The Elephant


That Sinking Feeling 2.0: Who Is to Blame for Tanzanian’s Ferry Disasters?

By Brian Cooksey

THAT SINKING FEELING: Who is to blame for the MV Nyerere ferry disaster?

On the 20th of September 2018, the ferry MV Nyerere capsized in shallow water at the tiny port of Ukara Island on Lake Victoria. Nearly 230 men, women and children drowned, most of them trapped inside the upturned hull. About 40 people were rescued by small boats. The vessel had a capacity of 100 passengers. Many of the dead were buried on the lakeshore, identities unknown, victims of Tanzania’s shoddy, state-run ferry services. President John Pombe Magufuli immediately declared four days of national mourning and flags flew at half-mast on public buildings. “Negligence has cost us so many lives . . . children, mothers, students, old people”, he lamented, ordering the arrest of “all those involved in the ferry.” Three days later, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa set up a seven-person Commission of Enquiry led by the former Chief of the Defence Forces, General George Waitara, to establish the cause of the accident and bring those responsible to book. The commission was given a month to report. That was the last the public heard of it, for the commission has shown no signs of life in the twelve months since the accident, during which period the political opposition, media and civil society organisations have kept quiet on the issue of state accountability for the accident. For who else can be held accountable when a state-owned and state-managed boat capsizes? There was no stormy weather to blame. A few commentators, including the state-owned Daily News and commentator Nkwezi Mhango, went so far as to blame the victims for knowingly, recklessly, boarding an overloaded craft. Writing in The Nation, Professor Austin Bukenya recommended “discipline” among passengers who should know better than to clamber onto overcrowded ferries. Presumably, they should wait for the next (uncrowded?) one. . .

Systematic overloading of poorly maintained state-owned vessels, compounded by human error, explains why Tanzanian marine transport is so dangerous. Unknown numbers die when small private vessels—mitumbwi (dug-out canoes) and ngalawa (canoes with sails and outriggers)—capsize. But the large steel boats run by the state are supposed to be orders of magnitude safer than the traditional modes of water transport.

Since the MV Bukoba capsized and sank in 1996, with the loss of an estimated 1,000 lives, Tanzanians have continued to die in large numbers in further ferry disasters, including two in Zanzibar waters within less than a year of each other claiming more than 1,800 lives. To date, no government official or private operator (the Zanzibar ferries were privately owned) has been held responsible for any of these disasters.

Accidents Waiting to Happen

Overcrowding ferries is systematic and intentional. A 200-passenger ferry is allowed to carry, for example, 400 passengers. The 200 “official” passengers are recorded on the vessel’s manifest, the 200 “unofficial” ones are not recorded and their fare is pocketed by the officials responsible for the management and the safety of the ship. Income that should be used for maintenance and repairs is similarly pocketed, leading to regular breakdowns and the suspension of services, thus increasing the overcrowding problem. Those anonymous corpses buried on the beach at Ukara are the “collateral damage” caused by rent-seeking government officials. A ferry service that is privately-owned and managed would deprive these officials of their rents; that is why ferry services remain a state monopoly.

Large-scale accidents on Lake Victoria are therefore arguably the result of a state monopoly of formal ferry services which dates back to the colonial period when the East African Harbours Corporation provided ferry services for the three East African countries. President Magufuli is committed to the improvement of lake transport, but it is taken for granted that the state will run the show. Magufuli has commissioned four new ferries and ordered the rehabilitation of old ones.

Marine Services Company Ltd (MSCL) and Tanzania Electrical, Mechanical and Electronics Services Agency (TEMESA) are the two official agencies responsible for running cargo ship and ferry services on Tanzanian waters. Prior to its incorporation in 1997, MSCL was the marine division of Tanzania Railways Corporation (TRC). The rationale for restructuring MSCL was to make it and other parts of TRC semi-independent “business units” to increase efficiency and profitability. According to its website, MSCL “operates ferries, cargo ships and tankers on Lake Victoria, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Nyasa. It provides services to neighbouring Burundi, DR Congo, Zambia and Malawi.” Over the years, these services have steadily dwindled. While MSCL used to run nine sizeable passenger and cargo vessels, breakdowns and lack of maintenance have left the company with only two. Laid up since 2014, the MV Victoria and MV Butiama are finally being rehabilitated at a cost of Sh26 billion, or $11.4 million, but will not be operational before March 2020 according to MSCL project manager Abel Gwanafyo, quoted by the Citizen newspaper on 8 August. Since the “rehabilitation” is only partially complete (22.5 per cent in the case of MV Butiama) further delays may be expected. The rehabilitation is part of a Sh152 billion ($67 million) shipbuilding and infrastructure development project launched by the President in August last year. At the launching ceremony, Magufuli revealed that he once considered disbanding MSCL but changed his mind because of the “exemplary performance” of the company’s new CEO, Eric Hamissi, in beginning to turn the company around.

