January 24, 2021

No end to Likoni ferry tragedies?

Swedish diver Volker Bassen aboard his boat scanning the sea to detect where the sunken vehicle of the late Mariam and her daughter on Friday evening as MV Nyayo docks at the Island ramp to discharge and charge its human and vehicular cargo Image: Mwakera Mwajefa


The ferry tragedy that caused the death of a mother and her daughter after their car plunged into the sea aboard mv Harambee last Sunday (September 29) at Likoni crossing channel adds to the list of the worst ferry accidents in Kenya.

That incident is the consequences of ignoring the legal requirements operating ferries without adhering to the required maritime safety standards.

Except for mv Jambo, the remaining fleet of vessels – mv Nyayo, mv Harambee, mv Kilindini, mv Likoni and mv Kwale – are in dire need of dry docking.

Kenya Ferry Service (KFS) currently ferries over 300,000 pedestrians and more than 6,000 vehicles daily across the channel.


However, it beats logic why the semi-autonomous government agency is allowed to operate malfunctioning vessels contrary to the existing maritime laws and statutes.

All this is happening in the Kenya’s territorial waters under the watchfully eyes of the Kenya Maritime Authority (KMA) which is the regulator for maritime safety, security, preservation and protection of marine environment.

Likoni ferry vessel packed with its human and vehicular cargo with its prow’s flaps scooping the sea water as it cruises across the channel
Image: Courtesy

The authority’s mandate is to inspect the conditions of ships docking at the port, their crew and cargo to ensure they are in conformity with the acceptable international and domestic standards.

In fact, KMA has entered into a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with 13 port countries in the Indian Ocean to coordinator inspection of ships.

The MoU requires that a state inspects at least 25 per cent of ships docking at its ports. This (MoU) was signed on June 5, 1998.


Section 10 of the Merchant Shipping Act 2009 empowers the authority to board all Ocean-going vessels calling Mombasa port for the purpose of state port control and flag state control.

Three out of the six ferries operating at the channel – mv Harambee, mv Nyayo and mv Kilindini – were withdrawn from the Lloyd’s register in 2007 thus making them unseaworthy.

Why the Mombasa Regional Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (RMRCC) is silent about the Likoni ferry tragedy is mind-boggling?

The centre has an efficient and effective communication system that enables it receives distress messages from any vessel within the country’s search and rescue region (SAR) region.

It is always on a 24-hour watch to ensure prompt receipt and dissemination of distress messages from ships plying the SAR region.

Where is the recently launched Kenya Coast Guards (KCG)? Why is it nowhere within the scene of incident?

The responsibilities of KCG include SAR, Maritime Law Enforcement (MLE), Aids to Navigation (ATON), Ice Breaking, Environmental Protection, Port Security and Military Readiness.

However, the main work of any coast guard worldwide is to prevent the loss of life within the precincts of the sea apart from producing legislation and guidance on maritime matters as well as providing certification to seafarers.


Frequent maritime mishaps at the Likoni and Mtongwe ferry crossing channels portend a disaster in the making that could be devastating to lives and maritime ecosystem. These are a clear indication that KFS management is not to that task of running this sensitive agency.

Curious onlookers throng the shore of Indian Ocean on the island side to watch the Kenya Navy divers and others in their recovery operations to search the victims of Sunday (September 29) incident where a vehicle plunged into the sea aboard MV Harambee
Image: Mwakera Mwajefa

The ongoing concerns imply that only a professional drawn from outside the establishment can be capable of uncovering all the malpractices that are deeply rooted within parastatal.

For safer ferries and cleaner seas, the attitude of the KFS staff from top to bottom need to change radically and a domestic ship safety code should be established immediately.

The domestic ship safety code could be designed in-house and then approved by KMA that will go a long way to restructure operations of the agency with a view of ensuring necessary safety standards of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) are enforced.

The April 29, 1994 Mtongwe ferry tragedy where more than 270 people perished with another 370 escaping death is still fresh in Kenyans’ minds.

KFS, as presently constituted, cannot adequately fulfill its public mandate and therefore, there is a need to establish a Kenya Ferries Corporation (KFC) to oversee the management, operation and running of ferries in all waters of the country.


Apart from this, the government should address the problems faced by KFS management, improve funding and get rid of incompetent marine engineers.

Most of the crew members manning the ferries or providing security have neither sea-time experience nor undergone training on maritime safety and security. Again the “marine engineers” working there also do not have sea-time experience.

Without pre-empting the outcome of the maritime investigation on the ferry incident, the midstream stalling of ferries indicates substandard vessels operating there.

A substandard ship or ferry boat is regarded so through its physical condition, its crew fails to meet basic standards of seaworthiness and thereby poses a threat to life and the environment.

In fact, such proliferation of substandard ocean-going vessels is the root cause of maritime disasters’ occurrence all over the world.

The Mtongwe incident aside another happened in January of 2013 where eleven people lost their lives after a lorry lost control and rammed into the ferry while passenger were boarding it just to mention of few.


The Likoni channel is a crucial link of the Cairo-Cape Town highway apart from being the lifeline of South Coast in Kwale County and the Moi International Airport for its hotel chain.

To deal with the frequent breakdown of the overworked ferries, there is need to incorporate Kenya Ports Authority’s Dock Yard for maintenance work and repairs.

The KPA dockyard is fully equipped and it is only place in East Africa region where you can find first class marine engineers with sea time experience.

Finally, the national government should relinquish the management of ferry services to the county government as rightfully enshrined in Kenya’s constitution Part 2, Paragraph 5 of the Fourth Schedule.

County governments within the coastal or the lake regions should take over the management of ferry services, ports and harbours, but this process should be done gradually before handing over full responsibility.

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