Saturday, 12 October 2013

Nigeria: Living, dying on the Niger

Two weeks ago, Alhaji Garba Mashaya of Tungar Na'illo in Kebbi State, his two wives and granddaughter set out for Malale village in Borgu Local Government Areaof Niger State via a boat on the River Niger. He was going there for business while his wives were going there for wedding.

The boat carrying them was travelling light; it had about 80 passengers, less than the over 100 it used to carry. It had only sheep and goats, but no cows. The best swimmer in the area, Alhaji Garba Maigari, the village head of Tungar Na'illo, was also onboard. Midway into the journey, the boat's engine went off. Efforts to re-start it failed. "The boat said 'gum', then 'ka-ka-kas.' The boat had broken," recalled Khadijatu, Mashaya's wife.

Since she doesn't know how to swim, she decided to stay in the broken boat with the hope that she will be found there. Then she lost her balance and fell into the river. She struggled up and began praying, thinking that she would drown. She saw a plank and held onto it. She moved to a woman who was struggling to stay afloat alone and gave her the plank; and started struggling afresh. She was tired and her hope of safety was fading.

Her granddaughter Aishatu (whom she fondly calls Jamila) swam along calling her, but Khadija told her what she wouldn't be able to tell her under normal circumstances: "Don't hold onto me, Jamila. For God's sake, go your way and let me go my way. Whoever God rescues among us will be saved, let us resign to our fate."

She didn't know where the swimming skills came from. She just saw herself afloat after going under. Then a rescuer came and asked her to hold on to his back and carried her to safety.

Twelve-year-old Aishatu could swim and therefore didn't give up. She met her grandmother's co-wife, Lamishe, and they started swimming together. After a while, however, Lamishe went under and didn't come up again, Aishatu went on until she reached safe grounds.

Meanwhile, Aishatu's grandfather, Mashaya was also swimming for his dear life. "After the boat broke into two," he told Weekly Trust, "I concluded that my two wives were drowned. I had lost hope on Khadijatu, because she doesn't know how to swim. My thinking was that Lamishe, who could swim, would survive, but fate had planned otherwise. Khadijatu, who could not swim, survived, but Lamishe, who could, drowned."

Mashaya went on to say that "I was in the river for more than 40 minutes without help, just swimming my way to safety. At a point, I also I thought I would not survive. When I saw the village head on a pole used to push the boat, I asked whether it could help the two of us. He said it probably wouldn't. As we were going, he just changed course and drowned."

Hajiya Maimuna Ahmadu also of Tungar Na'illo said she thought the boat had hit a tree. "While trying to calm people down, youths started jumping into the river. The next thing I realized was that the river had reached my chest. Some passengers held on to me before I started swimming with them. When the weight became too much for me, I broke loose and swam alone resting on a plank from the broken boat once in a while, even as I look back every now and then, expecting help to come my way. Then a boy came and took me to a tree before the rescue party came to me.

"As we were going, we just heard that the boat, made a sound as if it had hit a stump. Then I heard people saying that this boat had broken. And by the time I looked back, I saw the boat sinking. I said Inna lillahi wa inna ilaihi rajiun! (Verily, we are from Allah and to him we shall all return!). I took off my robe and jumper and started shouting. Six of us started for the river bank shouting. We saw some people who held on to trees in the river and others struggling to stay afloat. Then the call for help reached them in the village here, and they went to our rescue."

"By the time we got there, we saw some of the victims holding on to trees while others were going up and below the river," said

Abubakar Adam, a younger brother to the village, Malam Garba Maigari and Alhaji Garba Mashaya's wife, Lamishe, who paddled a canoe towards the broken boat with other rescuers.

"We told those who had held on to trees that we were more concerned with those who were still floating. There is a boy called Sani. He held two women. We put one in the boat and took the other one, who has died, also. We went on and saw another boy called Surajo helping one Fulani woman. We took her and put her on the canoe. Others had gone under. I asked Kabiru, the son of Alhaji Garba, to go and help a woman who was going up and under the river. He eventually rescued her," he said.

