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Bumps on Lagos waterways

18 March 2016   |   3:55 am
Jonathan Friday chose to be in school against all odds on that day. Unlike other kids in the riverine community, he has a flair for school and never needed to be hurried on a school day.
A boatman padding on the Lagos lagoon

A boatman padding on the Lagos lagoon

With growing interest in Lagos water transport, barely would a week roll by without a fatal boat mishap somewhere. WOLE OYEBADE in this report examines why the coastline is yet unsafe for its growing ridership.

Jonathan Friday chose to be in school against all odds on that day. Unlike other kids in the riverine community, he has a flair for school and never needed to be hurried on a school day.

Tuesday July 1, 2015 was different. For reasons Jonathan himself could not explain, he felt so sluggish but still determined. At 8:15am, it was time to discourage the 12-year-old aspiring medical doctor to play truancy just for once. Jonathan immediately set-out for his Irewe Primary School, Irewe, Ojo, on the excuse that the Third Term examination was around the corner.

All seemed well until 20 minutes later. An alarm wafted through the neighbourhood calling on all able-bodied men to come to the riverside for a rescue operation.

A canoe conveying at least 15 school children and an adult had capsized. Panic and confusion shattered the peace in homes in the entire Ojo community in Lagos, including that of the Friday’s.

When the coast cleared some five hours later, six of the kids onboard had drowned and among the recovered bodies was that of Jonathan Friday.

Jonathan’s elder sister, Abigail, 17, some days later explained that their grandmother had advised Jonathan to shelve the idea of going to school on that day since he was already late for school at 7:30am when he left home.

Abigail, like many in the community, blamed the incident on fate. But none of the passengers, including the nine survivors, had a life jacket on during the ill-fated cruise as investigations revealed. The community, though riverine, was not accustomed to wearing life jackets.

Lagos State government’s account showed that tragedy struck when a faulty motorised boat strayed into an oncoming canoe, causing the latter to capsize.

But the residents, some of them eyewitnesses, said it was caused by over speeding by the fuel-transporting motorised boat, in a bid to evade arrest by waterways task force.

In another account, a resident, Abiodun Williams, blamed the incident on activities of sand dredgers that often abandon their wrecked canoe on the waterways, not considering the hazard it would cause for unsuspecting smaller boats.

Opinions though continue to differ on the actual cause: fate, absence of life jackets, abandoned wreckage, over-speeding and sand-dredgers among others were identified as key suspects. Yet, these risk factors all represent the complex nature of the Lagos waterways and the bumps that await its growing number of riders.

Water transportation in Lagos coastline, covering about 23 per cent of its landmass has been a budding sub-sector of the State’s Integrated Multi Modal Transportation to decongest the roads and ease traffic gridlock for better economic fortunes in the State.

The last administration indeed invested heavily in water transportation to complement developments in road networks, mass transit system and rail line projects. Construction of modern jetties in Ikorodu, Mile 2, Ojo and Badore, along with the purchase of big ferries through LAGFERRY, a state-own carrier company, further drew attention to the sector.

From an estimated 500,000 monthly ridership in 2012, patronage rose to 1.8million a month in 2015.

Boats waiting for passengers

Boats waiting for passengers

According to the Lagos State Waterways Authority (LASWA) records, no fewer than two million passengers now commute on Lagos waterways, with fees ranging from N250 to N600 per trip.

Leveraging where his predecessor left it, Governor Akinwunmi Ambode has made the sector a cardinal political objective of his administration. Water transportation enjoys a fair share of the 2016 “Lagos People budget” pegged at N662.588b and a potential source of huge revenue, if the Ministry of Transportation and relevant agencies get it right.

But getting it right for safety purpose has remained a perennial challenge and appears to have worsened over time.

Since the July incident that claimed the likes of Jonathan Friday, series of fatal boat mishaps had been recorded on the 13 waterways routes connecting Badagry, Ojo, Ikorodu and Ajah- Badore ends among others. In the last one-month alone, no fewer than 30 lives have been lost.

Investigations into why the rapidly developing alternative to road transport is becoming a one-way route to yonder are quite revealing. Most shocking too are those coming from operators and LASWA that is saddled with regulations and safety on the Lagos waterways.

Manager of one of the private operating companies in Ikorodu, Fatai Alimi, confirmed that the sub-sector had indeed grown with improved ridership, amidst the heavy risk involved.

Alimi said that the main challenge on the way of water transportation that has stopped it from becoming the most popular and reliable is that “there are too many interests on the waterways.”

According to him, “People are now in the know that water transportation is faster and cheaper compared to going by road. The problem for us is that a lot of people are freely using the lagoon to do all manner of things.

“There are multinational and local companies dredging sands. There are wood loggers coming from other States like Bayelsa to Lagos and also the local fishermen competing for the  waterways. All of these are fond of leaving heaps of sand, loosed log and wreckage on the water that can easily cause great havoc. I can tell you that they cause all of those accidents you talked about.