While MSCL runs larger ships over longer routes, TEMESA—which is an executive agency under the Ministry of Works—serves short river crossings as part of the road network. Established in 2005, TEMESA operates double- and single-ended Roll on-Roll Off (‘ro-ro’) car ferries, mainly in remote locations where traffic volumes do not justify the construction of bridges. TEMESA’s “mission” involves “running safe and reliable ferry services”, including the ill-fated MV Nyerere. As a result of last September’s disaster, the President summarily suspended TEMESA’s Director General Dr Musa Mgwatu and its advisory board.

Finally, after the MV Nyerere disaster Magufuli took to task the country’s transport regulator, the Surface and Marine Transport Regulatory Authority (SUMATRA), summarily suspending its board of directors. In November 2017, the president signed the Tanzania Shipping Agencies Act which established the Tanzania Shipping Agencies Corporation (TSAC) to take over SUMATRA’s responsibility for marine transport regulation. According to lawyers Clyde and Company, TSAC was to become operational in February 2018. With a narrower scope than SUMATRA, it was hoped that the new agency would operate with greater efficiency and bring increased transparency to Tanzania mainland’s marine transport sector. The appointment of board members from the private sector as well as from government should, according to Clyde and Company, allow TSAC “to operate with an effective commercial approach.” It is unclear why SUMATRA rather than TSAC, was taken to task over the MV Nyerere accident.

The ferries the government commissions for service on Tanzanian lakes are mostly built by Songoro Marine Transport Ltd, owned by Mr Saleh Songoro and Sons of Mwanza. Mr Songoro bought the company—which was set up with aid from the Netherlands—when it was privatised in 1998. Songoro has a good working relationship with Dutch firm Damen Shipyards, one of the world’s largest builders of small ships. But a private shipbuilding monopoly serving monopoly state agencies is not going to solve the problem of inadequate and accident-prone transport services on Lake Victoria. The chronic shortage of lake transport is the maritime equivalent of poor urban public transport, which Dar es Salaam suffered during the days of the Usafiri Dar es Salaam (UDA) public transport monopoly. Private minibuses (daladala) were permitted in 1985, much to the relief of Dar es Salaam’s long-suffering citizens. The inhabitants of Lake Victoria’s shores are still waiting for their maritime daladala to come on stream.

Would Private Ferry Services Reduce the Death Toll?

Would privately owned, privately run ferry services be safer and more efficient than what we have now? It is possible that private services would be equally prone to rent-seeking and inefficiency in the absence of transparent and accountable contracting and regulation. On the other hand, private operators are more likely to maintain their vessels in order to maximise profit than state-run services, where all income flows are potentially vulnerable to self-destructive rent-seeking. They are also more likely to take safety issues more seriously than a state-run service, since private operators are more likely than civil servants to be held accountable in the event of a major accident. Since the ruling elite includes those who have little belief in or respect for the private sector, we could expect a more determined search for culprits and sanctions, especially if the boat-owners were Asians, Arabs or Caucasians.

President Magufuli has been widely praised for instilling discipline in government offices, hospitals and schools and sacking top officials deemed not to be performing and promoting those who are. But accountability is personal, not institutional, and the president clearly does not want to challenge all agencies equally. Since there is no public debate over privatising lake transport, we can expect Lake Victoria ferry passengers to continue being the potential victims of overcrowded and dangerous ferry services.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

The Elephant is a platform for engaging citizens to reflect, re-member and re-envision their society by interrogating the past, the present, to fashion a future.

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The Elephant


That Sinking Feeling 2.0: Who Is to Blame for Tanzanian’s Ferry Disasters?

By Brian Cooksey

THAT SINKING FEELING: Who is to blame for the MV Nyerere ferry disaster?

Sudden death on a sunny afternoon

In the early afternoon of Thursday, September 20th 2018, people congregated at the tiny port of Ukara Island on the shores of Lake Victoria, waiting for the arrival of the MV Nyerere, a small ferry bringing passengers and cargo from nearby Bugolola Island. It was a sunny day, with a refreshing breeze blowing off the calm lake. As the 100-capacity ferry approached the jetty, passengers gathered on deck to wave to their relatives. Suddenly MV Nyerere made an abrupt turn to align with the jetty. With so many passengers congregating on one side of the boat, it keeled over wildly, righted itself, and capsized on the other side, throwing dozens of passengers – none of whom were wearing a life jacket – into the lake. Over 200 people drowned, most of them trapped inside the upturned hull. Thirty-eight people were rescued by small boats. The exact number of the dead remains unknown, since the passenger manifest went down with the ship, or so we are told.

