Dr Wilson Arikpo

Wilson Arikpo is a safety ambassador and marine engineer of more than 20 years standing. He is the Managing Director of Sea Gate Global Services Ltd, which facilitates maritime safety issues, personal safety and social responsibility in the maritime institutions around.  He is a Fellow of the Guild of Marine Surveyors and Member of the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology. He is also an accredited management trainer. In this interview with Safety Record’s Paul Mbagwu, he makes a case for safety on Nigeria’s waterways. Excerpt…


When we talk about safety in our waterways, what is the first thing to consider?

When we are talking about safety on our waterways, and given the rate of incidents, resulting in accidents and loss of lives, it is important we look into the issue of safety and water. Most people are always scared of water, naturally. A popular musician once sang, “Water doesn’t have an enemy” but that is because water has no bone, no stem to hold on, and no strong things, whatsoever.

One has to understand the dynamics of water to be around water. It is inevitable that we must all be around water – we drink water somehow, we take our bath with water, we swim in water and of course, our daily journeys may take us across water bodies, be it a stream, a brook, a river, even the sea or great oceans of the world. A bit of knowledge of how to handle water and how water works will always give you confidence.

I have had the privilege of training people in Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA), Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA) and in other places on how to survive at sea and how to be on the water and I discovered that people, even the high and mighty, are scared of water. They don’t have an affinity with water. That is why it is always important. So, when you are now on board a boat and you are really scared of water and because you don’t have water around you or you have never been used to surviving on water or how to even float, the phobia is increased.

Well, there are many kinds of incidents at sea that can result in mishaps. Most times, people die before they die. You know what I mean right? (Laughs) Some people just enter a boat and they are already scared even when they’re going on a normal journey. So, I keep saying that everybody should be knowledgeable about the issues of water. Water doesn’t kill anybody on its own; worrying probably does. People fall into the water and they survive, with or without a life jacket, because they can swim and they can hold their breath and be relaxed. When you are not relaxed and you fall into a body of water at any point in time, you can rest assured that you will panic and once you panic, the problem starts. People drown only through their mouth. I say that to my students all the time. One can’t have enough volume of water go through their nose to drown them. It is just a small quantity that will enter your nose; not even through your ears. It is basically through the mouth and that is because if I even ask you to hold your breath now and I put my hands to clip your nostrils, your next action will be to open your mouth to breathe to survive. So, when somebody is under water, the first they do to survive is to open their mouth naturally to see if they could take in more air, but under water, what you take in is water. You just gulp it in.

So, people must be taught how to survive on water: how to hold your breath, how not to panic and the rest of the stuff. That can only be got by training.

Obviously, people are scared, not because they don’t want to use the waterways, but probably because of the consistent accidents recorded. They realise that Nigerian waterways are not safe. What is your reaction to that?

Nigerian waterways are not safe. That is a categorical statement. It is a phobia, it is a false allegation. Unfortunately, the incidents that have happened some years back make it difficult to deny that fact. I remember a case – I think April 2017 – in Kebbi. A boat carrying 150 persons capsized and they were able to recover, as at the time of going to press, about only 14 persons. Of the 14 persons, 7 died and 7 were taken to the hospital. I don’t know if any died thereafter, I’m not too sure. But as at the time that thing was reported, and a follow-up was done, it meant that 136 persons were missing in a boat that carried 150 persons. And what was it? It struck a tree trunk in the waterway. How do you understand that? That means there’s something obstructing it – a tree trunk. That is not a nice thing to say.

As a result, you cannot now say our waterways are safe when looking at this kind of incidents. I remember the Majidun incident some years ago in Lagos. You talk of a boat hitting a water object and water began to sink in and people were jumping and asking for help. Local fishermen came to save people’s lives. Three persons or so died. There was one case of a man who died. He was wearing a life jacket and at the end, he clung unto, maybe the mast or something, a patch of the boat, as the boat went down. I remember that incident clearly. It took so many days before the body was recovered between Ebute-Ero and Ikorodu Jetty.