“That is why it has remained a very risky venture for us too. Without having a very experienced captain there will always be a problem. Yet, our passengers would always be in a hurry; complaining that the boat is not quick enough, asking for more speed,” Alimi said.

Sand dredging

While successive Lagos governments after Lateef Jakande-era and until the last administration had paid least attention to the waterways as a viable means of transportation, sand dredgers have been exploring it as a goldmine. For years, freely did the sand-millionaires dredged from the lagoon with serious consequences.

An environmentalist, Dr. Regina Folorunso, noted that population growth, urbanisation and climate change did conspired to mount pressure on Lagos 187 sq km coastal length.

Folorunso, of the Nigerian Institute of Oceanography and Maritime Research, Victoria Island, Lagos, said that with growing land reclamation exercise in Lagos beginning from 1980, particularly the opening of the Lekki Peninsula, buildings have continue to emerge on the waterfront.

The need to build homes made dredging rather attractive to sand fill and build houses on over 522hectres of land. From 1985 till date, not less than 13.22million metric tonnes of sand had been dredged, Folorunso said. At the turn of the last century, Banana Island also emerged from further dredging from the coastline.

“What we have today are different levels of lagoon dept that not all types of boat can ply. Certain portions are five metres shallow while some are 15metres deep – on the same waterway. Some places could be one metre while the next step could be 17 metres deep.

“This unevenness is as a result of unorganized dredging activities. Truth is that we can no longer afford dredging without control. In trying to make a living, grow the economy and develop infrastructure, we are devastating the coastline,” she said.

Apparently tired of the illegalities of some sand dredging cabals in the State, the State government has in fact suspended all sand dredging in the coastline, ordering all operators to get properly licensed.

Commissioner for Waterfront Infrastructure Development, Adebowale Akinsanya, said that it had become so urgent for the State government to do all that is humanly possible to arrest the Lagos fragile coastline and its attendant environmental challenges.

Akinsanya said having reviewed the activities of dredgers in the State, the government has decided to suspend all dredging, put on hold all issuance of licenses till some new conditions and registration are met.

He added that the State government had also prohibited dredging activities in some areas of the State, “so as to allow for regeneration and reassessment in such areas.”

“Chinese technology will also be phased out within the next two years unless there is an upgrade and redesign of the current system. If you are operating in the Lagos State body of water currently, it is illegal and all dredging operations shall cease till the Lagos State government and the Nigeria Inland Waterways Authority (NIWA) issues new licenses,” he said.

It would be recalled that NIWA and LASWA had for several years been on warpath over the control right of the coastline. Rather than have a common front and control, the rights were polarized politically between the ruling party at the Federal and opposition in the State.

A Federal High Court sitting in Lagos on February 28, 2014 ruled that all dredging responsibilities should be overseen by NIWA. The State immediately filed an appeal that is still pending till date.

While the rancour raged on, “many of the operators have seized the opportunity to perpetrate all sorts of atrocities, especially in the area of dredging,” Akinsanya said. But with the change of government last year, NIWA and LASWA have formed a partnership “to protect our environment and save lives of Lagosians who have been at the receiving end in the past,” the Commissioner assured.

The Guardian gathered that behind some of the illegal sand dredging activities are communal chiefs and notorious “Omo-oniles”. Lagos monarch, Oba Rilwan Akiolu, confirm this claim, as he read riot act to anyone found culpable and in defiance of the State government’s order on dredging.

Akiolu, at an emergency stakeholders’ meeting said that though the lands and water resources were traditional rights of the inhabitants and “the Obas and chief can derive benefits from the God given resources.”

“However, they should go to the appropriate authorities and learn how to do it right. It is their lands and they are entitled to its benefits. Even my own relation, I have called him and warned him. I have taken the matter up to the Federal Government that they should drive all of them (dredgers) from that place (Ajah-Badore shores).”
Rickety boats and overspeeding

In the wake of January 30, 2016 boat mishap in Ijede, Ikorodu killing seven out of the 20 on board, the Lagos State House of Assembly launched investigation into the cause. Chairman House Committee on Transportation, Fatai Mojeed, blamed inexperience of the captain, use of rickety boat, over speeding and activities of sand dredgers.

Mojeed, in his feedback, said though the ill-fated boat was already weak, it was running on a 200-horse power (hp) engine instead of the approved 80hp. He also observed that all passengers on board had life jackets on, yet fatalities were still recorded. The incident, according to the lawmakers, shows inadequate regulatory activity, “if there is any.”

Managing Director of LASWA, Abiola Kamson, who has more than ever been in the eye of the storm lately, in fact, confirmed that none of the operators has been licensed by the authority citing the past rift between her agency and NIWA, coupled with the court ruling that favoured NIWA.

Kamson said the operators had for so long leveraged on the disconnect between LASWA and NIWA in terms of following rules and regulations.

“Operators that are caught violating rules are always quick to take succour on the judgment that they are in compliance with NIWA regulations. Because of that, it has been challenging in enforcing rules that LASWA has oversights on.