Within hours, the BBC World Service was broadcasting the shocking news around the globe. Tanzanian President John Magufuli declared four days of national mourning, and condolences came streaming in from near and far. Presidents Paul Kagame and Uhuru Kenyatta sent their messages of solidarity to Tanzania’s mourning president and citizens. President Shein of Zanzibar “called for calm from those touched by the news, especially when mourning…”CCM Secretary General Ally Bashiru urged people to “continue praying for the survivors and rescue teams and the authorities responsible for ensuring all bodies are recovered.”

Within hours, the BBC World Service was broadcasting the shocking news around the globe. Tanzanian President John Magufuli declared four days of national mourning, and condolences came streaming in from near and far.

President Magufuli then directed the relevant authorities to announce tenders for a new ferry with a capacity of 200 passengers, twice that of MV Nyerere. The government formed a seven-member investigative team led by a former army general to establish the cause of the disaster. Subsequently, Magufuli dissolved the board of directors of the Tanzania Electrical, Mechanical and Electronics Services Agency (TEMESA), which runs ferry services on Tanzania’s mainland, as well as the board of the country’s transport regulator, the Surface and Marine Transport Regulatory Authority (SUMATRA). At the time of writing, no arrests have been made among those directly responsible for running the ferry.

Less than two weeks earlier, on September 14th, the Member of Parliament for Ukerewe District, Joseph Mkundi (Chadema), complained in the National Assembly that he had repeatedly warned the government that the MV Nyerere was “malfunctioning” and in urgent need of repair. A government spokesperson claimed that new engines had been fitted quite recently. The day after the disaster, the Minister of Home Affairs, Kangi Lugola, warned people to desist from spreading false information that might cause turmoil in the country. President Magufuli cautioned politicians about taking advantage of the situation to gain political mileage and cheap publicity. Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa said the government had started to take steps to bring the lives of the residents in the area back to normal. Cash payments were being made to bereaved families to take the corpses of their dead home for burial. Many could not take the already decomposing bodies of their loved ones home, so many bodies were summarily buried near the lake’s shore, including those of unknown and unclaimed people. 

Why boats sink

There are two reasons why civilian passenger and cargo ships sink and people die: natural disasters and human error. Many ships sink when they run into bad weather, high winds, and heavy seas. In other cases, human errors are the main cause. Here are a few examples of maritime disasters attributed to human error rather than purely natural causes.

Selected civilian maritime disasters and death tolls attributed to human error, 1912-2018

The sinking of the MV Spice Islander I in 2011 was the sixth largest peacetime maritime disaster ever recorded, with more deaths than the Titanic, the most famous sea disaster of all time. (It appears that the Titanic was speeding in order to reach New York to put out a fire that had been burning in a coal bunker in part of the ship since it had left Southampton.) Thousands of deaths on small boats and canoes go unrecorded, although in total they probably outnumber the tragedies discussed here. (Artisanal fishers also die in considerable numbers.) A thousand minor catastrophes, each resulting in a few deaths, are not worth one big one even if many more lives are lost in aggregate.

The human errors involved in mega-disasters include collisions, running aground, fires and explosions, and capsizing due to structural defects and overloading. Many people drown because they don’t know how to swim and there are no life jackets. If boats are unstable (the MV Bukoba is said to have had a permanent list to one side) then regularly overloading them is likely sooner or later to lead to disaster.

The Kenyan and Tanzanian tragedies listed causing between 2,000 and 2,200 deaths were the result of reckless overloading. For example, the MV Bukoba’s manifest showed 443 first and second class passengers but there was no manifest for third class passengers. At least 800 people died. In the case of the MV Nyerere there is no manifest, so the degree of overloading (passengers and cargo) is not known. One estimate is that about 400 passengers were packed on board, 300 more than the official carrying capacity. With room for an additional three motor vehicles, the ship was also carrying a truck loaded with cement.

The Kenyan and Tanzanian catastrophes were the result of enormous overloading – a consequence of state monopolies that provide inadequate, inefficient and lethal services. To reduce the likelihood of such tragedies recurring, and in the interest of natural justice, it is essential that those responsible be held to account.

Why are boats so overloaded?

Why were these boats so overloaded? Clearly there’s a serious mismatch between supply and demand for passenger and cargo services if the ferries plying our seas and lakes can be so vastly overloaded. Why is there such a mismatch between supply and demand? Because our governments choose to run these services as state monopolies rather than allowing private companies to compete for the trade. What’s the explanation for this? After all, our governments no longer try to run inter-city buses or trucks. A small ferry is a marine matatu. There is already a private ferry plying between Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar. A previous attempt to bring privately-owned ferries to Lake Victoria was frustrated by bureaucracy and politics. Why does President Magufuli jump the gun by announcing a tender for a new ferry? A 200-passenger capacity ferry will merely allow a doubling of the overload factor. Private investors would fall over themselves to provide these basic transport services. Why put additional pressure on the Tanzanian budget, which is already seriously overstretched financing new infrastructure projects such as the Standard Gauge Railway and new aircraft for Air Tanzania?

