Search on for 43 missing in Niger boat accident

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Rescue teams, fishermen, navy and police experts were searching Thursday for 43 people, most from Benin, missing after an overloaded boat bringing them to a market capsized in the Niger River, authorities said.

The vessel foundered as it was battered by powerful winds in Sambera district, southwestern Niger early Wednesday morning, sinking just 200 metres (yards) from its destination.

“Sixty-two people were saved and 43 others are missing, judging from the number of shoes that have been recovered,” Sambera Mayor Oumarou Hassane told AFP.

They were aboard a canoe travelling from Gori-Beri in Benin to Ouna in Niger, he said.

The vessel was transporting a large consignment of cereals and about a hundred traders from Benin and Niger heading to the market in Ouna, Hassane said.

In Benin, Moussa Mouhamadou, prefect of the northern district of Alibori, gave a similar toll.

“Sixty-four people were saved,” he told Radio Benin.

“We discovered about 40 pairs of shoes at the site (of the accident), and linked them to the people who are missing.”

“The survivors went home last night and are well. They are being given medical and psychological support,” said Mouhamadou.

The Niger River, a popular transport artery in West Africa, broke its banks about two weeks ago, causing major damage to crops. While the flooding has subsided, the river’s level remains high.

An official of Niger’s gendarmerie told public radio the canoe sank “about 200 metres (yards)” from the jetty.

According to Mouhamadou, navy and police members and fishermen on the scene started evacuating survivors directly after the sinking, and divers from the fire brigade in the capital, Cotonou, were expected to join the search Thursday.

Boat capsizes are common on the Niger. Many are operated by companies that ignore security standards.

Steering is “often given to teenagers to do,” a Nigerian security source told AFP.

In October 2017, 17 people drowned and 26 disappeared after a boat carrying about 60 passengers sank on a trip from northwestern Nigeria to Niger.

A month earlier, 56 people perished when an overcrowded boat carrying 150 people, mainly Niger traders, sank in the state of Kebbi, Nigeria.

Many of the passengers of these boats are merchants of livestock and grain traded between Niger, Benin, and Nigeria.

There are only three bridges spanning the river along the 550-kilometre (342-mile) stretch of its flow through Niger, a poor, landlocked country that depends heavily on imports from the port of Cotonou.