The Chief Imam of Tungar Na'illo, Liman Aliyu, said he prayed for over 24 of the bodies recovered from the river. "The body of the staff of the Kainji National Park that who involved was given to their leader and that of the non-Muslim involved was given to his brethren," he said.

The people of Tungar Na'illo said they had never seen such a catastrophe before September 27th. They believe it is the will of God, but they were already preparing for the Friday market in Malale by the time this reporter left them on Thursday.

A river riddled with tree stumps

Alhaji Yahuza Yahaya, a boat driver based in Malale, said their boats are not bad as reported by the media. He said the boats are repaired at least every four years, adding that even if the owner doesn't have the money to do a general overhaul, he can replace the bad section of the boat as the woods that make the boats are put together in sections like mats.

"Our major problems are tree stumps in the river. When one has avoided the visible ones, he will unknowingly hit the invisible ones. We have chopped down some of the trees with axe, but some of them are beyond our capacity. I am calling on the government to help us with engines with which we can cut down the big trees," he said.

He said the hundred life jackets provided by authorities cannot go round as there are 33 boats in the area. He said the jacket almost caused problem for the association of the boat riders as the riders in Kebbi State are already asking for their share. Even if they are given a thousand pieces, he said they will not be enough, adding that they also need fire extinguishers which they hardly get nowadays.

Muhammadu Sarkin Jirgin Malale, 67, Chairman of the Boat riders in Malale, echoed Yahuza's points, adding that if the government wants to help them, it should give the assistance to the boat riders directly. He said boat accident is not a usual occurrence as it happens sometimes after ten years.

He also lamented that telecommunication services are not reliable. "If your boat has a problem in the middle of the Niger, and you are not lucky to have telecom services to call for help, you have to wait for any boat that comes your way by chance.

Another boat rider, Alhaji Muhammadu Dan'iya said the Emir of Borgu, Alhaji Haladu Dantoro, once gave the riders a tree-cutting machine, but the machine has been taken away by local rulers for the past five years now.

He said they don't have money to buy lifejackets for all their passengers as they barely get by in the ferry business. He said sometimes he only makes a N1,000 after a trip to and from a village without settling the boys who help him on the boat.

"I go with two boys who look after the boat. I buy food for and settle them. Even the day before yesterday I only got a N1,000 before settling them. If the government orders us to buy lifejackets for all our passengers, only two out of ten boats will remain in business. By God, we repair our boats at most after every four years, but some big boats require up to a N150,000 for repairs because the body is treated like a vehicle with nuts and bolts."

Responding to the saying that the use of old boats is the cause of the accidents, Atttahiru Ahmad of Malale said though they may look old, the boats ferry unbelievable number of people and goods across the Niger, to and from settlements like Garahuni, Tungar Na'illo and Yawuri.

Mezziah Umoogu, a boat maker at Malale, advised the riders to constantly check the river worthiness of their boats before venturing onto the river as their lives depend on it.

Double boat accident in Ulakami

Alhaji Yakubu Ulakami, the owner of the boat that broke in Ulakami village, Borgu Local Government Area, said the type of planks sold in the market these days are not as durable as the once they used to buy before. He said he just repaired his boat about a year ago. A repair, he said, normally lasts for five years.

Speaking in an emotion-laden voice, he said for the past 40 years he has been in this business; nobody has ever died in his boat. He said the boat had been emptied of the goods (like bags of grains villagers normally take to Kokoli market) it took to Kokoli village and the passengers on board were few compared to the boat's carrying full capacity when the accident occurred.

In what could have been another disaster, the boat in which rescue party went to help the victims of the mishap also broke into two. Luckily, it had already made it to the bank, he said.

He said the tree stumps only become dangerous when the water level in the river goes down, but during periods of high water level like this, tree stumps are not problems.

"Of all those who died in the accident, only one woman is married. The other two boys and 15 girls are children and grand children to me," he said.

In Kebbi State, places like Yauri, Shabanda, Dugu, Gyade, Kawara, Gebe, Kwanji, Sanga, Kwanji and Majigi are among communities of Yauri, Ngaski and Shanga Local Government Areas who rely on the River Niger waterways as major transport routes.