And then there is the case of 2014 or 2015 at FESTAC. We try to follow up on those things and give recommendations as much as we can. What are the causes of these things? Yes, the waterways may not be too good to go because most of the waterways are not charted, and even if they are charted, the local boat riders do not understand what the charting of the waterways may be. These are technical terms for maritime people to understand. This is because the local boats do not have radars on them; they do not have eco-sounders on them. Eco-sounders are equipment that helps you monitor the depth of the sea where you are. But most of these things are flat-bottom boats, so you may not really need much of these, but you need to know the depth as you move on the waterways.  As you move on the road, you know that there is a pothole there, or there’s a hill here, you go gently. On the waterways, if you go to a point where you think is deep enough and yet you go to a shallow place, you are going to run aground. If there is any object there you know, you could just hit the object and perforate a hole in the boat (if it is a wooden boat). Even if it is a metal boat, if the object is sharp enough and the boat is on speed, then straightaway (there can be a hole). Most of the boats are what you call ‘single hull’ boats because they are not ocean-going vessels. I don’t see us building ‘double hull’ boats locally, but it will be nice to build that. ‘Double hull’ boats have double skin whereby if something perforates the outer skin which is the hull, it will not allow water to go through the boat. It will retain it on one side or maybe it will tear. But once it is ‘single hull’ boats like we do here, any perforation of the hull allows water ingress and that could drop the boat in quick time. So, we need our waterways charted. We need waterways dredged. We need them properly maintained, free of obstacles, free of floating logs of wood. In one of the cases (earlier stated), I think there was a semi-submerged wood or something and the boat driver didn’t see it and went over it.

But well, that is about the safety of the waterways. How about the safe behavior of the boat drivers? We call them boat drivers locally, and for the bigger vessels, they are Captains, Masters, Skippers. How much education do they have? When we talk of safety, it is all-encompassing. Normally, in safety, we have a higher percentage of accidents being as a result of human error than equipment failure. Then environmental issues come to play. People ride on the wave of luck almost every time. They will tell you “God dey; Nothing will happen”.

If you want to analyse the causes of accidents generally, two things, maybe three, will normally cause accidents. The first one is unsafe acts which have to do with humans, persons and the actions we take or fail to take. The reactions we give to issues or how we fail to react to issues. These are the acts, our own actions. Now, when unsafe acts meet with unsafe conditions – which are the state of the equipment, the state of the environment – it is inevitable you are likely to have an accident.

The third leg is what people call the acts of God, natural disaster and things like that. If a boat is going at sea and there is a tsunami, no matter how careful the boat driver and the occupants are, it is likely that the boat will capsize. That is what it looks like.

To say it is safe indeed, you will be talking about the safety of the waterways, the safety of the boat drivers, and the safety of the vessel itself. How safe are all those components? How old are the boats? Who certifies the boats? Who says, “This boat is fit?” Like, on the road, you have your ‘M.O.T’; do we have ‘B.O.T’? (Laughs) Do we have water worthiness certification for boats? And I am not saying politically bringing about water worthiness certificate. Like, unfortunately, people hardly take their cars for road worthiness checks. You just pay the money and they give you a road worthiness certification. Because I don’t understand at times why the cars I see on the road have got MOT and are very rickety; that shouldn’t happen with water. ‘Water Worthiness’ certification should be given to boats that are properly inspected by experts with an integrity test on the hull. How long, when last did they dry-dock the boat or take it up the slipway? When last did they take (even if it’s a wooden boat) for check up to see how you can knock up some holes and put them back in the good state, so it doesn’t get rickety? Is there a department in the Ministry of Transportation that supervises that without prejudice? I’m not talking of bringing accountants to come and do that job. No. I’m not talking about bringing History or Literature people. No! These are jobs meant for experts – qualified marine engineers, marine surveyors; those who have been on the water, who understand what it takes to have the integrity of a vessel in place and the equipment that should be on board.

A non-mariner may probably not understand anything about the integrity of a life jacket. What are we looking out for in a life jacket? To say: ‘Oh! If the jacket is like this, it is overdue’. What is the texture? What are the materials you will see in a life jacket to say it is approved for usage? Many people just buy locally-made life jackets that cannot stand the integrity test; that will not probably carry the weight of particular persons. And then who passed them to be sold? Every passenger, by legislation, must put on a life jacket. To ensure it is enforced, the safety officer on board must ensure that you don’t get on board my vehicle until you put on your life jacket, no matter who you are. No special treatment, that even if the Governor should come on board the vessel, with all politeness, “It’s part of safety rules. Sorry, sir, you need to put on your life jacket”. “You need to strap it on in place properly”. Nothing like trying to do what we call ‘guy’ in local parlance: You feel good, saying, “Don’t worry, I won’t buckle up my life jacket.” You wear it like a fine dress. That’s already an accident, a death waiting to happen, should there be an incident. Well, that’s all about life jacket. Every person on board must wear a life jacket. If something happens (something may never happen), but safety is all about contingency plans—should it happen, what do I do?

