In the morning of September 10, 2011, over 200 passengers who were travelling from Zanzibar to Pemba perished in a tragic marine accident reminding Tanzanians of another marine accident that cost nearly 800 lives in Lake Victoria in 1996.
The MV Islander ferry accident that occurred off Zanzibar’s Nungwi Bay, about 25 kilometres from Stone Town was a replica of the MV Bukoba tragedy, which occurred sixteen years ago.
Over 600 people died when a ferry jammed with passengers and tons of cargo capsized amid strong waves off the Zanzibar’s Nungwi Bay.
On the evening of July 18, this year, another marine accident occurred when the MV Skagit ferry, which had left the city of Dar es Salaam on Mainland Tanzania with 290 people on board, capsized in Indian ocean, within ten months of another tragic accident, also in Zanzibar.
Hamza Kabelwa, director of the Tanzania Meteorological Agency, told the BBC's Swahili service that a warning had been issued for vessels not to make the crossing because of the rough seas.
Though the accident might have been caused by bad weather, especially strong winds, the quality of the vessel as wells as that of the captain, cast doubt on whether it was fit to ply the Indian Ocean as a passenger ferry in the first place. We at The Guardian on Sunday strongly believe that Wednesday’s ferry accident was man-made, just as was the one that occurred last September.
The captain of the ill-fated MV Skagit was, in fact, warned by the Tanzania Meteorology Agency about the stormy weather, but he ignored that warning, a habit we hardly associate with any professional captain. Ignoring warnings from a weatherman is nothing short of inability to read data on the radar; it’s a risky decision, if only to state the obvious, but the more serious statement from such tragedies is that we have been putting human life on harm’s way because we often refuse to tell the difference between decisions made by professionals and the subsequent steps taken by amateurs.
If the qualifications of the captain of the ill-fated ferry were to be thoroughly scrutinised, we doubt if the findings would give him a clean bill, but that’s an issue for more competent hands.
Whether the skipper was, or ‘wasn’t skilled enough’ to man the vessel may beg the question for days, if not decades, on end. But, there’s also the seaworthiness of the hapless ferry itself.
According to the available details, the MV Skagit was manufactured in 1989 expressly to ply some rivers in the United States, before it was grounded in early 2005, due to technical problems. Since it wasn’t allowed to operate in US waters, the owners of the ferry decided to auction it at a ‘throw-away’ price -- and it found the buyer from Zanzibar.
The ferry underwent a very minimal, if make-believe, facelift in the name of maintenance, such as repainting, before it was registered in Zanzibar, ready to operate in the Indian Ocean. It was one of those cruising graves, this newspaper, reported extensively in September, last year, after the MV Islander’s tragic accident.
This is why it couldn’t withstand the Wednesday’s storm. We have to take note that on that fateful day, there were more vessels, including dhows, cruising from either side across the Zanzibar Channel, all of which managed to weather the storms.
The fact that there was a stormy weather doesn’t automatically mean that accidents will occur, because at the end of the day, whether in the ocean or in the sky, there will always be a stormy weather. If that were the main cause of accidents, the world would have been witnessing hundreds of accidents in ocean and sky every day.
Ships, ferries and even boats are built to withstand, among other things, stormy weather. There are, of course, times of severe and equally nasty weather that can destroy any vessel, but Wednesday’s winds were not of this magnitude.
As Tanzanians mourn their beloved ones, the enduing question is, how long? They say that once may be an accident, twice could be a coincidence, but a third occurrence may well form pattern.
In our case, marine accidents continue to kill people as the government watches helplessly. Two decades ago, Lake Victoria was the home to ‘cruising graves’ but that’s now history; soon after the MV Bukoba accident, the government and marine experts introduced strong measures to improve safety in the world’s second largest fresh water lake.
It’s time the same measures taken to address the situation in Lake Victoria are multiplied in the Indian Ocean by both regulators from Mainland and Zanzibar. We can’t afford having defective vessels manned by amateur captains operating in our country at the expense of our lives.
Taking the two accidents, which occurred in Zanzibar between September last year, and July, this year, it’s obvious that Zanzibar needs to be technically assisted to improve safety standards of all vessels registered in the island.
This is not a matter for cheap politics now playing out about whether we need the Union or not, but a matter of immediate action that our leaders need to address. It isn’t an issue of ‘inshallah’ either – because God hasn’t suddenly chosen to kill us at sea.