“But in the last four months now, we (LASWA and NIWA) have been working together and have realised the need to speak with one voice on all operations on the waterways. The initial licenses that were issued were for three years. But as I speak to you, no operator has any licence issued by LASWA. Some claimed to have licence from NIWA but none of the operators on the waterways have any from LASWA.”

Kamson added that the common factor in the last three fatal boat mishaps has been excessive speeding, she had told the Lagos Assembly during a summon.

She explained that most of the commercial boats already have their engine capacity over stretched beyond the approved limit.

For instance, a 17-passenger vessel of two-metre width has an approved engine capacity of 85hp. “However, these vessels are over compensated. Because of trying to get to their destinations quicker and to be able to make more trade with passengers, they stretch their engines to 200hp. In the unfortunate even that the vessel runs into a fallen log at extremely high speed, there is no way it will not lead to unfortunate incidents that we have,” she said.

In the atmosphere of impunity, a lot of the commercial operators enjoy more patronage, compared to their LAGFERRY counterpart because of the speed and differences in travel-time. For instance, from Ikorodu to Elegbeta that takes about 40 mins at standard time, a lot of the commercial vessels commute same within 20 mins.

A boat stuck on the lagoon

A boat stuck on the lagoon

The MD added that the patronizing public should take part of the blames too for always asking for speed and influencing the captains.

She added that the consolation right now is that their collaboration with the marine police and NIWA to ensure that captain and operators adhere strictly to regulated speed limits.

“Right now, no vessel is supposed to go faster than 15 knots that is 30km/hr. Also specifically, the sped must be lower on getting closer to jetties at 6knots. This speed limit enforcement has to be supported by marine police and use of technology, like speedometer.

“A lot of commercial vessels right now don’t have speedometer. We must also create awareness among the operators and the public too. The operators must use vessels that meet the standards of the State, while the public must be aware of what is legal and what is not,” she said.

Fake life jackets on the prowl

Wearing a life jacket in water transportation is similar to the rule guiding the use of a seat-belt in a car. Except one is aiming to commit suicide, which is also a no-no by law, both are mandatory under global best practices.

Lagos authorities had over the years been on a running battle over the use of life jackets in the growing water transportation system. Severally had boat mishaps fatalities been blamed on recalcitrant passengers who either refuses or decided to wear the jacket inappropriately.

With improved awareness, ‘no life jacket, no boarding rule’ and era of free donations of thousands of life jackets to operators and riverine communities, compliance rate swelled. But boat mishaps fatalities did not abate.

Unlike the mishap in Ojo community in 2015, all 20 passengers onboard an Ajah-Badore bound boat had their life vest on when they ran into trouble waters just minutes after leaving the Ikorodu jetty on January 30, 2016. At least seven passengers died while others were rescued.

Kamson said besides the problem of illegal operators and substandard boats freely used, another major challenge is the mass production and influx of substandard life jackets flocking the jetties.

According to her, “We are beginning to see people wearing all manner of life jackets that are conflicting with standards. For instance, we now see jackets that are black in colours. But life jackets should be in only three colours of lemon, orange or red, to enhance feasibility.”

“In the last one week we have seized about 500 of such substandard vests. A situation where we find out that there are actually local tailors and tailoring shops sowing life jackets, we now work in collaboration with Marine Police to ensure that they are investigated and shut down,” she said.

Kamson added that in collaboration with NIWA, jetties using substandard life jackets are now prohibited, even as they have continue to distribute standard life jackets that have passed safety and quality checks to operators and communities.

Commissioner for Transportation, Dayo Mobereola, sympathised with families that have lost their loved ones in the recent boat mishaps in Lagos. Mobereola reckoned that such accidents should not have happened in well-rounded water transportation system.

He said like most Lagosians too, they were as well disturbed, but had taken actions, which include boat specifications and strict law enforcement.

The commissioner said that they have decided on the need to change the specification of operating boats and well-articulated enforcement for safety of all.

“Fortunately, in the last two weeks, we have had NIWA and Marine police beginning to work together with LASWA to enforce all the rules and apprehend offenders on the waterways. These are some of the things that will eradicate accidents on our waterways,” Mobereola said.

Apparently fed up with excuses, members of the Lagos State House of Assembly, charged Mobereola, Kamson and company to do more.

Lawmaker representing Kosofe II Constituency, Bayo Osinowo, said stressed that the Ministry of Transportation, LASWA and NIWA must begin to work together to give permits to operators, otherwise, “we are just wasting our time and tax payers money”.

“We must first dredge the waterways and maintain them periodically. It is not a matter of life jacket. Even the best swimmer cannot swim from Badore to Ajah in even of a problem. The best measure is efficient waterways, equipped with appropriate signals and emergency services point to assist people that have problem on the waterways.

“Fact is that we have to get it right. Our budget this year is N662.588b and from it, we are only expecting 30 per cent from the Federal Government. The rest has to be generated internally. That is why we all have to get our hearts together and get properly coordinated and put an end to all of those illegalities with dredging and reclamations,” he said.