By Ani Akpan and Afolabi Sotunde
CALABAR, Nigeria (Reuters) - A boat that sank off the Nigerian coast with up to 166 people on board, killing at least 45, was carrying illegal immigrants being trafficked to Gabon, survivors interviewed by Reuters said on Wednesday.
Nigerian authorities were still searching for survivors from a wooden boat that sank on Friday some 40 nautical miles offshore on its way from Oron, in Cross Rivers state, to Gabon.
Vincent Aquah, director of the Cross Rivers State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), told a news conference that a rescue operation had recovered 27 people so far.
He said only nine bodies had been fished out, although a doctor at a local mortuary told Reuters on Tuesday there had been 45 bodies brought in from the accident.
Survivor Kive Sani, 27, from Togo, said he had paid money to a Nigerian "master" to get him a good job in Gabon. Part of his agreement was that he give the master a portion of his wages for an indefinite period.
"A huge wave swept onto the boat and knocked out the engine, then everything started sinking," he said.
He survived by clinging to an empty gas cylinder for nearly two days, he said.
Most poor West Africans who risk their lives each year to seek a better life head for Europe, usually via Spain's Canary Islands. But Gabon's oil-funded relative prosperity has also made it a favorite destination.
In July 2008, the bodies of 37 suspected illegal migrants were found dead on the seafront of Gabon's capital Libreville, after a boat capsized taking the same Nigeria to Gabon route.
With investment from former colonial ruler France, Gabon was one of the first sub-Saharan African countries to exploit its crude oil reserves, which have made its 1.5 million people among the continent's richest on a per capita basis.
But many of the migrants who arrive find only low paid jobs with little security, and are often indebted to traffickers.
Hafsat Zakare, 13, a Nigerian survivor, said many of the people on board were women and children from around West Africa.
Aquah said belongings recovered during the rescue mission showed some people on the boat were Ghanaians.
Boat accidents are relatively common in Africa. As many as 138 people died when an overloaded boat carrying passengers and goods capsized in rough water on a river in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010.
(Reporting by Ani Akpan and Afolabi Sotunde; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)