Kenya sea safety concerns

A crane retrieves a car that plunged into the Likoni channel in Mombasa, Kenya. Credit: KFS

Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta has fired the entire management board of the Mombasa-based Kenya Ferry Services (KFS), a majority state-owned agency, as investigations intensify into how a car aboard a roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) ship slid back into the sea, killing a mother and her daughter.

“In exercise of power conferred by Section 7 (3) of the State Corporations Act, I, Uhuru Kenyatta, president and commander in chief of the armed forces of the Republic of Kenya revokes the appointment of Dan Mwazo, Daula Omar, Naima Amir, Philip Ndolo, and Nasigha Mruttu as non-executive chairperson and members of the Kenya Ferry Services Limited with immediate effect from 16 October 2019,” said a gazette notice by the president.

The revoking of the KFS board of management came barely a week after the car – a Toyota Isis with number plate KCB 289C – with the bodies of Mariam Kighenda, 35, and her daughter Amanda Mutheu, 4, were retrieved from 60 m deep in the Indian Ocean, 13 days after the accident, by Kenya Navy divers with support from others brought in from South Africa.

Although KFS had issued an initial statement saying the car “reversed and plunged into the Indian Ocean aboard MV Harambee ferry plying to the Mombasa Island”, questions have emerged on the safety status of ferry transportation services on Kenya’s part of the Indian Ocean as it emerged that the ferry involved may not have had required restraints, working ramps, or a gate that would have minimised the chances of the car sliding back and plunging into the ocean.

In addition, the investigations are expected to establish compliance levels to the international ro-ro ship regulations especially those set by the International Maritime Organization, after it emerged both the mother and daughter were in the car that was already on board MV Harambee, which was one of the four ferries purchased by KFS in 1990 to ease transportation along the Kilindini Harbour in Mombasa. At the Likoni crossing, the ferry service links Mombasa’s island with Likoni mainland, a distance of about 500 m.

This is not the first incident in Kenya involving ro-ro ships, but it has brought to the fore the East Africa country’s tendency to adopt short-lived reactionary measures regarding sea safety issues despite having agencies mandated with carrying out inspections of the vessels and ensuring compliance to avert disasters.

Three months before this Likoni incident, two other people, a lorry driver and a turnboy, escaped death when their vehicle lost its brakes as it disembarked from MV Harambee and slid into the sea.

“I was driving up the ramp when the brakes failed. Luckily I had not locked the doors and that’s why we managed to come out from the vehicle safely after it got into the water,” said Salim Musa, the truck driver.

In 1994 more than 270 passengers on board MV Mtongwe I died after the vessel capsized near the Likoni incident. The 1994 tragedy was said to be blamed on overloading and overcrowding, although the government never made the findings of a probe commission public.

The Likoni Ferry service is critical to sea transport on Kenya’s Indian Ocean as it links the island of Mombasa to Likoni on the mainland and subsequently to Kwale County and onward to neighbouring Tanzania through the Lunga-Lunga border.

An estimated 250,000–300,000 people use the ferry service every day and 6,000 vehicles move along the Likoni channel.

Kenyatta said in early October that the government is taking measures to avert another fatal accident along the Kilindini Harbour through revamping of alternative routes and easing congestion now experienced in the ferry service.

“Besides the ongoing revamp of ferry services, the proposed Likoni Gate Bridge, the ongoing construction of the Dongo Kundu bypass, as well as the completion of the Samburu-Kinango-Kwale road will help ease the pressure on sea crossing between Mombasa Island and the south coast,” Kenyatta said.

Before the 29 September tragedy, KFS had announced measures to improve the ferrying services as it anticipates the number of passengers crossing the Likoni channel to reach 500,000 daily over the next three years.