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Questions that still linger after boat tragedy

We mourn, yet again, the loss of young, smart and vibrant Ugandans in the prime of their lives, goner in a fl ash. But let our tears not blind us to one very simple fact  not a single person who died on the K Palm Cruise boat on Lake Victoria
Saturday evening should have died.

Every single person should have been alive, here and now, talking about how the accident happened, and how they cheated death. Some, a few, are able to do that. As of writing this column, as many as 60 people remain unaccounted for, missing, presumed drowned. Here is the catalogue of what went wrong, that should have been corrected but were never corrected.

The first issue is the inspection of the operations of K Palm Cruise, the doomed vessel. Like any passenger vehicle, K Palm
Cruise was supposed to be inspected by the works ministry. In an interview with New Vision, transport state minister Aggrey Bagire revealed the boat had already been flagged for confiscation and that the Police had been informed of this decision.

But that narrative has all sorts of holes in it. For example, why was K Palm Cruise still operational at all? The boat should have been in the custody of the Police, out of reach of the owners. According to fishermen in the area, before it was cranked back into service recently, the boat had been docked for a long time. Indeed, the very idea that the boat was supposed to be confiscated but was still operational shows a major problem with the way the ministry went about this incident.

A clear directive, citing the relevant violations by the boat operators, was needed to get action taken before the boat even left
the beach where it was moored. Secondly, someone needed to keep an eye on the boat to make sure the owners were not doing business with the dilapidated boat, illegally, in violation of an order to cease operation.
That someone was at the works ministry and that someone failed.

The explanation from AIGP Asuman Mugenyi also does not make sense. Once again, all it does is advance the narrative that

“We tried everything in our power”. According to Mugenyi, on the fateful evening, well before the incident occurred, the Police marine attempted to interdict the boat, but the boat “overpowered the marines who had a smaller boat”.

Here is the problem with that story — Why bother putting the Police marine on the water if the personnel do not have the
power, equipment and muscle to stop, search and order a big boat to turn around? In fact, given that statement, how many passenger boats are currently operating in Uganda without proper inspection, licensing and safety equipment? Are there 10, 20, 30, how many boats?

As part of the post-mortem of the tragedy, there should be a thorough debriefing of the Police marine who, allegedly, attempted to stop the boat. What happened, how was the vessel operators behaving? And when they could not get K Palm Cruise to turn around when ordered to do so, what did the Police marine do, did they call for assistance from other Police
officers?

Did they attempt to follow K Palm Cruise to see that it was okay?

Then there is the issue of overloading. In the case of the September sinking of MV Nyerere in Tanzania, over 300 boarded a boat meant to carry only 150 passengers and their goods. When the boat went down, mere metres from the shore, 224 people drowned. How do boats load up extra passengers as K Palm Cruise did on Saturday, and there is no one to ask questions, an authority to intervene? How is it that we do not overload planes, but think it is perfectly okay to pile bodies on
a pleasure boat? What makes people think that boats can take any number of people without the risk of capsizing?

Someone must have the answers to these questions, complete with the latest inspection information of the boat, its safety equipment and seaworthiness. The saddest part of the K Palm Cruise saga was the utter lack of life jackets for the stricken passengers.

For at least an hour, the boat listed, dangerously, to the point that some very lucky passengers got off and were ferried to safety by fishermen in a boat.

Those who did not heed the call to get off the boat had no clue the boat did not have life jackets for every passenger as should be the law. When the boat actually started sinking, finally, the panicked passengers scrambled for anything to cling on, even
for a few minutes, but there was nothing. They were sucked under the water, to their untimely and utterly senseless deaths.

It should become mandatory that every boat operator is required to inform passengers where the life-jackets are stored. The Uganda Police Marine Unit should have the power to randomly stop and board any boat on water and demand to see the latest inspection information, life jackets (there must be enough life jackets for every passenger on the boat) and whether the operator of the boat has a permit to operate that boat. It is not rocket science that those who operate boats without licences likely do not have proper training in the operation of the boat and when something goes wrong, as occurred on K Palm Cruise, the untrained operator adds to the problem rather than making things better for passengers.

We should never accept as bahati mbaya, bad luck, the deaths of our young people on such a reckless night when they should still be alive, with loved ones. We should not send our Police officers on duty in which they are out-muscled and out-gunned. We should not accept it as business as usual when we see disaster in the making and do nothing about it. Those young men and women should be alive now. Every single one of them

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