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.

A new nation for Central Africa?

On Sunday 9 January, the Sudanese autonomous region of Southern Sudan will hold a referendum on independence. Millions of voters are expected to approve separation from the North.

But leaving the north and becoming Africa’s newest independent state will be fraught with difficulty. Sudan is split many ways: there is an ongoing civil war in Darfur; the Eastern Front region is making separatist noises; and the division between north and south is clear. Ethnically, the North is majority-Arab, it is Muslim and Arabic-speaking and comparatively well-developed, with a modern capital in Khartoum, a commercial hub in Omurdan and has long enjoyed the riches from oilfields which would straddle the new border with the south.

The South has many independent goals, the main one of which is to be able to reap more of the rewards from the oil which is deposited on its side. But in education, literacy, life expectancy, business skills, infrastructure, national development the newly-independent south would lag behind the north and it is desperate to catch up.

Sudan would no longer be Africa’s largest country with Algeria assuming that position. But the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, has said that he will help the South adjust to independence and aid the nation-building programme that will be started if Sunday’s vote turns out as predicted.

But despite this diplomatic olive-branch from al-Bashir, the South may turn its back on aid from Khartoum and look to employ its oilfields for its own, independent gain by fraternising more with the countries to its south. Animism and Christianity are the prevalent religions in the South,as opposed the the Islam in the North of Sudan, and the politics in the South are more tribal, a similarity with countries like Kenya.  These particular religious affiliations may endear themselves more to the development of political links with nations such as Uganda and Tanzania.

Geopolitically, the South sits on the frontier between the Muslim and Arabic-speaking deserts of North Africa and the Swahili and English-speaking Christian forests and savannahs of Central East Africa. The East African Community (EAC) is a powerful regional bloc consisting of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi and has well-developed trade and business links. There are even ideas to launch a common currency for the area, although the group is split over the proposal. This could be the direction in which Salva Kiir Mayardit, the would-be Southern president, may want to take his new nation and over the coming months, Sudanese, African and international delegates galore will flood the area to help out as Africa’s newest nation takes her first steps as an independent state.