Villagers from these communities, according investigations, have at one time or the other died and lost property in the river from boat mishaps.

Garba Saidu Gebe, a native of Kwanji, said over 50 people mostly Kambari from Niger State had died in a mishap near Kasabo, a short distance to Yauri in 1998.

"They were approaching Yauri from Kasabo when the boat capsized and killed over 50 Kambaris from Niger State," he said.

Gebe, who lectures at the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), Kaduna also said a prominent pastor, Reverend Gado, was among the ten victims who died in the 1990 Shabanda mishap.

"We had another mishap where 25 people died while on a boat from Yauri to Kwandi, while eight Gebe villagers died in the mishap along Shabanda and Kawara in 1982.

"We have not heard of any major incident until these two which happened within an interval of a week in Niger State," he said.

The District Head of Kwanji, Gebe in Shanga Local Government Area Alhaji Haruna Usman could, however, not be reached to ascertain such incidences.

The Galadiman Majigi, Alhaji Tukur Mai Doki in Warra, Ngaski Local Government Area, however, confirmed that the Emir of Yauri has summoned a council meeting to discuss solutions to the problem of boat mishap on the River Niger.

"Our meeting will decide on whether to impose the ban of old boats as was already done by Niger State government.

"We have also identified overloading and poor maintenance of boats as another major causes of mishaps on our waters and we have taken measures to curb it.

"Our people are more exposed to risk when people are crossing to markets on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. These are the periods we experience more traffic and overloads of boats. Only about 35 of the over 80 passengers pay for fare, thereby overloading the boat," he said.

Malam Garba Dangi, a survivor of a recent Kokoli boat mishap, told Weekly Trust in Zamare, said government should provide speed boat to River Niger communities as it is the case of the people Niger Delta communities in Nigeria. He said "government should also enforce the use of live jackets by passengers. It will help to save lives where accidents happened before rescue operation comes to the people."

Similarly, Alhaji Ibrahim Yauri, former Chairman of Kebbi indigenes, called on government to recruit professional life guards and post them to riverine areas to train boat captains on rescue operations.

He said the prices of spare parts of boat engines should also be subsidized to reduce the rate of cutting corners by operators.

"Authorities should also sensitive boat captains to suspend fretting once it is about to rain. This is to avoid strong wind and water waves or water fill-up of the boat that cause mishaps," he said.

The former chairman said journeys on boat from Lofa (the home town of current Kebbi Deputy Governor) to Kokoli in Niger State and Warra to Shagumi that take over two hours on waters should be done with speed boats that are good and carry passengers according to specification.

Also, the Wakilin Sarkin Jirgi, Abdullahi Isah, an expert in constructing small boats in Yauri said the lifespan of boats in the area are above at least eight years.

According to him, most of the boats are 15 years old and above. "The engines of the boats are also of low capacity, while most passengers prefer to enter fully-loaded boats as attachments because of low fare.

Wakili said boats are more exposed to accident in dry season than rainy season when there is high water level and low risk of hitting a rock.

"You see a boat with capacity for 30 people overloaded with up to 100 people coupled with the old age of the boat and over utilization of the engine."

Alhaji Bala, the owner of the boat involved in the last mishap however disagreed with Wakili's assertion.

"I don't know of other boats, but my own boat involved in the last accident was in good working condition and it is not as old as what I heard people saying. Even the passengers who survived the mishap testified that the boat is in good condition and the accident was just destined to happen," he said.

Secretary of Marine Transport Association, Alhaji Abubakar Danjuma, said "the accidents are not caused by any form of recklessness or overload, because we ensure strict compliance with marine guidelines by all our members including those who involved in the last mishap.

"There are Marine police who patrol Warra, Yauri, Zamare and other areas on River Niger to ensure compliance.

"It's over 12 years now since we had any incident in Kebbi. The last one was during Sallah where two people died when the boat carrying passengers from Zamare to Yauri had a mishap. That was when Colonel John Uba was the Military Administrator of the state," he said.

Saturday 12 October 2013


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