By Ayuba Ahmad.
“What would it take to assent to a Bill? Does it take as much efforts and time as in flying to Sokoto for a campaign rally from Abuja or attending a United Nations conference in the USA? I doubt it!”
The above were the words in 2015 by an obviously flustered Mr David Anyaele one of the nation’s leading activists and advocates for the rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs), in the face of the long delay in signing the Disability Bill into an Act.
It took eighteen years, a period enough for a million return trips to the USA before the Bill was signed into an Act!
In his second term and six years down the line, cynics, political opponents and vocational critics of President Muhammadu Buhari are, understandably, ever so quick to reel out a rendition of “unfulfilled promises” made during his electioneering campaign on the eve of the 2015 presidential election that ushered in the first term of his presidency. But forget the fact of the lean available resources against the huge, mountain high Augean stable whose cleansing required massive efforts, resources, tact and time as they chorus and feast on issues of insecurity.
To those who would not see any positive landmarks in his tracks so far, the litany of the feats accomplished by the Buhari’s administration in infrastructure development, railway transportation, construction and rehabilitation of roads, bridges, air and sea ports, are worth recognition and accolades.
The Disability Act or, Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, is one outstanding affirmative action of President Buhari that, even the worst of his acerbic critics should appreciate as an outstanding milestone in the annals of the nation’s lawmaking. The significance of the Act is hinged on its many implications for the over 15% or, approximately 25 million of the nation’s population who are challenged by one form of disability or the other.
Firstly, the Act criminalises the discrimination either by individuals, institutions and agencies against persons with disabilities by way of denying them their rights as guaranteed by the constitution. This implies that such persons, to the extent of their qualifications, demonstrated capacities and abilities must be equitably accorded their rights and privileges in employment opportunities, in admission to educational institutions and in places where they work.
Further, the Act stipulates that public institutions or public buildings must henceforth be constructed with special provisions for persons with disabilities. While it provides a five-year transition period for adjustment to existing public structures to make them easily accessible to the PWDs, future roads and public transportation modes are also expected to be constructed or fitted with gadgets that make them easy to access by persons with disabilities within the same time span of five years.
Going further, in addition to signing the Bill, the President almost spontaneously created a Commission with the statutory responsibility of enforcing its provisions. These include among others, the formulation and implementation of policies and guidelines; enlightening the general public and encouraging persons with disabilities to assert their rights and, ensuring monitoring, evaluation and realisation of government policy objectives on persons with disabilities. It is equally very pertinent to note the unique place of President Muhammadu Buhari as the first ever Nigerian leader to appoint a Special Advisor on PWDs.
The Bill, which President Muhammadu Buhari assented to on the 24th of January, 2019, stipulates that offenders, both corporate bodies and individuals, are liable to various penalties of fines, imprisonment or, both.
To appreciate the significance of President Buhari’s action with regards to the Act, we only need to look at the long, winding and tortuous course the Bill had taken before its historic manifestation in the nation’s statute books. It had traversed a distance that took eighteen years– beginning from 2007 when Nigeria ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities and its Optional Protocols in 2010. That translates to mean that, if there had been the will and disposition, the Bill could very well have been effected into an Act by three Presidents before the Buhari’s presidency!
For inexplicable reasons, Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan repeatedly refused to assent to the Bill. The Bill also similarly suffered nonchalant approach at the two Chambers of the National Assembly where, between December, 2016 and December, 2017, the Bill was amazingly, and whimsically, declared “missing”. In the face of the official lukewarm attitude, pointedly, the legislature and the presidency, it had had to take the sustained and vigorous advocacy and protests by persons with disabilities and other stakeholders to keep the Bill alive and nurtured to the point of its eventual emergence as an Act.
Besides providing a window into the inner recesses of his heart as one filled with compassion and milk of human kindness, President Buhari, in promptly assenting to the Disability Bill, also demonstrated the attribute of a leader with the spirit of fidelity and the honour of a leader with the attribute of matching his words and pledges with concrete actions. In this wise, it would be recalled that in 2015, as the then presidential candidate of the APC, he had pledged at a stakeholders meeting with PWDs in Lafia, Nasarawa state, that he would work with the National Assembly to pass laws, “which will criminalise discrimination and other harmful practices that hinder people with disabilities from participating in society on equal basis with others.” On the 24th of January 2019 and in his subsequent actions, the President has succinctly kept faith with that promise.
Also, in demonstration of an unwavering, deep seated commitment to people with disabilities, President Muhammadu Buhari has since directed ministers and heads of federal agencies to give special consideration to the PWDs. This presidential order has been specially implemented by the new Ministry of Disaster Management and Humanitarian Affairs. Speaking recently with news media correspondents in Abuja, the Minister, Sadiya Umar Faruk revealed that, in compliance with a specific directive of the President, people with disabilities are being allocated 25% as against the 5% contained in the Act, of all the ministry’s various poverty alleviation programmes.
Thus at the end of the day, President Muhammadu Buhari is going away, along with the other laurels garnered from other spheres, the garlands of the nation’s leader who broke the age-long yoke of human rights abuses which include discrimination, stigma, violence and denial of access to healthcare, housing and education to the over twenty five million Nigerians with disabilities.
By his singular act of signing the Disability Bill into an Act, President Buhari will be leaving behind, the enviable legacy of the President who showed in practical terms, the empathy, the courage and the vision that uncaged the creative energies, the talent and ingenuity as well as the capabilities and capacities of a significant number of citizens, hitherto bottled up and tucked away from the public space by superstition and a long chain of uncaring and grossly unimaginative political leadership over the ages.
Speaking on behalf of the community of persons with disabilities, an elated Mr David Anyaele enthused: “We are excited and we appreciate the President for signing the Disability Bill into an Act … today, the reign of discrimination on the grounds of disability has come to an end.” Not a few Nigerians had joined the PWDs in rolling out the drums in celebrating the landmark law when it was birthed two years ago.
Remember David Anyaele? He was the young man who, in 1999 for the “crime” of being a Nigerian, had his two arms gruesomely amputated in Sierra Leone by the forever accursed dregs of humanity in one of the marauding bestial bands of the so-called “Revolutionary”United Front, RUF.
May God continue to bless him, Mr Anyaele has refused to succumb to his inflicted disability by since living out an active, productive life and dazzling as a shining example that, there are always abilities in disabilities. And thanks to President Muhammadu Buhari, many of the likes of Mr Anyaele will be manifesting in different facets of our national life with the passage of time.