MV Bukoba Tragedy: A Reflection on Unchecked Power and the Need for Constitutional Reforms

MV Bukoba
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Research and Education for Democracy in Tanzania (REDET) Chairman, Prof Rwekaza Mukandala, said that the fate of MV Bukoba could be traced to the unmitigated presidential powers that quashed technical advice of the professionals who advised against the purchase of the ship upon serious concerns over stability deficiencies and lack of competition to ensure optimal price and quality safeguards were looped into the equation. This article dives deep into the history of the MV Bukoba and will investigate whether constitutional reforms would have diminished that tragedy and propose future remedial measures.

MV Bukoba was a Lake Victoria ship that carried passengers and cargo along Tanzania’s Lake Victoria between the Tanzanian ports of Bukoba and Mwanza City. MV Bukoba was built in about 1979 and had a capacity for 850 tons of cargo and 430 passengers. On 21 May 1996, MV Bukoba sank 30 nautical miles (56 km) off Mwanza City in 25 metres (14 fathoms) of water, killing up to 1,000 people. The official death toll is 894.

The manifest for her final voyage showed 443 passengers in her first and second-class cabins, but her cheaper third-class accommodation had no manifest. Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, who was then second in command of al Qaeda, died in the disaster.

Causes of the Accident Still Up for Grabs

Overloading has often been cited as the main reason behind the accident, but even there, there is no unanimity. Divergent views include whether the ship had sufficient stability to endure the challenges of waterfaring. Others question the wind speed on the day of the accident, while others are more concerned with the inadequacies of safety regulations after the accident.

Read Related: An Inquest of What Went Wrong in The Last Constitutional Reforms

Captain Joseph Muguthi, formerly of the Kenya Navy, wrote in the pages of the Daily Nation as a marine navigation consultant. He labelled it an accident waiting to happen, as Lake Victoria ferries disregarded safety regulations. Specifically: lack of life jackets, life belts, and lifeboats; lack fire fighting equipment; lack of distress signals; what equipment there is, is not regularly checked; the vessels are not regularly dry docked for routine maintenance and repairs; the vessels are not regularly inspected; the coxswains are not licensed to navigate.

More overarchingly, Muguthi blamed the incident on governments’ marine departments being staffed by civil servants and politicians who do not understand ships and marine decisions. After the accident, government bureaucrats’ response revealed that the wrong people ran our economy.

That fact is seldom acknowledged: our regional bureaucrats’ incompetence and lack of know-how. What is kept under the carpet: the accident did not kill most of the victims, but poor decisions did!

During several regional meetings in Mwanza after the ship had capsized, one of the private ferry operators advised the regional security meeting that, to save many people who were knocking and crying inside the ship, to trawl the sunken ship until it got stuck in the mud and rocks then opening up the keel could begin. His advice was thrown out, and orders were issued to drill the keel where the ship had capsized!

Our clueless regional administrators failed to grasp that the ship was floating because of entrapped air. Therefore, tampering with the keel would release volumes of trapped air, and the ship would sink, killing all of the survivors. And, regrettably, that was what happened.

The majority of the victims were killed by bureaucrats who refused to respect expert opinion that would ensure the release of entrapped air would not endanger the lives of the survivors of the accident. Once the ship was stuck in the mud, rocks could not sink, and drilling the keel would not make the ship sink, saving tens of hundreds of innocent souls.

Constitutional Reforms Had No Chance to Prevent or Reverse Whatever Happened

Since independence, Tanzanian constitutional reforms have been initiated and conducted to protect the status quo ante, and hoping for the otherwise was a chimaera. It is important to know that the first president, Julius Kamabarage Nyerere, defied the technical advice of the local experts and ordered the ship to be built.

Nyerere appointed his cronies, notwithstanding their lack of expertise, to oversee the ship’s construction, inspection and approval. After the accident, one of the committee members lamented that the committee knew nothing about shipbuilding but was entrusted with such a mammoth task. He concluded they had done their best based on the circumstances.

Annual inspections by relevant authorities permitted the ship to keep on sailing. It had most of the certificates of safety approval issued by our authorities. Part of the problem was the lack of accountability, which allowed blunders to be accepted as a way of living. Nobody in the Mwanza regional security committee was ever charged or dismissed for reckless disregard of human life.

We have a culture of incompetence in Tanzania and reward it for survival. Weak national leaders tend to surround themselves with like-minded people for their survival. They dislike strong characters who may one day pose a leadership challenge.

Looking back, it is becoming increasingly clear that there were endemic institutional failures beyond the constitution. Indeed, presidential powers demand a lot of clipping, but as we have learnt from the last constitutional debacle, a nose never changes shape. Somebody else has to do it.

Our rulers pick like-minded citizens to be members of the constitutional reforms commission. They choose major beneficiaries of the institutional rot to fix it, and as a result, they veer away from the very opinions of the contributors to the constitutional effort.

The Warioba-led constitutional commission conceded that the majority of Tanzanians wanted presidential powers trimmed, but their advice strengthened the president’s hand even more. They diluted structures of accountability and transparency, making the president even more imperial.

They did nothing to reform the principles of electing our leaders, which are at the root of the matter. The Warioba Commission refused to allow all presidential appointments to be ratified by the Parliament save for the status quo ante and the docket of a chief justice and chief secretary.

The Warioba Commission snubbed cabinet members who were not parliamentarians! Regarding reforms in the regional administration, the commission argued that they were not a union matter! The commission made it almost impossible to challenge the presidential result except for the candidates themselves but not the electorate. The constitutional effort betrayed everything we stood for as a nation.

The Future Ahead

While constitutional reforms matter, we should immediately cease depending on our tormentors to disqualify themselves from retaining power. The selection of the constitutional reform commission demands a reset so that we may have an inclusiveness that captures our national identity.

Bringing in the same tired hands explains why we shall never have a constitutional order that embraces our diversity but will always fit the designated template of the rulers of the day.

Regional administrations must now face direct elections. Presidential appointments, which are behind the massive corruption we are experiencing today, should also end. MPs masquerading as cabinet ministers should also end. Institutional checks and balances demand that MPs not be cabinet ministers.

Only technocrats should form the ministerial cabinet. Civil servants and judicial officers should not be part of our elections. Let ordinary citizens manage our elections.

Unless comprehensive reforms are carried out, I have every reason to expect more of the MV Bukoba accidents to rear their ugly heads once more, and nobody will be brooked for incompetence because we have a system of governance that rewards it.

In memory of the MV Bukoba victims, let us do the right thing for ourselves, for once!

The author is a Development Administration specialist in Tanzania with over 30 years of practical experience, and has been penning down a number of articles in local printing and digital newspapers for some time now.

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