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.


Not just a canal, but a keystone

The bridge nation speaks up

Earlier in the month the Panamanian president, Ricardo Martinelli, gave a talk at Canning House (, @Canning_House) in London called ‘Panama and Central America: Challenges and Opportunities’.


Mr Martinelli spoke at length and was questioned afterwards on the more difficult topics. The president has Italian roots and he was keen to point to them in the talk, spending nearly half his speech praising immigration to the country and the economic benefits of foreign fingers in the Panama City pie. He told us that 7% of the population was from the US but he also stressed that his nation must not to be seen as a tax-sanctuary and that overseas citizens had pay their homeland due as well as the Panamanian ones.

Martinelli eulogised about his 2% budget deficit and national high standard of living and claimed the only rival to his country in Latin America for economic competition was Chile. He boasted of the 12% growth forecast for next year. He assured the collected that he would try hard to save Panama from becoming embroiled in the financial crisis: “we are almost immune, through being so far away and not relying on one commodity or product.”


Panama is famous for its canal but Mr Martinelli admitted that widening and modernising works were behind schedule. He confirmed the companies involved would lose their cash incentive if they miss the July deadline, (which he confessed was likely), saying “the impact on the economy would be great.” He wanted to show us that there was more to the country’s infrastructure than the inter-oceanic waterway and highlighted the investment in rapid building of cruise-liner ports and the improvements to the capital’s public transport system he had approved.


After his talk, the president was pressed on slightly less comfortable issues than easy national promotion and talk of bilateral trade deals. I wanted to steer him towards talking about his neighbours and pointed out that Nicaragua had recently re-elected Daniel Ortega after the president’s party had secured a modification to the constitution. When Manuel Zelaya, the former Honduran leader, had tried that in his country in 2009 the army flew in during the night and carted him off to Costa Rica. And the intentions of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan head-of-state, are clear: he would like to stay in power until 2031.

The response of Mr Martinelli was also simple: he is not in favour of re-election – “you should go home after one term”. He was at pains to point out that he was not describing the situation in Nicaragua, but he saw being voted back into office and changing constitutions to allow re-votes as undemocratic moves in a (largely) growing region of democracies. Re-election is outlawed in Panama and Martinelli confirmed it would remain so.


He was also pushed on tax treaties, eco-tourism (a field in which Costa Rica has done particularly well) and security, the most worrying topic in the region. Panama is the link between the north of South America, where the internal problems with criminal gangs are largely subsiding (although international cocaine production continues) and Central America. Here the murders, extortions and abductions are worsening, especially in the ‘Northern Triangle’ of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Panama is a transit country, with gangsters flying over it to land in jungle airstrips or sailing along its mosquito-riddled coasts, bubbling through the mangrove swamps in mini-submarines or speedy launches on their way to Mexico. Martinelli was adamant that his country would not be put at risk by encroaching gangs and outlined the security measures – namely the training of more police and the expansion of surveillance procedures – he was taking to ensure his people (and the foreigners and their multi-billion-dollar businesses in Panama City) were safe.

Mr Martinelli’s country is going places but it needs to shout its little voice louder on the regional stage to confront this problematic issue of criminal violence with its Latin partners. The rising violence is a disease that is borderless that requires international treatment. That Panama is comparatively successful is good for the region but Mr Martinelli must not solely focus economic efforts on the foreign-dominated capital. He must remember the villages and small-holders of the countryside. But he is not doing badly.