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