Why do we have so many underreported safety issues on the waterways? We have an instance of a recent incident that occurred at the jetty of an Oil and Gas company that wasn’t reported in the media and nothing was done about it. Why do we have that?

Number one, I don’t like mentioning ‘government’ every time, but the government has a part to play because the government is yet to sensitise the populace enough on the need to have a reporting system without witch-hunting. Where is the website? What is the phone number that all citizens should have that if you see anything go wrong, you report it? Even on our roads, if someone hits your car and begins to beg you, prostrating, I told somebody that the case needs to be reported, not because the offender should go to jail or even be fined, but because the accident reporting index should be correct, that on this road, on this day, this accident happened. No matter how slight it is or could be, or how serious it may be, you know, there might not be a fatality to it, but it must be reported.

There are things we call near misses: Every safety-compliant organisation knows that you keep your accident reporting book and these are kept intact. Oh! This was a near miss. And you know how many near misses can lead to an accident. You begin to calculate. So many near misses will make you know that something is lacking somewhere. Let’s do advocacy. Let’s do some training and retraining, so this will be taken care of.

But we wait till accidents happen suddenly and then it becomes impossible to prevent; it has already happened, but it could have been prevented earlier on. That is because a standard reporting system is not in place. And most people will say it is not my business; what do I do?

Now, most companies, like you say – big companies also – oil companies, maritime companies, and other companies ashore do not as their incidents or accidents reported. They want to keep a clean sheet. ‘Zero Accident Tolerance level,’ they preach. I know a company that fired one of their directors some years past because his wife drove the official vehicle, and unfortunately, even though she’s been driving in it for long, she had an accident with an articulated vehicle. For the sake of decorum, I won’t mention the name. While she was there arguing with the person, maybe if the driver was there, or the man himself, he would have known what to do. With the ‘I no go gree’ kind of mentality, “You hit me here, you hit me there”, and everyone was going to and fro, a photojournalist just passed and took a picture of it. The next morning it was in the dailies. You know that kind of picture story that has no story to it, just a picture and written line under “so, so and so vehicle in so, so and so place happened” and this was a branded vehicle and you didn’t need to be told who owns the vehicle. From the headquarters abroad, they were so embarrassed.  They queried the Nigerian company, and the thing was of course “FIRE THAT MAN”, the director. (This is probably) because they were making their books ready to brag at the end of the year, in their accounts all over the world that they recorded no accidents, no ugly kind of thing like that. But that one was in public view and nobody can deny that the accident did happen, so it tainted their records and they were so angry. It took plenty of pleading for the man to be retired or asked to resign instead of being fired, haven put in so many years into the job. So imagine how serious it is with most companies when those things go wrong in their facilities? So, that is why some deliberately cover it up.

Now, some workers are also intimidated not to report such incidents. I’ve been to my friend’s hospital where a particular company in Ikotun area that is into steel production kept having their workers come in with different kinds of accidents—cuts here and there. I raised the alarm and the commission in Lagos state said they’re aware of those things and would picket the company, but in no time the people were free again. Some people have been sent out of jobs and they’re just casual workers, with amputated legs, chopped off fingers and stuff. What is a safety awareness level? So, some staffs are scared of reporting it. They don’t even report the thing because I was in the hospital and I was there when the thing happened. When I asked my doctor friend, he said, “Ah! These people come here with different kinds of cases”. But even those ones are not reported to the safety commission.

There has to be advocacy, a thing that will make it paramount, that citizens will be excited trying to report such cases. If a worker is there, he should be able to know that if he uses his phone to record this thing and send a message to this number, he will be safe. And, what is the response time? If I say, for instance, to you that I am aware of the boat belonging to an oil company that caught fire along the Apapa Jetty area. It was never reported anywhere. It caught fire midstream there yet nobody died. Yes, the boatman jumped down right? Yet, these kinds of things are there and it is a major company that if you mention the name here people will say, but they may deny it. I don’t know if it is recorded in their books. Nobody reported it to the commission or to anybody because there is no place probably to send in for data collation.

That is one of the things affecting us. We have so many of such incidents, but it has to be government—the government needs to be proactive to create the atmosphere conducive. I don’t want to say create incentives also, but people need to get to know why incidents should be reported: It is to forestall the recurrence of such incidents; it is to make sure investigations are carried out to find out the root cause of why that thing happened and it could prevent future occurrences.

Does this imply that we have less safety advocacy and consideration in the waterways since there is less traffic there? And is that why the waterways are under-utilised?

