Death on the lake

The stricken MV Nyerere in Lake Victoria, Tanzania, 20 September 2018 (AFP)

A ferry disaster exposes infrastructure woes in Tanzania

The country’s president John Magufuli came to power in 2015 with a bold list of promises and he has enacted wide-scale reforms to government spending, gone on an anti-corruption drive and brought in free secondary education for all children.

He has also spent a good deal of time and money on infrastructure which is an area of government where he has experience.

He was nicknamed ‘The Bulldozer’ during his time as the Minister of Works and Transport for his direct style and his zeal for building roads. (It is a moniker that is now also being used to describe his increasingly autocratic style of populist government.)

While in the top job he has focused on highway construction, oil pipeline projects and a new railway between the country’s huge Indian Ocean port at Dar es Salaam and the city of Morogoro, 200km inland.

However, the ferry sector has not been paid the same attention as the roads and the rails.

The disaster on Lake Victoria on 20 September is a terrible reminder of the safety problems with water transport in the country.

Rescue workers at the scene where a ferry overturned in Lake Victoria, Tanzania, 21 September 2018 (Reuters)

At the time of writing, at least 205 people had been confirmed dead after the MV Nyerere capsized. The overcrowded vessel, which was travelling between two of Tanzania’s islands on Lake Victoria, Bugorora and Ukara, was reported to have turned over when passengers raced to one side of the boat to get ready to disembark as it approached the dock.

The MV Nyerere lies upturned after capsizing on Lake Victoria, Tanzania, 20 September 2018 (Reuters)

President Magufuli has announced four days of mourning and said his government will cover the costs of the victims’ funerals.

He has also ordered the arrests of the management of Tanzania’s Electrical, Mechanical and Services Agency (TEMSA), which is responsible for ferry services. TEMSA admitted it did not know how many passengers were aboard.

However, the opposition are pointing the finger of blame for the disaster at Magufuli’s government, accusing it of “negligence”.

Two years ago the World Bank criticised the seaworthiness of the vessels plying the waters of Lake Victoria as a “poorly regulated private sector fleet”.

The problems are many: failures in the regulation of ferries – many of which are not maintained appropriately – and overcrowding while on board; then malfunctioning alarm systems, a lack of life-jackets and insufficient evacuation procedures when things do go wrong.

And even when a vessel is serviced regularly, (such as being fitted with new engines as the MV Nyerere was recently), if the ferry is subsequently burdened with dangerous overcrowding it makes the sleek new motors redundant.

Tanzania’s worst disaster was in May 1996, when an estimated 800 passengers drowned when a ferry capsized on its way from Buboka on the western coast of the lake to Mwanza in the south.

And it not just passengers on the inland ferries that have been at risk of sinking.

From 2009-2014 there were at least nine accidents on ocean-going boats operating out of Dar es Salaam port, with five of the incidents resulting in fatalities, according to the Worldwide Ferry Safety Association. The sinking of MV Skagi in 2012 and MV Spice Islander a year earlier saw more than 200 people lose their lives on vessels that were overcrowded.

Earlier in the summer, after a cabinet reshuffle, president Magufuli instructed the new minister of works, transport and communications Isack Kamwele to press on with new roads, railways and airports. It would be a gross oversight if a new focus was not also paid to the problematic (and, at times, fatally dangerous) ferry sector which is in urgent need of improvements – as demonstrated by the most recent tragedy on Lake Victoria.