By mid last week, Uganda was still gripped by the November 2 capsizing of an apparently rickety “cruise” boat in Lake Victoria, off Mukono district, killing at least 32 people.
No one is really sure about the number of people who were on the doomed vehicle. There were possibly 120 people on board, although its capacity was just 50.
That was not the only thing that made it a familiar East African, and indeed African, boat tragedy. The thing was unlicensed. Apparently the eager revellers thwarted an intervention by the police to stop it from sailing.
And when it went down, it became a national embarrassment. With the wreckage barely 300 metres from shore, the police and military tried several times to salvage it and failed. And old ship was brought with the aim to yank the carcass up, but the cables broke.
A group of muscular youth and volunteers rallied around, and ropes were brought to pull the wreckage to shore in the old fashioned way, but that too failed. The police rounded up some excavators, connected some cables from the machines to the wreckage… failed to bring it ashore.
And so the night fell, and all left, to return the next day with little more than hope.
We never learn, argued Muniini Mulera in a column in Daily Monitor. Lake Victoria is treacherous water, he argued, and East Africa’s failure to come to terms with its moody ways is shameful.
He listed a grim catalogue of the deaths on the lake. “Only a fool ignores more than a century of recorded human disasters on a lake that kills 5,000 fishermen every year, earning it the title of ‘most dangerous lake in the world’,” he noted.
On September 20, 228 people drowned at Bwisya, Ukara Island, Tanzania when the MV Nyerere, a Tanzanian ferry, capsized. They had loaded it with cargo and 269 passengers, more than twice its capacity.
EA’s worst maritime disaster
May 21, 1996, the MV Bukoba sank near Mwanza, killing 894 people. The ship’s capacity was 430 passengers.
But easily the worst marine disaster in East Africa was the sinking near Zanzibar of the MV Spice Islander I on September 10, 2011.
The ship had a capacity of 45 crew and 645 passengers, it was carrying 2,470 passengers; 203 were confirmed dead and 1,370 missing.
And on and on. It was a depressing reading. Yet, in there, is a disturbing political story.
Few things bring out the incompetence and, sometimes corruption, of our states, like these water tragedies.
Not enough voters
Water tragedies point to the things national resources are dedicated to. Usually, money goes to the protection of the president and his entourage, and the schemes that are closely tied to the next election.
Not enough voters live on the islands in East Africa, nor have to cross treacherous waters daily to go to and from work.
In last week’s boat disaster off Mukono, there was a brave and admirable effort put in by police and army swimmers.
But they are puny units, not part of the elite guard, central to keeping the Big Man in power.
If State House were on Sese Islands, and the president and his ministers lived there, they would have been a near-world class navy with the ability to rescue more than the odd stricken swimmer.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is publisher of data visualiser Africapaedia and Rogue Chiefs. [email protected]