10 worst African maritime disasters ... and strange tales of al-Qaeda and mermaids

South Korea's desperate Sewol ferry disaster rings a bell back in Africa

On April 16, the Sewol ferry sank off South Korea’s southern coast. On it were 476 people, most of them students from a single high school near Seoul. The disaster left more than 260 people dead, with about 40 others still missing.

On April 27, South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye apologised to
the nation and the country’s prime minister Chung Hon-wong resigned over the accident.

Most people familiar with maritime disasters in Africa must have been somewhat bemused by the international coverage the Sewol disaster received, and Park’s sense of shame. Given that Africa’s maritime disasters happen on a grander scale, it tells you a lot about how tough the neighbourhood is, that no political leader has ever gone the Park way.

Here are Africa worst 10 maritime disasters:

1. Le Joola
Often dubbed “Africa’s Titanic”, the Le Joola was a Senegalese ferry that capsized in the Atlantic off the coast of Gambia on September 26 2002. The accident actually cost more lives – 1 863 – than the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 – 1 517.

The ferry had only resumed service two weeks before the disaster, having been out of service for almost a year undergoing repairs. It encountered a heavy rainstorm while heading to Dakar from Zinguinchor on the Casamance coast of Senegal. The force of the resulting waves overturned her in under four minutes.

2. Spice Islander I
The Zanzibar-registered Spice Islander I sank between Unguja and Pemba Islands on September 9 2011. Officially, she was carrying 45 crew members and over 800 passengers, nearly 150 in excess of her 654-passenger capacity. However, it emerged later that the ship was carrying was actually carrying 2 470 people when it sank.

In January 2012, the death toll was officially put at 1 573, with 620 people rescued and 240 bodies recovered.

3. MS al-Salam Boccaccio 98
On February 3 2006, the Egyptian ferry MS al-Salam Boccaccio 98 went down in the Red Sea en route from Duba, Saudi Arabia, to Safaga in southern Egypt, leaving 1 018 dead – according to the official account. The Italian-built ferry was carrying an estimated 1 312 passengers and a crew of 96. There was some discrepancy in the number of crew members, with two different reports from the government placing the number at 98 and 104.

The most probable cause of the disaster was a fire that started in the storage area of the engine room. One of the crew members was reported as saying that the efforts to put out the fire caused the ship to capsize “… when sea water they used to battle the fire collected in the hull because the drainage pumps were not working.”

In 2008, the captain, only identified as Ahmed, was sentenced to six months in jail and the ferry’s owner was cleared of any wrongdoing

4. MV Bukoba
On May 21 1996, the Tanzanian government-owned ferry MV Bukoba on its way from Bukoba to Mwanza, capsized 56km off the coast of Mwanza on Lake Victoria. The disaster cost up to 1 000 lives.

An interesting casualty in the 1996 disaster was that of Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri, real name Ali Amin al-Rashidi (1950-1997), then the al-Qaeda second-in command after Osama bin Laden. Al-Rashidi had been the head of al-Qaeda in Africa. The terror group reportedly sent two point men, Wadih el-Hage and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, to verify that the leader had not been murdered.

The uninsured ship had been declared unseaworthy a week prior to its sinking. In the aftermath, nine officials of the Tanzania Railway Corporation were charged with gross negligence. The TRC owned the ferry.

There were reports that the rescue divers said they were told by a beautiful mermaid to stop searching the wreck for more dead bodies

5. MV Mtongwe I Ferry
Kenya’s first maritime disaster was the sinking of MV Mtongwe I ferrying passengers from Mombasa island across Kilindini Harbour to Likoni on the mainland on April 29 1994, killing 270 people of the 400 on board. Her reported capacity was 300.

6. The Lake Albert disaster
One of the worst disasters on Lake Albert happened on March 22 this year. A boat carrying 300 people, but with a capacity of only 80, capsized in the lake. They were heading back to the DRC from the Kyangwali refugee settlement in Uganda where they had fled due to the M23 rebellion at home. The official death toll was 251.

Only 45 people were rescued. A total of 120 bodies were recovered in the next two days after the accident. However, only 88 were accepted for burial by Congolese authorities due to cultural norms about burying people three days after death. The rest were buried at the Bundibugyo hospital cemetery.

7. The Lampedusa tragedy
While a number of boats have sunk ferrying illegal immigrants across the Mediterranean to Europe, the Lampedusa tragedy of October 3 2013 stands out.

There were actually two Lampedusa tragedies in quick succession, one on October 3 and the next on October 11. The overloaded boat had begun its journey from Misrata, Libya and sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa. The confirmed death toll was more than 360 out of the 5 people reportedly aborad, although the exact number will never be known because there was no manifest.

At least three people were arrested after the attack, one being 35-year-old Khaled Bensalam who was suspected to have been the captain of the ill-fated boat.

8. The 2011 Lampedusa disaster
The two September 2013 disasters off the coast of Malta are not the only disasters to happen near Lampedusa. In 2011, a boat making the same journey capsized. Only 51 people were rescued.

9. The 2009 triple disasters
The total number migrants who died crossing from Libya to Europe was estimated at over 10 000 by 2007. The actual figure is most likely higher, especially because some maritime disasters go unreported. In March 2009, for example, a rundown fishing boat carrying 200 passengers more than its 50-passenger capacity capsized 48km off the Libyan coast. Only 21 people were rescued, while 23 bodies were retrieved from the boat and 77 washed ashore on the beaches of west Tripoli.

The sunken boat was one of about six that had left Libya at the same time. One was rescued by a merchant ship while two made it to Italy. Two, however, have never been found. They left Libya but there is no evidence that they ever made it to Italy. The exact death toll remains unknown.

10. The sinking of SS Mendi
Although this wartime disaster did not occur in African waters, the majority of the casualties were South African soldiers. On February 21 1917, the British warship SS Mendi was struck on her side by SS Darro. Mendi was carrying an 802-strong contingent of South African Native Labour Corps, 89 crew members, 17 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and five white officers. Of these, 618 soldiers, seven NCOs, 33 crew members and two white officers died.

The ship that caused the disaster, the Darro, made no attempt to rescue the passengers on the ship. The captain of the ship, Henry W. Stump, received a light punishment for this, only having his licence suspended for a year. The SS Darro was a meat ship on its way to Argentina. It was empty at the time.

Morris Kiruga is an M&G Africa contributor who blogs on historical issues.

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