Rays of sunlight peeked through the holes of the perforated roof as a damp smell from the once-swamped compound hung heavy in the air. Most of the ceilings were missing, and the few that remained threatened to give way, evident from the heavy rain that flooded 38-year-old Abee Adouye’s home in Yenagoa, Bayelsa’s capital. All of the water had receded but the marks were still there as a reminder of what he had gone through.
Bayelsa was the worst hit during the massive flooding that wreaked havoc across states in the country a few months ago. No fewer than 1.3 million people were affected by flooding in the oil-rich state.
Escaping the flood was less of a challenge for Adouye. Staying in a family house, he knew his relatives would not let him down. But he was more concerned about his other friends with hearing impairment who live alone.
“It was not easy. Water entered all the rooms, and everywhere was covered with water. We couldn’t sleep or eat because it was very tough to move around. So, I had to use wooden planks to elevate my bed and other things,” Adouye signed to TheCable through an interpreter.
“There was no income because the water affected the barbing shop where I work. I had to borrow money to take care of myself and my wife. It was an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.”
Every night, Adouye would stay up praying that his house would not be invaded by reptiles and other creeping animals that had started sharing homes with many residents as a result of the flood.
The experience for 35-year-old Terry Ezi was different. He had heard the rains had started, but navigating through the chaos was almost an impossible task. Being visually impaired, he dreaded it. So, he prayed that his losses would be minimal.
By October 11, the water which had already spread to most parts of Bayelsa crept into his home.
“My house in the village was the first to be damaged before my fish pond. I was still nursing my wounds before my house here joined in,” Ezi said. “There was a massive rain that fell that day and I was sleeping. Before I knew it, water had reached my bathroom from a drain.”
“I was going to ease myself in the evening when I noticed there was water on the ground. I quickly made my way back to my room and started packing the things that I could to place them on higher ground.
It took the water weeks to recede; Like Aduoye, Ezi remained in his house with his wife and newborn baby battling the cold and hunger. Without sight, there was little he could do to monitor the water level at night in their little room. That left his wife to take up the additional role of a guard while nursing a baby.
A MORNING SURPRISE
In far away Kogi state, 40-year-old Usman Hassan who uses a local board with wheels as mobility support was met by a rude shock when he woke up around 4 am for morning prayers.
“First, I noticed that my bed was wet but I just assumed water spilled or something. Then, I stood up to go and pray and noticed the water trickling in,” he told TheCable.
“Immediately, I called my friend and he rushed to my place with his tricycle. I was scared because I didn’t want the water to rise before my friend would arrive. Even when I asked my neighbours for help, they asked me to ask someone else because they too needed to escape.”
His friend got there in 30 minutes when the water level had significantly risen. Two days later, his house was submerged.
Abu Hajarat, 35, was ready to end her life when the flood visited her home. She knew she would have a hard time navigating Lokoja, Kogi’s capital, with her wheelchair. She was finally met with a positive response after minutes of desperate calls for help to her neighbours.
“I kept asking what the reason for my existence was. I couldn’t go out without help. I could see people running with their two legs,” she said. “If my neighbour had not answered me, the water would have swept me away.”
A VULNERABLE SITUATION TAKEN ADVANTAGE OF
While the flood overran homes and communities across the countries, the only thing worth escaping with was one’s life. As such, many homes were left with valuable possessions. For some scoundrels, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get away with looting and disabled persons were the soft target.
Bishop Akponanabofa, special assistant to the governor of Bayelsa on disability matters, was not spared. When the 49-year-old physically challenged official woke up to the water gushing into his home at an alarming velocity, he immediately alerted his wife, who is also physically challenged. They started evacuating the house with their son.
Akponanabofa had to swim from his house to the road, a distance of about 200 metres, against the current while watching others run to safety. He recalled that he was trampled on a few times.
“When I finally got some people to go to my house to raise my belongings to a higher level, they told me my house was almost empty. My plasma TV and speaker were gone and my chairs were destroyed by water,” he said.
“I don’t know why anyone would think of robbing another person at this point, let alone someone like me and my wife. I know how many months I saved money to buy the television. It’s so painful. Everything I lost in total would be about N400,000. How much do I earn?”
Ikilowei Eric, chairman of PWDs in Bayelsa who owns a POS business, was robbed so many times he’s lost count. He survived the flooding, yet life thereafter has become unbearable.
