Tanzanian President John Magufuli on Friday ordered the arrest of the management of a ferry that capsized in Lake Victoria, as the death toll climbed to 161 and rescue workers pressed on with the search to find scores more people feared drowned.
Magufuli referred to “negligence” and said he had ordered the arrest of “all those involved in the management of the ferry”, during a speech on TBC One public television.
“It appears clear that the ferry was overloaded,” he said, adding that “the arrests have already begun”.
The president also declared four days of national mourning while saying at least 161 people had died, updating an earlier death toll of 126.
Mwanza governor John Mongella had earlier said the number of survivors was 40, but it was unclear whether any new survivors had been found since rescue operations resumed with police and army divers on Friday morning.
“Operations are continuing,” he said, but hopes are fading that more survivors might still be found.
State television cited witnesses reporting that more than 200 people had boarded the ferry at Bugolora, a town on the larger Ukerewe Island, where it was market day when locals said the vessel was usually packed with people and goods.
“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 a school uniform and other supplies 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 on 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.
Overloading and ‘negligence’
It remains unclear how many people are 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.
The ageing ferry, whose hull and propellers were all that remained visible after it overturned, was also carrying cargo, including sacks of maize, bananas, and cement, when it capsized around 50-metres from Ukara dock.
The cause of the accident was not immediately clear, but overloading is frequently to blame for such incidents.
The country’s opposition has accused the government of “negligence”.
“We have often raised concerns about the poor condition of this ferry, but the government turned a deaf ear. We have repeatedly denounced this negligence,” said John Mnyika, deputy secretary general of Chadema, the main opposition party.
Mnyika said overloading was “another failure of the authorities” and criticised “inadequate relief efforts as well as delays” in the rescue operation.
With a surface area of 70,000 square-kilometres, oval-shaped Lake Victoria is roughly the size of Ireland and is shared by Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya.
The MV Nyerere, an open deck ferry, was travelling between the islands of Ukerewe and Ukora on Lake Victoria in northern Tanzania. The largest freshwater lake in Africa, it also borders Kenya and Uganda.
It capsized and sank not far from the shore, just before docking. According to at least one eyewitness, large numbers of people suddenly moved to one side of the vessel all at once.
There were distressing scenes as dozens of people floundered in the water, as hundreds watched helplessly from the shoreline.
Local people joined in rescue efforts and fishermen are said to have saved some 20 or 30 people.
How many people were on board?
More than 300 people are estimated to have been on board the ferry when it went down. However, local reports have put the number at even higher.
Exactly how many is hard to establish as the person dispensing tickets also drowned and the machine recording the data was lost, Reuters reports.
According to Tanzanian media, the ferry had a capacity of about 100 passengers and 25 tonnes of cargo.
A history of ferry disasters
Earlier this decade Tanzania suffered two nautical disasters off the island of Zanzibar in the Indian Ocean.
In July 2012 the Skagit passenger ferry sank in rough seas after leaving Dar es Salaam with more than 250 people on board. As many as 150 are thought to have died.
The previous September had seen an even worse disaster. The Spice Islander ferry had over 2,000 passengers when it sank off Zanzibar. The number of dead was put at over 200 but a government report later said more than 1,300 were missing.
Lake Victoria witnessed tragedy in 1996 when the steamer MV Bukoba capsized in one of the worst ferry disasters of the 20th century. More than 700 of an estimated 1,000 people on board were killed when the ship sank before docking at the lake’s southern port of Mwanza, after sailing from Bukoba on the western shore.