So who do we hold responsible?

Consciously or otherwise, most commentaries miss the point when attributing blame for such disasters. Rather than focus on the culpability of those endangering lives by overloading vessels, they lament the lack of life boats or life jackets, untrained navigators, inadequate maintenance and so on. An editorial in the East African mentioned the lack of search and rescue services and a “robust system” to control overloading. The elementary starting point—that government agencies perform all the roles that affect the safety of passengers, and therefore share full responsibility for disasters when they happen—is carefully avoided.

The Kenyan and Tanzanian catastrophes were the result of enormous overloading – a consequence of state monopolies that provide inadequate, inefficient and lethal services. To reduce the likelihood of such tragedies recurring, and in the interest of natural justice, it is essential that those responsible be held to account.

So who should we hold responsible? In the Kenyan and Tanzanian cases, government agencies perform ownership, management and regulatory functions. (We may rule out the Lake Victoria Basin Authority, an agency under the East African Community, as a key actor, although it has a national mandate on security issues.) To date, none of the tragedies listed above have led to prosecutions or punishment of those responsible. Given President Magufuli’s ongoing crusade against corruption and waste in government, we can hope that this time will be different. But as justice has never been done in the past, why should we expect things to be different now? If no sanctions are brought against those responsible for these major disasters, there is no reason for them to clean up their act. Very few senior officials are ever jailed for such crimes in Tanzania.

If MV Nyerere had been privately-owned and run, you can be pretty sure that Prime Minister Majaliwa would not be talking about life “getting back to normal”: more likely he and President Magufuli would be “demanding justice”, and arrests, not just sackings, would have already taken place.

Here’s how Koreans dealt with their tragedy in 2014, when over 300 passengers, mostly school children, died in the MV Sewol ferry disaster. The ferry was privately owned and managed.

The Korean way with a ferry disaster

On 16 April 2014, the MV Sewol sank with the loss of 304 passengers and crew. The sinking resulted in widespread social and political outrage within South Korea, directed at the government of President Park. In class actions, bereaved families sued the government and ferry owners. The ferry was carrying more than double the ship’s passenger limit. In November 2014, the captain of MV Sewol was acquitted of murder but sentenced to 36 years in prison while the eleven other crew members were indicted for abandoning the ship. The company’s CEO was charged with “causing death by negligence”. The owner of the ferry later committed suicide. In July 2018, a Seoul Court ordered that every family receive USD175,000 for each victim, and additional compensation of up to USD70,000 for each family member. The bereaved continue to sue the owners of the ferry.


What does this sad story teach us? First, that private ferry owner-operators in South Korea are also capable of bending the rules and overloading their vessels for profit, with fatal results. But second, public outrage is not only permitted but is directed at the government as much as the boat owner, for failure to enforce safety regulations or rescue more passengers. (Three years later, mass demonstrations over grand corruption scandals led to the ouster of President Park Geun-hye, who is now in jail.) Lesson: Those responsible for the disaster were quickly identified, prosecuted and punished. Why should the bereaved in the MV Nyerere case not blame – and sue – the government officials responsible for the death of their loved ones?

The Nile perch in the room

If the majority of the passengers on board the MV Nyerere were not listed on the ship’s manifest, it is highly likely that the fares they paid for their final voyage also went unrecorded. A simple task for the commission of inquiry will be to examine past manifests and accounts of the MV Nyerere to establish what proportion of income was reported officially and how much was “privatised”. (This question was not asked when the MV Bukoba sank more than 22 years ago, but at the time it was widely believed that unrecorded passengers and freight generated considerable rents that fed a food-chain stretching from Mwanza to Dar es Salaam.) Rent-seeking alone would explain official reluctance to privatise lake transport services in the interest of ordinary citizens.

If the majority of the passengers on board the MV Nyerere were not listed on the ship’s manifest, it is highly likely that the fares they paid for their final voyage also went unrecorded. A simple task for the commission of inquiry will be to examine past manifests and accounts of the MV Nyerere to establish what proportion of income was reported officially and how much was “privatised”.

In sum, running commercial ferries on Lake Victoria or anywhere else should not be a state monopoly. Neither should it be a private monopoly, or cartel, but rather a lively competitive market with multiple players and properly enforced regulations that balance the legitimate search for a fair profit with the fundamental imperative of assuring passengers’ safety. Unfortunately, the relationship between the state and the private sector in Tanzania and Kenya rarely allows for transparent economic regulation that is not motivated by collusive deal-making involving elements of both bribery and extortion. Lakeside people will continue to risk their lives on a daily basis until this fundamental constraint is addressed.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

The Elephant is a platform for engaging citizens to reflect, re-member and re-envision their society by interrogating the past, the present, to fashion a future.

Follow us on Twitter.