Water transportation, which has become the option for Lagos residents as the desirable land movement is hindered by bad road and bridge closure, is becoming a suicide mission. TOLA ADENUBI brings the inside story.
IN Lagos State, more than 30 residents have met untimely deaths in recent weeks while patronising water transportation which the state government has been touting as the viable alternative since the closure of major roads and bridges in the state for repairs. The highest casualty figure (15) was recorded on July 29 when a Badagry-bound 20-passenger boat capsized and left only five survivors.
The outrage generated by the accident and the alleged recklessness of the operator, Happiness Elebiju, compelled the state government to slam a 10-count charge of manslaughter on him at a high court in Ikeja. The accused, who pleaded not guilty, is presently being remanded in detention. This marks the first time the authorities would make good on their threat to deal with alleged recklessness on the part of boat operators, which has been identified as one of the major factors responsible for the high rate of boat accidents on the state’s waterways lately.
The story of Elebiju’s victims is pathetic. They reportedly drowned after the boat was pushed by the wave created by a ship sailing along the Kirikiri waterfront against a stationary barge mid-water, because the operator switched off the engine to argue over fare with his passengers. While the passengers were bidding N1,200, Elebiju was insisting on N1,500. The argument over N300 and his decision to stop mid-water proved too costly for both the passengers and himself.
The chairman of the Association of Tourist Boat Operators and Water Transporters (ATBOWATAN), Lagos chapter, Mr Saheed Lawal, provides an insight into the regularity of boat accidents in the state and why the tragedies may not abate anytime soon. The major culprit, to him, is uncoordinated operational regulation. He told Saturday Tribune that many ferry operators who indulge in evening operations are not registered with the association and therefore are answerable to no one.
“These illegal boat operators have refused to come and register with ATBOWATAN because they don’t want to submit their details in the event of a mishap. They know that if they are registered with us, once any of their boats is involved in illegal activities, we will submit their details to security agencies for necessary prosecution. So, to avoid detection and arrest, these ferry operators prefer to operate on their own. They are the ones that visit jetties around Apapa, Victoria Island in the evening, looking for passengers that have closed late from work to ferry home across the waterways. This set of boat operators are not our members. These ferry operators are the same indulging in the use of substandard life jackets. At times, they don’t even give passengers life jackets, and when they do, the jackets are worn out. As a member of ATBOWATAN, your life jackets and boats are subjected to periodic inspection by the National Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) from time to time. For these ferry operators who are not our members, nothing of such is done on their boats and life jackets, and that is why passengers die when boat mishaps occur.”
Saturday Tribune investigation showed that unregistered operators like Elebiju are getting away with the fatal consequences of their “illegal” activities mainly because of the long-drawn constitutional dispute between the federal and Lagos State governments over the control of waterways in the state. The situation has given rise to laxity in the regulation of the activities of the jetties.
It was also gathered that most of the boats that got involved in the recent accidents departed from jetties that are loosely regulated. The question of who regulates activities in most jetties in the state has been on the front burner for a while. While there are jetties operated by NIWA in CMS, Oyingbo, Mile 2 and others, so many unmanned jetties abound along the Lagos waterways, ranging from private jetties in Osborne, Ikorodu and Badore to community jetties in coastal settlements like Ijanikin, Ojo, Maroko, Ibeshe, Ilogbo and Agbara.
The tug of war, which began between NIWA, which is a federal agency, and the Lagos State Waterways Authority LASWA in 2014, has seen twists and turns. While parties to the matter are battling it out in courts, lives are being regularly wasted by those whose activities should be managed. Saturday Tribune gathered that there are 59 jetties in Lagos with a senior NIWA source saying, “All private jetties are duly approved by NIWA, including jetties in communities in Lagos. They are supposed to be regulated by NIWA but that is not happening because most of the jetties have been concessioned by Lagos State government to private entities. That is part of the reason there is a battle for the control of waterways in Lagos between NIWA and the Lagos State government.”
The official didn’t want to be quoted due to the pendency of the matter before the Supreme Court. The apex court has fixed November for resumed hearing in the matter which has passed through two courts without a clear winner. In fact, both parties to the dispute, strangely, returned from the Court of Appeal, claiming victory and engaging in conflicting regulatory activities on the basis of the judgment, thereby throwing the sector into further confusion. It has become so bad that they even give conflicting casualty figures when boats capsize. In the Badagry incident, while LASWA said 14 people died, NIWA claimed that 16 perished.
