At least 18 people, the majority of which were children, have drowned after an overloaded rowing boat sank in a river near the commercial capital of Benin, Cotonou, said officials.
The incident occurred late on Saturday night when the small passenger boat was transporting passengers to an agricultural foods market in the town of Togba. The boat was travelling along the Heelou River between the villages of Vedo and Wome, just to the north of Benin’s commercial capital, Cotonou.
According to the mayor of the Abomey Calavi district, Patrice Hounsou Guede, the small boat was certified to carry only eight passengers. At the time of the accident, however, the boat was carrying an estimated 27 passengers, as well as their luggage and several motorcycles. It is clear that this gross overloading played a role in causing the ship to sink, said Guede.
All non-motorised traffic on the Heelou River has been suspended by the Interior Minister of Benin, Benoit Assouan Degla, while an investigation is underway on the cause of the accident. Degla visited the site of the accident on Sunday, where he paid condolences to the family members of those who were killed.
According to the state prosecutor, Appollinaire Dassi, the captain of the boat appears to have fled the area. Police officials are currently conducting a search as to his whereabouts, and he is expected to be arrested for violating boating regulations. ‘Most of the victims were women, children, infants and students who were coming back from school’, Dassi said.
Boat accidents such as this are common in large parts of Africa, particularly in the West. Poor infrastructure, bad roads and lack of other forms of public transport make ferries and boats a popular way of transporting both goods and passengers. Due to a shortage of viable alternatives, passengers that are desperate for transport often cram onto small boats, leading to accidents caused by overloading.
Adding to the risk, safety and overloading regulations are often poorly enforced and vessel captains attempt to fit as many passengers as possible on their boats in order to increase their income, with no real threat of legal consequences. Sadly, the result is often tragedies such as this.
This accident comes two months after an overloaded ferry sank while transporting school children on the flooded Okpara River in northern Benin in October. In that accident, at least 20 children were killed.