'Killer barge on the waterway'

THE GUARDIAN Newspaper-Kelvin Ebiri

WHEN schools in Bodo in Gokana Local Council, Rivers State resumed, the pains and sorrow of losing her 17-year-old son in the boat mishap became fresh again in her mind. If she knew death was lurking in the high sea to take Tonubari, her beacon of hope, she would not have asked him to accompany him to the farm.

Mrs. Bumaa, a farmer, was tasked with the challenge of replacing Tonubari's old school uniform, and told him to accompany her to the farm to uproot some cassava to process some garri, to sell and raise money for his uniform.

Tonubari, who was a Senior Secondary School 1 student of Apostolic Comprehensive Secondary School Bodo, went with his mother in the morning of January 28, without any inkling that he would not return alive to wear his new uniform.

The travail started when he and his mother joined six other neighbours in a canoe to a distant farm, off the shores of Bodo, called Baraol Maa-nku.

Among those on board the canoe were 65-year- old Mr. Deeol Tooba, his wife, daughter and son, Mrs. Martha, Barinem and Wisdom Tooba, Mrs. Apii Legbara, Mr. Legbara Zagahbel and Mrs. Nuate Beela Kaafor.

But barely a few meteres away from the shores of Bodo, the canoe struck part of a barge used for blocking the waterway by a construction company building the Bodo-Bonny Road and capsized, empting the passengers into the water at Si Vibiragbara.

As no construction workers were yet to be at the site, a speedboat coming from Andoni axis to Bodo was the only hope to rescue the victims. Although some victims were rescued alive, Tornubari, along with Mr. Deeol Tooba, his daughter, Barinem and Mrs. Apii Legbara, were not so lucky. They drowned before help could come.

When the news filtered into the community, scores of angry young men including local divers mobilised to rescue the victims but could not see the victims. Their corpses were only found the next day at about 3.00 p.m. and deposited at the mortuary of General Hospital, Terabor in Gokana.

Mrs. Bumaa, who survived the boat mishap told The Guardian in Bodo that when their canoe capsized, the tidal wave, which was high on that fateful day, dragged her under the barge and it was only through the Providence that she survived.

"It was under the barge that Tonubari, my son, died. If the barge did not block the waterway, may be the people that came to rescue us would have saved him.

"When I came, I was crying and appealing to the rescuers to help my son under the barge but there was nothing they could do.

"The local divers recovered his body the following day under the barge," she bemoaned.

According to her, "Tonubari was my first son and the only educated one. I am poor and that is the only one child I could afford to send to school. All my hope had been on him and now he is gone," said Mrs. Bumaa.

Another victim, Mrs. Martha Tooba, who is now emotionally devastated, survived the mishap by clinging on a tyre by the side of the barge.

When The Guardian visited her home, she could hardly utter a word while one of her sons, Wisdom, was yet to recover from the shock, as her husband and 26-year -old daughter were not rescued.

The 22-year- old Wisdom, a student of St. Pius College, Bodo, survived by swimming out of the barge, clinging to an anchor.

"That was my first time of passing under the barge. I was on my way to the farm along with my parents and sister. It is so painful to lose my father and my lovely sister. I never knew that that day would be the last time we would be together. An aspect of me is gone. We only saw my sister's remains the next day. It was a very painful moment for us," he cried.

As if the community had a premonition of the accident, the Bodo Youth Federation, led by its President, Kpoobari Patta and Secretary, Kpee Emmanuel, on December 18, 2009, visited of Project Manager of Gitto Construction Company, Mr. Franco Placidi, to express their concern on the danger the barge possessed to those who used the waterways.

According to Emmanuel, farmers, traders and fishermen and women had for the past two years inundated the Youth Federation with complaints of series of accidents due to the blocking of the waterways by the company.

"The company has blocked about six waterways that connect this community in course of constructing a bridge across the creek. We called on them to remove the barge since it was where our farmers and fishermen passed to their farms offshore. Even the people from Andoni, Okrika and Opobo also go through this channel as well. But since then, nothing had been done," he said.

When The Guardian visited the scene of the accident, speedboats and canoes were still passing throw the narrow passage of about three metres under the barge, as it was the only open route left to access the waterway.

Those who spoke on the issue said the barge had made life difficult and dangerous for the community, especially farmers, fishermen and other users.

A lawyer, John Lekova Koottee, explained that a series of letters had been written to the company to shift the equipment and create another diversion for users of the waterways, but to no avail.

"This barge has been here for two years. The company is not safety-conscious. At least, there is supposed to be a warning sign that it is not safe to pass through the place. The company did not also create any diversion. If they had done so, this would not have happened," he said.

Another resident, Kabari Baridam, said: "A lot of people have not been going for fishing and farming because they are scared. We are mainly farmers and most of the farming is done offshore. We do not have any other route than the blocked passage. For you to fish, you have to go deep into the sea because of the oil spillage that has forced the fishes into the deep sea."

Sylvester Vidin, a councillor representing Bodo Ward Two, spoke of the need to review the Inland Waterways Act in the country, to enable the states and local council make laws as it affects their areas.

He said the Gokana Local Council legislature was considering a motion that would be sent to the National Assembly and the Rivers State House of Assembly to demand the removal of the barge.

"This is the major waterway and they are not supposed to block it. There are natural diversions. We are forwarding a letter to the National Assembly that it is inhuman to block the waterway, which is our source of livelihood," he said.

The Chairman, Bodo Council of Chiefs and Elders, Mene Leema Hyacinth, told The Guardian the council notified the police at Kpor and told the youths not to resolve to violence.

"Bodo waterway has been a commercial highway for ages. We go to Cameroun from here. There are no industries here. Our people depend on this waterway for their self-sustenance. We are appealing to the government to prevail on the construction company to remove the barge before our people resort to violence," he said.

He demanded the Federal Government, which awarded the multi-billion naira contract, to produce the Environmental Impact Assessment of the project to the people of the community, adding that the community was not consulted by the company before deploying a barge to block waterway.

When The Guardian contacted Mr. Placidi on phone, he said: "Sorry! the police is investigating the matter and I have been directed by the commander in Bori not to issue a statement."

On her part, when The Guardian called the Rivers State Police Public Relations Officer, Mrs. Rita Inoma-Abbey, someone else picked the call, saying I should call back. But the line was later switched off.

The Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) described the failure of the company to heed the call of the community to remove the equipment as the height of insensitivity to the plight of the people.


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