Matters got to a head last month when the federal agency issued a rebuttal of a claim by the Lagos State Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice, Moyosore Onigbanjo, that the Court of Appeal awarded the state government authority over the waterways. The senior advocate had given the state House of Assembly the go-ahead to legislate on the waterways to the displeasure of the Federal Government. Onigbanjo claimed that a portion of the lead judgment delivered by Justice Muktar J. C. A. in appeal number CA/L/886/2014 between Lagos and NIWA, on July 18, 2017 says, “All other inland waterways within Lagos State are within legislative competence of the Lagos House of Assembly.” But NIWA asked the state government to mention inland waterways that start and end in the state.
The back-and-forth between the state and NIWA was triggered by a letter to the state government by the Managing Director of NIWA, Mr George Moghalu, asking that the lawmakers be restrained from setting up a proposed committee to investigate dredging activities in the state, which Onigbanjo said had the backing of the Court of Appeal.
The attorney general also drew the attention of NIWA to the assertions of the intermediate court as the constitutional plank for the legislative activities regarding the waterways and dredging activities in the state.
To put issues in proper perspective, NIWA told the Lagos AG to revisit the content of the judgment which he allegedly did not accord the requisite consideration before taking a position.
Moghalu noted that contrary to the assertions of the state government that the Appeal Court judgment favoured its regulation of the waterways, the court had stated that “item 5 in the second schedule to the NIWA Act is the relevant provision for the navigable route that falls under Exclusive Legislative List.”
NIWA Act, Moghalu stated, provides that the intra-coastal route starts from Badagry, along the Badagry Creek to Lagos through Lagos lagoon to Iwopin along Omu River/Creek, Talifa kivel to Ajelete, Akata, Aboko, Oluwa River to Okitipipa and on Gbekebo, Arogbo, Ofunama Benin Creek to Wi, including the canal running from Araromi through Aiyetoro through Mahin lagoon to Igbokoda. He further drew the attention of the Lagos State government to the fact that the route runs through international and states’ boundaries, and therefore, is consistent with the provisions of the constitution, being items on the Exclusive List, adding that the Court of Appeal equally held that revenue accruable from all federal routes is payable to the Federal Government. The NIWA boss challenged the state government to furnish him with the list of intra-waterways which exist in Lagos, outside item 5, second schedule of the NIWA Act. The back-and-forth is expected to continue at the Supreme Court.
If there is one safety issue the feuding parties are agreeing on, it is the issue of night movement. By official statistics, it accounts for about 80 per cent of boat accidents in the state, and because of the dispute between NIWA and LASWA, operators are freely flouting the directive to stop the risky venture. Not even the threat to shut down jetties by Moghalu would deter them, considering that if barred from NIWA-monitored jetties, such operators can always move to the loosely-regulated private jetties and conduct their businesses as they desire, once the right price is paid, not minding the safety of passengers. Saturday Tribune recalls that the tough-talking NIWA MD had visited Lagos to warn of coming sanctions if the night trips persist. He also singled out such unlawful movement of passengers at nights by ferry operators and the use of sub-standard life jackets as the major reason for the high incidence of boat mishaps in the state.
Saturday Tribune, however, learned from an insider that beyond the issues raised by Moghalu, an internal challenge faced by the agency is inadequate funding which has made it less effective. Lagos State is allegedly capitalising on the poor funding of the federal agency to take over its responsibilities, although its capacity to regulate properly is also attracting criticism. It was learnt that as of today, the number of boats plying the waterways remains unknown, with a source describing the business now as an all-comers affair, despite the fact that boats take off and berth at the 59 known jetties. The “floating” nature of many operators’ businesses with the jetties reportedly makes it easy for them to bolt when their boats capsize and they are not the victims.
We have no choice –Passenger
In Nigeria, ferry operations after 6.00 p.m. are outlawed by NIWA. However, due to alleged greed and the need to make quick cash, many lives have been lost to boats doing night trips and capsizing. According to findings, Lagos residents who work and live in areas that are accessible by water tend to seek water transportation after closing late from work, with the sole aim of getting home without having to go through the stress of the usual evening traffic in the state.
Speaking to Saturday Tribune, a civil servant who works in Apapa and lives in Agbara, Mr Funsho Oladele, explained that the usual Lagos traffic that builds up in the evening due to too many people leaving work at the same time is a major reason many throng jetties around Apapa to get home by waterways.
Oladele said: “Every day, I close around 6.00 p.m. and won’t get to the Liverpool jetty until around 6:30 p.m. By that time, the roads are already blocked. The last time I tried to get home by road after work, I ended up getting home around 11.00 p.m. but if I depart Apapa through water, I usually get home before 8.00 p.m. So, you see the reason why many of us throng the jetties around past 6.00 p.m. If I go home by road and get home very late, how long do I have to rest before waking up early the next day to go to work?”