I don’t know what started it but definitely, road movement is more than we do have in the waterways. It has not been brought to the fore. That is one of the biggest problems we have. The inter-modern transportation system in Nigeria is poor. In other climes, it is so interwoven that you don’t need to go with your car every day. If you live in the ‘FESTAC’ area and work in Marina, for instance, you need to just get up to ‘Mile 2’, take the boat across to Marina, come out there and work into your office. The water transportation system has not been developed for full maximisation.

It is one of the safest means of transportation and water, of course, is the largest conveyor of goods all over the world; maritime transportation and the same thing will happen here. I mean, you don’t need to drive your car to Port-Harcourt, if they took our proposals before now. This is because there are boats that convey cars on waterways. All you need to do is to drive in your car to the jetty into the boat. They move on safe waterways all the way from Port-Harcourt to Calabar or Warri and then you drive out and then continue your business with your car. But you know you wouldn’t try that on that waterfront yet. Militancy is still not abated. If we develop the water transportation system effectively, I can tell you, it will bring much more premium to the people and people will be more conscious of it and not be afraid.

Most people are also afraid of water itself! Like I said earlier on, they’ve not been trained on how to survive in water. How many people who enter the boats get inductions? If you go to the facilities of any of the large oil companies, you can’t go on board their facilities without viewing at least a video clip of safety training. For example, if you want to go to NLNG platform, Shell, Mobil, those kinds of places, before they allow you to crossover, even to enter the chopper, you enter a room and you are shown video clips of safety regulations and compliance you must adhere to onboard, what you should do and immediately you wear your life jacket and you go. So you have fewer incidents from those quarters. You hardly hear that the boat of an oil company capsized and people drowned and died. Again, it will not be overloaded. Overloaded boats also cause that sometimes. Like, you have a boat that should carry 20 persons carrying 30 persons, and some are even hanging on. It is our Nigerian system. Even the railway lines, you see some people hanging or sitting on top of the coaches when the train is moving. You begin to ask yourself so many questions. So, even the N.O.A (National Orientation Agency) has got plenty of work to do, to liaise with NIWA in this case, or LASWA (in the case of Lagos State) to make sure that the people are sensitised effectively on what to do.

You don’t have to be even ready to go to sea before getting training on how to survive at sea. If you get to see on TV every time, you have to get pamphlets and write ups on, how to survive at sea, people will become more conscious of their rights at sea before you board the vessels. But, go to the Marina, go to the place where you board vessels, people will just come like they are going to the market. They collect money from you, if they give you jacket at all that means that’s the best safety they give to you and then you enter the boats. Nobody gives you induction lessons. Nobody tells you, “Please when we get here sit here” or “Do this”. Nobody tells you anything to do. If you board a plane, cabin crew must come and stand and give you a bit of lecture on what to expect should there be any unforeseen incident. They may never happen, but when you are conscious of what to do – they tell you don’t panic in the face of this and that happening, follow these rules; follow this man. They give you pep talk ahead of time, but on the waterways nobody gives you a pep talk, just enter and at times, like the ‘molue’ of those days, it gets overloaded especially during closing hours, people want to go home, people are climbing it in a hurry, they rush, market women, market men, professionals; it’s just the attitude of the people and that comes down to it. So, you need to train the people who are going to board the boats, you need to train, above all, the boat drivers who must know what to do. You need to check them with a breathalyzer all the time. These officers should be round the jetty area doing their work.

Is there a measure in place to train and regulate boat drivers in Nigeria?

That has been said over and over again. As I speak now, I wouldn’t know if LASWA under this current regime has. In the time of Yinka Marinho, the former MD of LASWA, those things were also put forward to them and promises were made. This is because you need to have a training point before you become a boat rider in Lagos State, albeit other states also if you know there is an academy to attend. But normally, there are places where we have lectured where you have the Maritime Academy and they train people naturally to a certification level. You can become effective in turbulence and incidence (as a boat driver), but the passengers can aggravate the issues. Because of lack of training also, the driver panics and when in a small boat you panic, you tend to see the boat tilting to either side and when there’s pressure on one side when the passengers scream or shout, that could topple the boat over and that could cause a capsizing. But if you are perfectly balanced out in a sitting arrangement then the boat will hardly capsize, it will just drift. Even when the engine fails, it will go adrift until it comes to a standstill. The boat is meant to float, unless it hits on a water object that pierces the hull then, it begins to sink and that’s a different case. Otherwise, if the boat doesn’t hit an underwater object and it doesn’t go down under pressure, it will just be floating until help comes. So the passengers need to understand that they do not need to panic under any situation.

