person would drown while some will survive if their jackets match with their weight. Since boat operators don’t buy the right life-jackets which have the weight written on it; passengers should be educated so that they choose appropriate life-jackets or buy personal life-jackets that tally with their various sizes in order to be on the safer side when such ugly boat mishaps occur. I have my personal life-jacket and it is the correct size but how many Nigerians are aware that there is a need to wear the appropriate life-jacket that matches one’s weight.
As part of the awareness and enlightenment moves, the boat crew need to know how to manage emergencies. What we have as boat operators in the country as mostly local fishermen who know nothing about the job. Sometimes at a slight happening or a perceived boat incident, they tend to jump out of the boat leaving the passengers to fend for themselves and they panic. Once the passengers panic that there is danger, the fatality from the incident worsens. So, it is important that before one is registered as a commercial operator of a boat, such person must have a trained life guards who would be onboard to curb the casualties and guide the passengers during emergencies. The lifeguards should be able to inform the passengers of the next action to take during such emergencies, reminding them to fasten their life-jackets and other basic steps to prevent them from drowning. It is important to note that some of these passengers may be using the waterways for the first time while other may have phobia for water. A boat doesn’t sink immediately unlike a car accident or a plane crash. It sinks gradually so people have sufficient time to leave the boat. As soon as water gets into the boat and it begins to show sign of sinking, safety measures should begin. You need the boat crew to take charge and manage this situation but the boat crew would also have to be enlightened because what we have today are local fishermen as boat operators who lack training.
Are there sufficient public and private sector investments in boat operations across the country?
No. The sector is in dire need of fiscal support. Commercial boats operators need the support and investment from the government by helping them get the right vessels for the job (ferries not boats). This would make the business become more profitable, yet economical on the part of the passengers and it will ease up the burden on the roads.
The roads would be more durable and there wouldn’t be need for incessant reconstruction of roads and the colossal sums that the government spends on such projects would be saved for other projects. An efficient water transport system, coupled with good rails, would change the nation’s transport outlook and reverse the inflation in prices of goods and services caused by transport deficiencies.
All the government needs to do is to partner with the private sector via PPPs (Public-Private Partnerships) and create a fund that would assist the operators. You can see the massive investment in rail infrastructure the government is developing, but what are they doing for the water transport system? The waterways don’t require special lanes like the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) in Lagos, it doesn’t need Police, Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), among other security agents. Once the waterways are navigable and the right policies and fiscal structures are in place, better educated investors would come in to take advantage of the loan guarantee to provide the right vessels which can take in on minimum of 40 people conveniently but right now what we have are canoes.
If the government can do this, the operators that are not responsible will be forced to change or lose patronage to the responsible operators. The transformation in the business would be similar to the eradication of ‘moluwe’ buses in Lagos. These buses have all vanished because a better transport system, BRT emerged to convey people in large numbers on the road and the people enjoy the service of BRT. The same will apply to the waterways because if the government didn’t introduce the BRT, ‘Moluwe’ would not have gone.
The problem of overloading passengers which is a major problem would also be curbed. The problem is as a result of greedy commercial boat operators on focused on getting more money from the passengers but they end up endangering the lives of the passengers because when the passengers are more than the boat could carry any slight mistake means all the passengers are doomed.
As the country’s maritime and boat industry continue on the part of growth, the industry is long overdue for a classy maintenance repair and overhaul facility to serve the domestic and regional maintenance requirements of the maritime industry and provide support for the cargoes and boats in their effort to provide safe trip service to the passengers making of the water means of transportation.
Lastly Sir, tell us about UWPA. What are the objectives of the association?
The association was formed in 2014. The objectives include; ensuring the safety of all waterways passengers, supporting and collaborating with all promoters of the waterways transportation system. UWPA also supports responsible regulation and use of the all waterways in Nigeria and it seeks to promote the welfare and economic wellbeing of all its members.
Membership of the association is open to all passengers of the waterways transportation system in the country.