“The first time they (the robbers) came, they pulled out a gun and asked me to give them everything I made for the day. It was just N40,000. I was so scared and traumatised. Soon, it became a regular thing. Now my business has folded up and I just rely on friends and family to help me in any way that they can,” he said.
While different clusters of PWDs have been hit differently, a particular group is almost never included among the people who identify as PWDs. As such, it is almost impossible to imagine the flood had any effect on them. But it did.
Thirty-six-year-old Joy Ogbogene, an albino, said she and many other persons in her cluster had to forgo the task of taking care of their skin for food and a dry bed.
“The flood season wasn’t easy; it really hit us bad. Some of us had to go to IDP camps where you know how the situation is. Our skin is very sensitive, so managing our bodies in that kind of environment exposed us to so many diseases but nobody was talking about that,” she told TheCable.
“At that time, what mattered most was where to lay our heads and what to put in our stomachs. The government didn’t look toward us; they didn’t give us any attention. It was like we didn’t matter.”
“We were sleeping inside the water. My garri business packed up because I had to sell off everything to transport my children to Edo where I hail from. We were exposed to harsh conditions not minding the sensitivity of our skin. At that point, that is even the last thing on your mind. You had to start thinking of what to eat.
“The flood came with so many reptiles, holes and other things. With how bad our sight is, some of us were not even able to see these things from a distance. I know of someone who fell into a ditch of water because she just thought it was small mud.
“So many people, including me, treated infections. Weirdly, even with the flood, the sun was high. So, we would go out and face dangers from the sun, the rain, and the flooded water. Because the water was smelling badly coupled with the mosquitoes.”
POOR RESPONSE FROM GOVERNMENT
One thing all the PWDs across Nigeria who spoke to TheCable agreed on was that there was little to no response from the government.
While concerned agencies like the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) reeled out figures of persons who had been affected by the flood and measures that were taken to cushion the effect, it was almost as though there was no existence of PWDs.
“Year in, year out, when disasters come like this, we barely get any response. It makes us feel like we’re not being carried along or even considered. It’s like we’re rejected and we’re not part of society. It’s something we’ve been battling with but coming from the government is even worse,” Ogbogene said with a blank stare.
“You see it feels like it’s individuals that need orientation but for the government that is supposed to take care of you? It’s bad.”
Eric, chairman of disabled persons, said while IDP camps were set up for flood victims, different clusters of PWDs had to come together to find somewhere by themselves and settle down for the duration of the flood.
“While we were in that camp, the commissioner of environment came and visited us. He promised to bring food and other medical items but till we left, there was nothing. Meanwhile, we heard reports of the government visiting other camps. In fact, they were cooking for them morning and evening,” Eric said.
“In our camp, we saw hell. We were about 530 disabled persons taking care of ourselves with no job or source of livelihood.”
Faith Opene, the commissioner of women, children affairs, empowerment and social development in Bayelsa, said relief materials were brought to the state by the federal government but none was allocated to the PWDs under her ministry.
“The least we could do was to give them the old women’s affairs building where they camped because the flood chased them from their homes. It’s almost as if the federal government forgot that this group of people existed,” she said.
LOW FUNDS/LACK OF IMPLEMENTATION OF DISABILITY BILL
After years of relentless advocacy by disability rights groups and activists, President Muhammadu Buhari finally signed into law the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act in 2019.
The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability and imposes sanctions including fines and prison sentences on those who contravene it. It also stipulates a five-year transitional period for modifying public buildings, structures, and automobiles to make them accessible and usable for people with disabilities.
The law also saw the creation of the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities (NCPWD) in 2020. For PWDs, this was proof of a possible dedicated response from the government. But so far, the outcome has been far from expected and most parts of the law have not been implemented in many states.
James Lalu, NCPWD’s executive secretary, told TheCable that the commission has grappled with a budget constraint since it was established.
“We only just started work fully in 2021 and the budgetary allocation was just to cover office accommodation, furnishing, and all of that to provide the necessary facilities for the proper takeoff of the institution,” Lalu said.
“This year, the budget was not as we expected. We’ve not been able to do much work; so, it has restricted a lot of things but we’ve started some accessibility work in some universities.
