Kagame commiserates with Tanzania over ferry accident

Rescuers retrieve a body from the water near Ukara Island in Lake Victoria, Tanzania yesterday. The death toll rose above 100. Net photo.

A Tanzanian ferry with hundreds of passengers Thursday capsized on Lake Victoria. The number of victims was by press time reported to be at least 136 people.

According to Tanzanian Police boss, Simon Sirro, at least 100 bodies had been recovered by Friday mid-morning as the operation to recover more victims continued.

He was speaking earlier on Friday during the rescue operation at the site where the ferry overturned.

The incident took place on Thursday at around 3:20pm local time (2:30p.m Rwandan time).

President Paul Kagame yesterday commiserated with Tanzanians over the tragedy.

“Our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the victims of the Lake Victoria ferry accident. Our thoughts are with you. We cannot thank the rescuers enough,” the President said in a tweet.

Kagame is current Chairperson of the African Union.

According to eyewitnesses, where the MV Nyerere capsized close to the pier on Ukara just before it could dock, the ferry may have been carrying as many passengers as twice its capacity when it sank.

Witnesses told our correspondent in Dar-es-Salaam that the ferry capsized when passengers rushed to one side to disembark as it approached the dock.

Mwanza Regional Commissioner John Mongella, who was at the scene early Friday, told public broadcaster TBC that the number of survivors had increased from 37 to 40.

The operation was being led by the police and military divers.

“The operation continues and will go on until later tonight before we stop and resume the next day,” he said.

It is believed that more than 200 could have boarded the ill-fated ferry at Bugolora, a town on Ukerewe Island.

Thursday was the market day in the area and it is believed that the vessel was laden with heavy cargo besides overloading people.

The ageing ferry, whose hull and propellers were all that remained visible after it overturned, was carrying sacks of maize, bananas and cement, when it capsized around 50 metres (55 yards) from Ukara dock, it emerged.  

“I have not heard from either my father or my younger brother who were on the ferry. They had gone to the market in Bugolora to buy school uniform and other requirements for the new school term,” said Domina Maua, who was among those seeking information about loved ones.

Davita Ngenda, an elderly woman in Ukara, had already received bad news. “My son is among the bodies recovered,” she said, weeping. “He had gone with his wife but she has not been found yet. My God, what did I do to deserve this?”

Sebastian John, a teacher, said such tragedies had become part of life for those living around the lake.

“Since my birth, people have gone to their deaths on this lake, but what are we to do? We did not choose to be born here, we have nowhere to go,” he said.

By press time, it remained unclear how many people were still missing.

Tanzania’s Electrical, Mechanical and Services Agency, which is responsible for ferry services, said it was unknown how many passengers were aboard the MV Nyerere when it capsized.  

The cause of the accident was not immediately clear, but overloading is frequently to blame for such incidents on the lake, reports indicated.

President John Magufuli, through his spokesperson Gerson Msigwa, released a statement saying he was deeply saddened by the news and called on Tanzanians to stay calm in the aftermath of the incident.

With a surface area of 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 square miles), oval-shaped Lake Victoria is roughly the size of Ireland and is shared by Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

The deadliest such accident in recent memory occurred in May 1996, when around 800 people died after their ferry sank on the way to Mwanza in Tanzania.

Around 20 people were killed in December 2016 when their boat overturned on the same lake as they headed to Uganda’s mainland for Christmas holidays.

Waters in the lake can be rough and boats are frequently poorly maintained.

Three days of national mourning

President Magufuli has announced four days of mourning and ordered all staff from the company’s vessel to be arrested.

”I order all the staff, including the vessel’s captain, to be arrested soon and investigated for possible prosecution,” Magufuli said on TBC.

During the three days of mourning, flags across the country will fly at half-mast in honour of the victims.

Earlier on Friday, Tanzania’s Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa, who visited the site where the vessel overturned, told mourners that the Government will continue the operation until each of their loved ones is accounted for.