Again, the boat should have communication equipment as I said earlier on and the minimum is the VHF (Very High Frequency) radio. Most maritime agencies are on to Channel 16. Under the emergency, you just pick up the radio, and call, “Mayday! Mayday! Charlie!” You just call across and help will come. And around our waterways, fishermen are there, people are always standing by to help at all times.

On a final note, if we must get our waterways to work vis-à-vis the safety aspect; how do we get it right?

You cannot do without advocacy. Advocacy is very important. Also, a good life jacket is important and If I drop you inside the water before you count 3-4-5-6, you will float. So, just stay calm. If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds which any human being can do, even 30 seconds. So, if you jump inside water, just don’t open your mouth, be calm, you will float in no time and your head will be floating. I think in the case of the Ebute-Ero incident when the woman they rescued was giving her story, she said that thank God for the fishermen who came to their rescue; that only their heads were showing (in her language), and that meant the life jackets were working.

You cannot walk on water, but the life jacket keeps you afloat, head above water because your head is the most important thing. If your mouth is underwater, you may drown, but if your head is above water, if you like to stay there for ten years, the body may only peel under the condition of whatever. Otherwise, you will never drown once the jacket is there holding you intact. Once people know that, they will be much more relaxed.

Then the government should ensure that apart from the advocacy thing, there should also be enforcement of the rules. Who inspects the boat? Who charts the water, where boats should not go through when moving from point A to B, and the paths to pass? Is the right equipment onboard the boat?

Let’s get serious with the maritime business. It’s a big business; it’s not for every Tom, Dick, and Harry. It is a business that is very good to go into. Build confidence in the citizenry in the usage of the waterways once the boats are good.

People should know what to do. The government should know what to do. The boat drivers should know what to do. The authorities should do their own part. The boat builders should be taken into consideration and the kind of boat you need to use in those places.

What quality of class do you want to give the people? All safety measures under ILO conditions are there for everybody to see. NIMASA is also there as a regulatory body; they should look into these things, liaise with the local water body. This is because when it happens, water is water, whether it is federal channels or state channels or local channels, it makes no difference. If people across board know what to do with themselves when it comes to safety at sea, there will definitely be fewer accidents, materials will not fail, and the vessels will not fail. That means unsafe conditions will be taken away, knowing it will be safe conditions. Then, the human element will not fail, if they know that you will also die. Don’t take alcohol when on duty. Don’t over speed. Don’t do boat racing with humans on it. Just follow the normal regulations.

When the weather is not clement you should know what to do. It is the weather that is the issue also sometimes. An incident we had at Niger Dock one time around that area was simply because the captain said that he didn’t see the other boat coming because it was in foggy condition weather. So, those kinds of boats, do they have lights on them so that when the weather is foggy you can put on a particular kind of light. Normal, the navigational lights – the green and the red lights indicate the starboard and port side of the vessel coming facing you when you know it that way, while the bright lights serve for you to see properly. So, when the weather is foggy, like in our cars we have fog lights, a light should exist to make the next boat driver coming in the notice you faster instead of running into you or across you anyhow. So those are regulatory issues that will build confidence in the minds of people who want to.

I am not in Government and so I won’t be talking too much on what Government has done so far, but there seems to be a marginal improvement from the last years’ incidents, so that is why I know that things are being done towards it, to have cleaner waterways and safer waterways. I want to believe that if all these other things are put in place – safety regulations, implementation, even enforcement if need be, our waterways will be safe enough indeed.

How about the security of our waterways? It is also key. How secure are the waterways? How many times do we see the marine police on the waterways to give us this safety consciousness and awareness on the issue? They are there, but they are waiting for external aggression.

People should learn to love water. It is the safest way if you ask me, or it ought to be the safest way of transporting humans. This is because if you fall into the water, you won’t be wounded. Water has no bone. It is not like the road, even if the boat capsizes, you won’t be wounded. If you know how to stay alive, hold your breath, with a life jacket you will stay afloat. Even airplanes are advised or preferred to land on water in the case of a crash, instead of all land, because you hardly blow up to pieces on water. So, they have life jackets inside the planes ahead of these kinds of things. Under every seat on the plane, there’s a life jacket, so that in case the plane lands safely on water, the wings are open, just to take your life jacket when you out there, pull it to inflate and jump on water until help comes. So water ought to be the safest points. If we develop the water transportation system effectively, you will have droves of humans patronising that side, our roads will be less congested and the premium of the waterways will definitely go higher. And I know as a marine engineer that people will enjoy the ride. They will take more boat rides.

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