“Funding for accessibility was just N40 million and it’s not even enough for one university. Our budget was reduced this year and next year, it will be reduced again massively. Over 70% has been cut off and this is just the capital allocation but the overhead allocation only covers our salaries and other expenditure.
“Since we came in we’ve only received the budget for the first and second quarter of the year. We haven’t received for the third and fourth quarters. We are struggling to help our members who have been affected by the flood. We have been trying to raise special funding but it’s been very low.”
“WE KNOW OURSELVES BETTER”
According to the World Bank, more than a billion people worldwide live with a disability, with a higher prevalence in developing countries like Nigeria. As such, they are more likely to experience adverse socioeconomic outcomes such as poorer health outcomes, lower levels of employment, and higher poverty rates.
While there has been no data on the number of PWDs who have died as a result of the flood in the country, research has shown that they are two to four times more likely to die in a disaster. Experts say this is because most countries don’t take the needs of people with disabilities into account while crafting their emergency plans.
This is despite the fact that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) requires signatories to protect those with disabilities during natural disasters, without discrimination.
To address this, Lalu said more inclusive architectural designs need to be seen in buildings and environments and that more funding from international organisations has to focus on disability issues.
“Disabled persons are at the lowest part of the ladder to be carried along during climate disasters. One thing has to be very clear, international organisations — multilateral, bilateral and donor organisations – have to make sure at least 10 percent of whatever funding they make to Nigeria is dedicated to disability matters,” Lalu stressed.
“We also need to start seeing more accessibility options in buildings and communities. How a blind person would adapt to a disaster is not the same way a person in a wheelchair or a deaf person would. For instance, a person in a wheelchair can see water coming from afar and scream for help, the deaf person would not hear but the blind person would hear and not be able to run.
“It’s very complicated but unfortunately, it’s the way things are. Except there is an intentional effort to carry everyone along, then we’re still at the same spot.”
Adamu Shuaibu, a former member of the Jigawa state house of assembly, says signing the law or advocacy is not the problem, but implementing it is. He said he knows this from personal experience.
“The truth is that during times of emergencies, disabled persons and other vulnerable groups are supposed to be considered first; but unfortunately, you find out that it is not even taken into account,” he said.
“It is the whole system that is at fault, even though some states have the laws, implementation becomes another problem. There is a lacuna within the whole system. The attention from the government is not enough.
“In Nigeria, we have a law but the problem is that it is not even implemented. Let them implement that law section by section with a commitment not just by mouth, and I’m talking about education, housing, health, and transportation in all sectors.
“When I was in the Jigawa state house of assembly, I was even the one who sponsored the bill between 2011-2015. I was the only PWD in the assembly and I thought about what to do to leave a legacy. So. I started initiating the law with other development partners, legal practitioners and other concerned persons. This was just before the 2015 elections. Then our tenure ended and I was not able to continue my fight because I was not re-elected.
“In 2017, it was finally passed but not all parts of it were implemented. Are we getting employment opportunities? Are we getting political participation? We’ve always known PWDs were getting left behind but this flood just amplified it.”
For Shuaibu, he believes that the NCPWD must be spread across all states for synergy. According to him, PWDs must have their own say in issues that bother them because “some people may think what they are doing for us is the right thing by grouping us under women affairs, but it is not.”
To prevent further neglect in times of disaster, organisations like Rebuilding Hopes on Wheels Initiative (RHOWI) are trying to close the gap by advocating for climate justice for PWDs.
Amina Audu, RHOWI’s founder, told TheCable that priority must be given to PWDs especially in times of extreme weather conditions because they have no control over the outcome.
“When proper planning is done, we will be assured that in times of emergency, we’ll not be left behind. A lot of people during emergencies, you find out that they end up losing their lives not because of the emergency itself but the lukewarm attitude of emergency workers who don’t even exist in most cases,” she said.
“To help PWDs fight climate change, we organise programmes, teaching them the importance of planting trees, promising to stop using plastic, proper disposal of waste. We all should be responsible.
“Hopefully, we get the attention of the government and other donor organisations to support our cause because, at the end of the day, I can tell you for free as someone who is confined to a wheelchair, all we want is an inclusive society.”
And Ezi agrees. Staring blankly into nothing, he uses his cane to scribble aimlessly on the ground.
“It may seem like we just go on about the same issue, but at the end of the day, we just want to be seen,” he says with a sad smile.