Ilorin, Nigeria — In Nigeria, wedding ceremonies are spread from one day to another as often as the parties are colorful; Ibrahim Mohammed joined the Egboti community in Niger State on Sunday, June 11 was no different.
So after the party, he left for home before dawn on Monday: Egbu village in nearby Pategi Local Government Area of Kwara State – also in central Nigeria.
Since the road connecting the two communities was in poor condition, he boarded a large boat, along with more than 200 wedding guests and a motorcycle for a 40-minute ride across the Niger, the river that gives Nigeria its name. The clouds were still dark as their boat sailed from the water’s edge.
Just a few minutes into the journey, the passengers heard the sound of the boat breaking. It hurt something. Water rushed into the boat. The engine stopped.
Frightened, they began jumping into the Niger to swim back to shore.
But 106 of them never made it, Kwara State Police spokesperson Okasanmi Ajayi told Al Jazeera on Wednesday. They were pulled from the water, lifeless. There were many women and children. Everything was related to the groom.
144 people including Mohammad were rescued.
“I am saddened…. We have had boat accidents before but never in our life before,” Pategi Ahman, a 26-year-old graduate of Pategi University, told Al Jazeera. “Most people in our community have lost some family member.”
An unknown number of passengers are still missing and their families are still awaiting news.
Help was slow to come, survivors say. And reports of tragedies rarely make it to the media.
“The nearest police station to that place was about four to five hours away and it was late when the police got there in the rescue operation,” Azai told Al Jazeera. “As I say, police are still on the ground to see if any other survivors or bodies can be recovered.”
Boat accidents are a regular occurrence in Nigeria due to multiple factors including flooding and lack of safety gear.
Last September, 33 people were reported to have drowned after a similar incident in Niger State. In April, five people died in another boat accident in the southern state of Bayelsa.
‘She grabbed the kids’
After Mohammed swam to shore, he saw other people from the boat, all jumping back into the water to help pull others to safety.
“I personally helped two adults and a child, but we soon got tired because the need for help was so great and that part of the water was shallow and dangerous so our efforts failed,” he told Al Jazeera.
Some of those who didn’t survive were women with babies who couldn’t swim, or who didn’t want to leave their babies behind.
Among them were Mohammed’s sister and four of his female cousins.
“I saw one of them, who was a very good swimmer in the water but he didn’t leave because he was clinging to the children,” he said. “Another of them left four children.”
In the villages of Kapada, Egbu and Gakpan in Kwara as well as Egboti in Niger, people mourned and counted their losses as the news spread. “I lost 10 members of my family, including my five brothers, father, mother and stepmother … about 80 people died in my village alone,” Mohammed Modu, a farmer from Egbu, told Al Jazeera.
The recovered bodies are buried along the river in each village according to traditional customs.
‘None of us can sleep alone’
Modu fell asleep when a friend called him with news of the boat sinking around 4 am. He screamed, “Oh my God” and quickly got up and started running towards the water’s edge, he told Al Jazeera.
“I started running along the river … hoping that I would find them or their bodies but I didn’t see anyone there. I broke down and I started crying,” he said.
By dawn, he counted 10 dead relatives.
Survivors and other residents are now migrating to other villages and towns, seeking new lives after the tragedy. Modu also plans to leave.
“If possible, I will move to Ilorin to work as Okada [motorcycle taxi] Arohi,” he said through tears.
Olasunkanmi Habib of the Institute for Land and Community Resilience at the Federal University of Technology in Minna, the Niger state capital, said displacement away from communities is just part of a broader sense of devastation for survivors and families of victims.
“The impact can be life-changing and families can struggle to cope with the loss of loved ones or care for the injured,” he said. “It can exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities.”
The accident exposed deficiencies in regulatory safety standards and highlighted the need for improved infrastructure and emergency response capabilities, he said.
Authorities in Abuja, the state capital, and Ilorin issued condolence statements.
President Bola Tinubu who said he was “deeply saddened”, called on the Kwara government to investigate the incident; Kwara State Governor Abdur Rahman Abdulrazak led a government delegation to Pategi and pledged to donate 1,000 life vests.
But as of Thursday afternoon, residents involved in the search and rescue operations told Al Jazeera that no officials had yet arrived at the scene.
Back in Egbu, Mohammed said he even thought of leaving the town but was unable to do so because his parents have roots there. He says leaving will add to their grief and they are now all interdependent.
“None of us are able to sleep alone,” he said. “We now pack as many as five people into the room to be able to sleep.”