The Marine Insurance Act of 2002 only deals with issues of insurance policy coverage . So unlike the Traffic and Road Safety Act of 1998 , there is no updated specific law to deal with a modern water transport system with all its attendant challenges
By Moses Sserwanga
The tragic boat accident that left at least 32 Ugandans dead on lake Victoria was a case of total negligence and recklessness by the parties responsible for the safety of people travelling on our national water bodies .
The proprietors of the boat and its crew exhibited no duty of care for their clientele when they deployed a dilapidated vessel for a social cruise .
This national tragedy also showcased the growing tendency by many public servants not to commit to the execution of their respective mandates for fear of political ramifications and this is most manifested among security agencies especially police officers at various ranks .
Take for example the case of the marine police officers who even after being in possession of incriminating evidence that the ill-fated boat was not only in poor mechanical condition but was also not registered nor licensed ,still allowed it to carry revellers on the fateful day .
The police’s failure to stop the cruise could perhaps explain the state of their mind at the time- given that many of the revellers were people of influence who were hell bent at getting on with the cruise.
As fate would have it ,the vessel capsized just under one hour of take off.
This accident further illustrates the sheer lack of disaster preparedness in this country even when we have a fully- fledged ministry in charge of the disaster docket.
Otherwise ,how do you explain the slow response by the rescue teams when the victims sent out numerous distress calls while still on the boat which was within just 10-15 minutes ride off the docking point.
Some survivors have since been quoted in the mainstream media that when they contacted police it was the usual embarrassing story of no fuel! It were the abavubi (ordinary fishermen) on their rudimentary-rickety boats who responded and actually rescued the so much talked about 26 survivors.
As such- there was no visible government machinery at a critical time of need to conduct a grand rescue mission the kind we saw when a team of young boys was trapped in a cave for several days somewhere in Malaysia .
And this national misery could not be complete until when State Ministry in charge of the transport docket stated of course when not prepared, that GOVERNMENT was looking for the ill-fated "boat" because it was not licensed nor registered . What a tragedy !
As if that is not bad enough , a closer look at the legal framework that governs the water transport sub –sector shows something of a bizarre nature.
On our statute books we have the 20th century Maritime transport law- such an outdated piece of legislation.
The Marine Insurance Act of 2002 only deals with issues of insurance policy coverage . So unlike the Traffic and Road Safety Act of 1998 , there is no updated specific law to deal with a modern water transport system with all its attendant challenges .
This means that apart from criminal negligence under the Penal Code, the perpetrators of felonies on our water bodies cannot be brought to book for violation of a specific code of conduct.
In otherwise, there are no updated specific duties and obligations , defined offences and penalties for the water transport sector .
The National Transport Master Plan 2008-2023 barely covers anything significant about the water transport apart from lamentations of poor enforcement of operator safety procedures, since services are often characterised by gross over-loading, use of defective vessels, and absence of basic safety equipment such as lifebelts and jackets.
In the Plan ,it is also indicated that navigation routes are archaic and need to be re-surveyed; navigation aids are often damaged or missing and there is severe capacity constraints in both the Transport Licensing Board and the Marine Police resulting in poor enforcement of water transport standards.
There is therefore, an urgent need to update or enact a new water transport law and operationalize the proposed new Multi-Sector Transport Authority (MTRA).
The authority must be equipped with sufficient resources and staff to carry out vessel inspections regularly, with powers to prosecute and suspend licences where owners persistently flout the legal safety requirements.
Lastly , let us as Ugandans , allow public officials to serve our country and enforce the rule of law without fear of any political ramifications. Enough said.
The Writer is Media and Communications Consultant/ Trainer and Advocate of the High Court of Uganda