By Emmanuel Oloniruha,
The right to vote is widely recognised as the greatest non-violence weapon in every democracy. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) postulates that democratic institutions flourish when all groups of the society are represented.
While an inclusive election makes the whole political process more robust and, consequently, the democracy in a country stronger; Persons With Disabilities (PWDs) who constitute the demographic of the voting population in many nations across the globe including Nigeria, are still facing barriers in exercising their electoral franchise.
The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which was adopted by 180 countries, admits that the existence of barriers constitutes a central component of disability. Under the Convention, disability is an evolving concept that results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. Accessibility and inclusion of persons with disabilities are fundamental rights recognised by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and are not only objectives, but also pre-requisites for the enjoyment of other rights. The Convention (Article 9, accessibility) seeks to enable persons with disabilities to live independently and participate fully in all aspects of life and development.
It urges state parties to take appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to all aspects of society, on an equal basis with others, as well as to identify and eliminate obstacles and barriers to accessibility. In Nigeria, 25 million persons are living with at least one form of disability or the other, according to the Special Adviser to President Muhammadu Buhari on Disability, Dr Samuel Ankeli.
Available data also shows that most common of the disabilities are visual impairment, hearing impairment, physical impairment, intellectual impairment, and communication impairment. According to the weekly update on the ongoing Continuous Voter Registration (CVR), Quarter 3 week 4 recently released by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) 25,523 out of the 2,805,089 registrants that have completed online and physical registration as at 7am. of January 31 were PWDs.
The Commission also disclosed that so far it has received 8,919,606 applications for voter transfer, requests for replacement of Permanent Voter Cards, update of voter information record, etc., of which 90,512 were submitted by PWDs. Conscious of the voting rights of every citizen of Nigeria, INEC has made tremendous efforts towards ensuring inclusivity in the electoral process, especially for persons with disabilities.
Some of the efforts in mainstreaming PWDs into the electoral process include establishment of Disability Desks at INEC offices nationwide, and development of Framework on Access and Participation of Persons with Disabilities in the Electoral Process. Others include creation of special queue for PDWs during election and voter registration, provision of magnified glasses as well as ballot braille guide for visually impaired voters on election day, training of the visually impaired person on the use of ballot braille guide, organisation of electoral sensitisation and sign language interpreters by INEC.
As INEC prepares for Saturday’s Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Area Councils election, there is assurance of unhindered access to PWDs to exercise their franchise. In demonstrating its commitment to inclusive elections in FCT, INEC on January18 trained visually impaired voters in the FCT on use of braille ballot guides at a day’s sensitisation meeting with PWDs on January 28.
The FCT INEC Resident Electoral Commissioner (REC) Alhaji Yahaya Bello, speaking at the meeting said that taking into consideration the electoral rights of every citizen, INEC had continued to strive to remove barriers prohibiting full participation of PWDs as voters and candidates. Bello, represented by INEC Deputy Director, ServiCom, Mr Dennis Ogu, said that the Commission had put in place several measures to ensure that persons with disabilities are included in the electoral process in the country. Also speaking at the training for the visually impaired registered voters, organised by INEC in collaboration with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), Bello said the training was to enable the visually impaired vote independently. He said the commission would provide the wherewithal for the visually impaired and other physically challenged persons to participate in the election.
The INEC Director, Gender And Inclusivity Department, Mrs Blessing Obidegwu, who presenting the objective of the workshop, said that PWDs have fundamental human rights which include the right to vote and be voted for and that the commission remains a strong advocate in ensuring that PWDs are mainstreamed into the electoral process. Obidegwu, represented by Mrs Lakunuya Bello said that INEC was bent on achieving free, fair and credible elections, and was taking steps to ensure inclusiveness, stating that citizen participation in elections was crucial in promoting popular leadership.
“Without the active participation of PWDs in the electoral process, the goals of equality and development cannot be fulfilled, and their voices must be heard like other citizens.” She stated that in the FCT election the PWDS, who presented themselves at Polling Units on election day, will be given priority to vote. IFES Country Director, Seray Jay, stressed the need for the electoral process to accommodate all eligible voters irrespective of gender and physical condition. Represented by Obaje Ukeh, IFES Deputy Country Director, Jay said the event provided INEC and stakeholders the opportunity to interface meaningfully.
“This is an opportunity to engage with INEC, and to understand the things that they have prepared to ensure your participation in the FCT election. “It is important to understand the tools which have been provided to help you make informed decisions on election day,” Jay said. The Chairman, Nigeria Association of the Blind, Mr Jacob Agada commended INEC for adhering to Article 29 of the Disability Rights which provides that everyone, irrespective of his status in society should be carried along in the issue of politics and politicking. “I commend INEC for this gesture, this is a good way to give everyone an equal opportunity,” he said.
Agada also urged INEC to keep on with the good gesture of eliminating all forms of barriers facing PWDs during election, including attitudinal barriers and anything that would prevent blind persons from voting and according to his will. “Some of these barriers are man made and can easily be taken care of. “For instance, you talk about attitudinal barriers, the ad hoc staff, and the security personnel on election duty should be sensitised, so that when they are handling persons with disability, particularly the visually impaired they should be very accommodative.
They should make sure that no one is being molested in the process of discharging his civic responsibility,” Agada said. The Chairman, Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities (JONAPWD) FCT, Mr Suleiman Ujah, appreciated the efforts of INEC in ensuring inclusion of PWDs in Nigeria’s electoral process. Ujah said the issue of inclusion which INEC started, had come to stay. He urged INEC to ensure that the PWDs who applied for the work of ad hoc staff and we’re qualified should be engaged for election work.
While INEC’s efforts towards inclusivity have been applauded across boards, the Executive Director of Centre for Citizen With Disabilities, Mr David Anyaele, believed that if the Electoral Amendment Bill is finally assented to, it would further enhance access, participation of PWDs in the electoral process and election integrity in Nigeria. “It is therefore important for the electoral bill to be fast-tracked as more than 61 per cent of 31 million voting population of PWDs are willing to take advantage of this improved bill when signed into law,” Anyaele said.
Emmanuel Oloniruha is of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)