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The ferry crisis: The problem is endemic. Changing engines will not solve it

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By Lamin Jahateh

Caterpillar marine engines which are used on Kunta Kinteh and Kanilai ferries have an average lifespan of 10 years or 20,000 hours of operations. But in The Gambia, after two years and less than 7,000 hours of operations, the engines are unmanageably dead. Nonetheless, we are satisfied with just buying another one.

Now that Kunta Kinteh and Kanilai ferries have been withdrawn for repairs, the discussions about the state of the ferries have died out. Tempos of tempers have cooled down. The agitation about the operations of the ferries has dissipated.

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The 12th April breakdown of Kanilai at sea may be naively seen as a blessing in disguise. If it had not broken down, it would not have been withdrawn at this material point for maintenance. But any regular user of the ferries between Banjul and Barra, or even a keen follower of happenings from that end, would know that it is not the near-disaster that led to the withdrawal of the ferry, but rather the massive public outcry that followed and its possible political impact.

That incident was not the first of its kind and it did not even break any record in terms of such occurrence. It is just an addition to the count. Some months ago, there was a ferry breakdown of at least 12 hours which even led to the death of one of the passengers, a patient who was going for medical treatment in Banjul (I was on board that ferry). A few years ago, a ferry was stuck in the river with close to 900 passengers from Friday to Sunday. No one was ever held accountable.

In any case, there is now an aura of optimism in the air. Once the repair works on the two ferries are done, there will be revamped and improved river transport services between Banjul-Barra crossing point. The inconvenience of having to wait for at least six weeks with no ferry on Gambia’s busiest river route is worth the while. A key highlight of the maintenance work is the installation of new engines on the ferries.

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Lest we forget, the installation of new engines on the ferries does not translate into improvement or safety in ferry operations if the records are anything to go by. The current installation is the second time, in less than 30 months, that the Gambia Ferry Services has been installing supposedly new engines in Kunta Kinteh.

In January 2022, Kunta Kinteh underwent full maintenance, including the installation of new Caterpillar marine engines (CAT 12). These machines have a lifespan of at least 10 years or 20,000 hours of operation, if properly maintained, according to various online reviews. Barely two years of operation during which it registered about 7,000 hours of operation, the engines of Kunta Kinteh became death-old, unmanageable. They are replaced with another set of new engines. In each of these two installations, 10s of millions of dalasi are spent to procure the engines and the accessories. In this latest installation, the engines and accessories alone cost more than D80 million (1.2 million euros), according to the announcement by ferry services.

With the new engines, Kunta Kinteh has broken down in the river at least 25 times in less than 30 months, from January 2022 (see footnote). These breakdowns consistently led to the inability to anchor at the lander in Barra or Banjul, taking unbearably long hours to cover a distance of just 7 nautical miles (which usually takes under 30 minutes), or even leaving passengers stranded in the river for a whole night with the ferry at the mercy of the waves.

Here is a chronicle of major breakdowns – those breakdowns lasting at least one hour in the river – from January 2023:

·           In March 2023, Kunta Kinteh was stranded due to engine-related failure for at least 13 long and painful hours in the river. Passengers spent the night on the ferry. It was later found out by Fatu Network that the Gambia Ferry Services lied about the reason for this near-fatal incident by saying it was a result of the ferry propeller getting stuck in a fishing net. It “was a lie peddled to cover up the cranky conditions” of the ferry and the bad state of the engines,” Fatu Network reported.

·           That was the second major incident of Kunta Kinteh in the same month, March 2023. In the first one, the ferry was stranded in the river for several hours with a full load of passengers, according to media reports.

·           From March to December 2023, Kunta Kinteh got stuck in the waters due to engine-related faults at least 10 different times. There was a major breakdown almost every fortnight.

·           In 2024, just in the first three months, Kunta Kinteh engines have failed in the river at least six times. The latest incident was just around mid-March, barely three weeks before the 12th April Kanilai ferry incident. On this ill-fated day, Kunta Kinteh was stranded in the sea for hours; it was eventually tugboated back to Banjul because it could not continue on its journey to Barra. There was a similar incident in February this year which was posted on Facebook by a renowned teacher, Musa Bah aka The Scribbler. In a somewhat funny incident, posted by Kebba Camara on Facebook in March, Kunta Kinteh failed to anchor both at Barra and Banjul; it kept whirling in the waters for long worrisome hours before help came.

None of these can be blamed on a lack of maintenance. Since the installation of new engines in January 2022, Kunta Kinteh has undergone maintenance and repairs at least seven times, based on the ferry services record. A huge amount of money was spent on each single maintenance.

The sordid state of Kunta Kinteh points to a poignant picture of the dire situation of the ferry systems operated by the Gambia Ferry Services. Kunta Kinteh is chosen as the focus of this commentary because it is the newest of the fleet of three ferries plying the route. There were days when all three ferries in operation (Johe, Kanilai, and Kunta Kinteh) got stuck in the river with a cumulative total of thousands of helpless passengers.

The Kunta Kinteh ferry was inaugurated in June 2017 with a 10-year warranty. But in just six years, the ferry has become a floating coffin.

Clearly, whether with ‘new engines’ or not, the ferry situation at the Banjul-Barra crossing point is a ticking time bomb. The trend of breakdowns shows signs of a possible major maritime disaster waiting to happen.

While this is a terrible reminder, the Senegalese ship, Bateau Le Joola, that capsized in the Gambian waters killing about 2,000 people on board, did not happen out of the blue. It was a result of bad engines and overloading. These are now daily realities in the operations of ferries at the Banjul-Barra crossing point. Foroyaa newspaper was right in its editorial: a disaster that is lured cannot be called an accident.

Instead of the Auditor General conducting an operational audit to find out the systemic shortcomings and proffer a tangible and lasting solution, the Gambia Ferry Services has resulted in finding a scapegoat among the rank-and-file employees. Subjecting ferry workers to police investigation in the name of finding a culprit of sabotage will not bring any changes to the situation.

This endemic engine failure is a systemic issue that will not be solved by random replacement of engines or fishing out a supposed saboteur.

Footnote: The number of times the ferry had a problem is curated from official and unofficial sources. Official sources were mainly Gambia Ferry Services’ information and other media reports. The unofficial sources are information posted on social media, mainly Facebook, but also Twitter (now renamed X) by those with firsthand knowledge of the incidents. Before now, I was a frequent commuter on that route so I experienced a lot of these incidents personally.

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