When reminded that the law says no boat should depart any jetty by 6.00 p.m., Oladele wondered how people like him would get home if boats don’t depart jetties after 6.00 p.m. He said: “Yes, I know the law says no boat should depart any jetty once it’s 6.00 p.m., but that will be making life difficult for people like me. I have my house in Agbara and I work in Apapa. What I think the government should do is to make sure our waterways are free of floating objects like wrecks so that passengers can be safe even at nights. The government should also make sure ferry operators use standard life jackets. In advanced countries, there is no law banning night trips. When are we going to get to that level?”
Passengers beg to be ferried at night –Operator
While the government lacks control over those who come to the jetties late in the evening, Saturday Tribune discovered that the government has, however, failed to ensure compliance with safety regulations at most of the jetties in Lagos, casting doubt over the official assurance to end boat accidents in the state. When Saturday Tribune visited some of the jetties in Liverpool, Badore, Agbara and Ilogbo, no security operatives were noticed around the jetties, even in the evening.
Recently, the Lagos State Safety Commission (LASACO) claimed that it deployed 48 marshals, to enforce compliance with COVID-19 regulations at jetties. When LASWA was called to find out how 48 persons would monitor compliance at 59 jetties, Saturday Tribune was directed to LASACO. It was discovered that the pendency of the suit at the Supreme Court is forcing many stakeholders to beat a retreat whenever the waterway issues come up. Those who are ready to speak, including government officials, want anonymity.
Speaking to Saturday Tribune, a ferry operator who begged not to have his name in print explained that most of the jetties in Lagos are in private hands and compliance with safety rules are poorly implemented there.
The ferry operator said: “Aside from the Federal Government jetties at Oyingbo, CMS, Mile 2, and Osborne, there are many jetties along the waterways right-of-way that are also in corporate hands. These jetties, having been cleared by NIWA after satisfying all necessary requirements, are operated by corporate organisations like the one at the United States Embassy in Lagos. These types of jetties are used by these organisations for official purposes after being approved by NIWA.
“However, there are many community jetties in many Lagos settlements that sit along the Lagos lagoon. These jetties were built to create accessibility to these communities via water like the ones we have in Ikorodu, Agbara, Ijanikin, Ojo, Ilogbo, Ibeshe, Maroko and others. These jetties lack proper regulation for safety procedure. After the last mishap that happened around Ikorodu, NIWA sent men of the Nigeria Police to man that jetty in Ikorodu. The police were there for some weeks and have now left. So, another time bomb is looming.
“Many residents of these communities work on the island in Lagos or in areas like Apapa and Victoria Island. When these people close in the evening from work, they throng the jetties in the evening, and are always the ones who call the ferry operators to come and carry them. Do you know that many of the workers who get late to jetties have the phone numbers of boat operators? When they throng the jetties in the evening, they are the ones who call the boat operators and beg them to come and carry them, even when the time is no longer convenient for ferry operation because it is already late in the evening.
“Some boat operators, out of the urge to make some extra cash, indulge in such practices, and with so many floating objects on our waterways, boat mishaps have been on the rise in recent months because it will be very difficult for a boat skipper to quickly see a floating wreck or object at night. Why some ferry operators still indulge in night trips is surprising. If all these jetties were properly manned, those boat operators who indulge in night trips would have been discouraged to come and pick passengers in the evening. But most of our jetties are unmanned by security operatives, and that is why we are where we are as regards deaths on our waterways.”
LASWA to increase waterways safety campaign for ember months
Meanwhile, LASWA is set to commence holistic waterways safety awareness campaign and strict enforcements for the remaining four months (ember months) of the year.
According to a statement by the general manager of the agency, Mr Oluwadamilola Emmanuel, LASWA plans to carry out an all-inclusive safety advocacy programme targeted at all waterways stakeholders, including boat captains and deckhands, fishermen, dredgers, loggers, as well as ferry passengers across all jetties and terminals in the state.
The statement reads in part: “During the safety awareness programme, boat captains would be educated and cautioned against the rainy season, overloading, taking of alcohol or drugs, night travels, overspeeding, among other safety cautions, while other waterways users would be enlightened on the importance of using standard life Jackets with emphasis on what is expected of them when a boat is in distress and other survival skills during an emergency situation
“Boat operators are advised to always put safety of their passengers above all other considerations by regularly going for boat hull and engines undergo regular and routine maintenance.
“The LASWA enforcement team will continue to patrol the waterways to ensure that all operators comply with best practices on design, construction, operations and safety. Violators will be apprehended and prosecuted accordingly.
“As a responsible agency of government, LASWA would continue to adopt the carrot and stick approach by sensitising the populace at all times, while also enforcing all waterways rules and regulations.”
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