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Persons With Disabilites lament hostile environment, discrimination against political dreams

By Sodiq Ojuroungbe,

Despite the Independent National Electoral Commission giving its commitment to support Persons With Disabilities ahead of the 2023 General Elections and ensuring they participate in the electoral process, SODIQ OJUROUNGBE writes on how discrimination and a hostile system forced PWDs to shun political aspirations.

When the Executive Governor of Kogi State, Yahyah Bello, publicly adopted Emmanuel Aduku as his political son, many people, especially PWDs, thought discrimination against persons with disabilities had ended in the state.

With hope and trust, Aduku went to the APC secretariat in Lokoja, the state capital, to obtain the nomination form.

He was certain that he had the support of the people to be the next assembly member that would represent Anpka 1 State Constituency in 2023.

Aduku, who suffered a polio attack over 20 years ago, thought getting involved in politics would make him prove to many that there is ability in disability.

He believed his participation would give him the privilege to make a difference and encourage more people in the same position to participate.

Aduku has always fantasized to be a messiah for PWDs; he thought he would sponsor bills that would cater to disabled persons and make them get access to basic needs and live normal lives.

On May 22, 2022, the 31-year-old poultry farmer cum politician won the APC primary election with 22 votes, defeating his closest rival, Lawal Akus, who had three votes.

The people of the constituency, who could not hold back their joy over Aduku’s emergence, mounted the streets in jubilation, singing and dancing to melodious victory songs they sang in their local Igala dialect.

But their joy was soon cut short when Aduku’s name was mysteriously substituted for the first runner-up without any reason given for the action.

Seven months later, Aduku is still pursuing his mandate.

Speaking with The PUNCH, Aduku lamented, “Disability is not the way we were created but how society treats us; discrimination against persons with disability is high in Nigeria. The discrimination against all aspects of life, in education, health, marriage, politics, even in some of our brotherhood

“After I won the primary election, my name was substituted for the second runner-up because I am a physically challenged person. As I am speaking with you, I am using every legal means to get back my mandate.

“I have been trying to reach out to his Excellency, the governor, who is the leader of the party but no way to see him. Also, I have been trying to get in touch with the state party chairman; he did not pick up calls or reply to text messages.”

Not only has Aduku suffered discrimination as someone living with a disability, but many PWDs also have similar or worse stories to tell.

They are faced with different acts of discrimination daily because of their physical state.

Due to unfounded cultural beliefs, people living with the condition in Nigeria are viewed as being cursed, and so, people discriminate against them, even within the family, especially children.

The resultant culture has denied these citizens of their rights to the dignity of the human person and to the development of their full potential to participate in the developmental process of Nigeria.

Discrimination against PWDs in Nigeria stemmed from the negative public perception of people with disabilities in communities across the country.

This has led to poor identification, evaluation, screening, and placement of persons with disabilities in society.

Other manifestations of discrimination against PWDs in Nigeria include limited access to employment and use of public spaces, stigmatisation, unsolicited and discriminatory sympathy, and limited access to quality education.

Despite laws, struggles continue

On January 23, 2018, the president, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) signed into law the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018. The signing of the law was a dream come true for many PLWDs who had agitated for its passage; they thought their struggles for survival among other Nigerians were over.

Part VI subsection 30 of the Act states that the government shall actively promote an environment in which persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in elections.

The Act reads in part, “Persons with disabilities shall be encouraged to fully participate in politics and public life.

“Government shall actively promote an environment in which persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in the conduct of public affairs without discrimination; non-governmental organisations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country; and activities and administration of political parties.”

Similarly, the Electoral Act made provisions for people with disabilities.

Clause 54, subsection (2) stated that INEC shall take reasonable steps to ensure that persons with disabilities, special needs, and vulnerable persons are assisted at the polling place by the provision of suitable means of communication, such as Braille, large embossed print, electronic devices, sign language interpretation, or off-site voting in appropriate cases.

However, the laws had yet to reduce the social, political, and economic exclusion PLWDs suffer. They are still often discriminated against across the country.

Salish Zurmi is another victim who has a bitter story to tell for getting involved in politics despite living with a disability.

Zurmi, who is the current member representing Zurmi East in the Zamfara State House of Assembly, said he faced intimidation because he refused to defect to the ruling party.

He also lamented that his party was also dealing with him because of his physical condition.

Zurmi said all the 23 state lawmakers decided to join the state governor and defect to the ruling party but he refused, saying they were brought in as state lawmakers on the wings of the Peoples Democratic Party.

He alleged that he was denied all the allowances being paid to the other lawmakers.

He said, “This is simply because I refused to defect to the All Progressive Congress; upon all the maltreatment, I refused to dump PDP.”

The lawmaker lamented that he purchased a nomination and expression form to contest for the Shinkafi/Zurmi Federal Constituency in the Federal House of Representatives but the party in the state refused to allow him to contest, alleging that party leaders anointed someone else on consensus.

He said, “I even wrote to the national secretariat of the party, complaining of the injustice of the highest order but nothing was done until the time elapsed.

“But I will not dump PDP and I want the leadership of the party to know that serious injustices are going on in the party both at the national and state levels.

“No member of the party has caught or challenged me against anti-party activities but they are doing everything negative to me because of my health condition.”

Another PWD, who identified himself only as Jimoh for fear of victimisation, said he was forced out of politics because he was not financially buoyant and because he was physically challenged.

Jimoh said despite getting the nomination form of the All Progressives Congress in Ogun State free of charge, he was rigged out of the process even before the day of the primary.

He said, “It is unfortunate that I lost the election even before we did the primary. The environment is hostile for those with disabilities because many people don’t see us as part of society. There is still a lot of discrimination against us and there is no way we can get into political positions unless there is an end to it.

“It is important for the people to know that we are human beings like them and we must be treated equally. How many party secretariats were built in a way that PWDs can visit them?

“Maybe INEC should start enforcing it and making sure that there is a certain number of people with disabilities in the candidates released by each political party. How can they fight us if they don’t know what we are going through, we need to be represented in governance.”

Another victim, Kareem Musbau, who was actively involved in the 1993 election of Moshood Abiola had an accident in 2008, which confined him to a wheelchair.

To him, the dream of being a representative of his community could not be achieved because of his condition. According to him, no political party is ready to give me a platform to contest against other physically-fit candidates.

He said, “If there is a supportive and conducive environment, I’ll like to participate in politics again.”

A former youth leader for the Association of People with Disabilities in Ogun State, Abayomi Soetan, lamented that PWDs were not integrated into the political party in the state.

He stressed that several policies had been frustrating PWDs from participating in politics.

Soetan also complained that there was a missing link between the government and PWDs.

He noted that the non-implementation and localisation of the Disability Act in several states contributed to the discrimination against PLWDs.

He added, “If you look at the political setting in Nigeria, these people with disabilities that you can point out that are in governance, they have been in governance before they have a disability. It is not like they were elected as persons with disabilities.

“Persons with disabilities being called into governance to become a special adviser to a governor are not playing key roles in government other than coordinating other PLWDs.”

The National President of the Joint National Association for Persons with Disabilities, Abdullahi Kebbi, expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of consideration for PLWDs by political parties and candidates as activities heat up for the 2023 general elections.

Kebbi in an interview with our correspondent said some political parties included some PLWDs in campaign committees just to get their votes.

He said, “Some political parties, but not all, have included disabled people on their various campaign committees, but it has had no effect.

“I am not satisfied, and the feeling is the same with our members. Many of the candidates included PLWDs in their campaign committees just to tick the box. By this, I mean that they did this so that they would be seen as doing it.

“Many of our members who are on these committees are not being carried along in the scheme of things. We have observed that those on the committee were given no role. These people are just there so that the world can see that Persons with Disability are carried along. Many of them do not know anything that is happening there.”

Speaking on manifestos of political parties, Kebbi said, “Some political parties, with their actions, do not think we exist. This is despite our large number. We have nothing less than 25 million members living in Nigeria. Have you ever seen any presidential candidate who has written his manifesto in braille for the understanding of people in the blind community? They are just deceiving us by appointing leaders for PLWDs at the various parties.”

Scaring statistics

According to a report published by the Disable World and updated in April 2022, in Africa, an estimated 60 to 80 million people are living with disabilities today.

Disabled people are estimated to be 10 percent of the general African population, but possibly as high as 20 per cent in the poorer regions.

The vast majority of Africans with disabilities are excluded from schools and opportunities to work, virtually guaranteeing that they will live out their lives as the poorest of the poor.

School enrolment for the disabled is estimated at no more than 5-10 per cent. For many, begging becomes the sole means of survival.

The report also noted that every day in Africa, many people become disabled by malnutrition and disease, environmental hazards, natural disasters, traffic and industrial accidents, civil conflict, and war.

Rehabilitation International also estimated that 350 to 500 people worldwide became amputees each day due to landmines that they encountered while walking, farming, or playing.

The number of people living with disability in Africa is increasing. Factors that contributed to the growing number in Africa include violence, HIV/AIDS, birth defects, malnutrition, population growth, ageing population, environmental degradation, and injuries at home, work, and on the roads.

A report by the World Health Organisation estimated that in 2018, about 29 million of the 195 million people who composed Nigeria’s national population were living with a disability.

The most common of these disabilities were visual impairment, hearing impairment, physical impairment, intellectual impairment, and communication impairment.

According to data from the 2018 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey, an estimated seven per cent of household members above the age of five (as well as nine per cent of those 60 or older) have some level of difficulty in at least one functional domain, seeing, hearing, communication, cognition, walking, or self-care; and one per cent either have a lot of difficulties or cannot function at all in at least one domain.

Findings indicate that persons with disabilities lack access to basic services and that attitudinal barriers represent a major impediment to their socioeconomic inclusion. Inclusive policies were said to be either nonexistent, weak or inadequately implemented.

Although statistics are scanty about the demographic distribution of disability in Nigeria, available literature suggested that there are significantly more disabled women than men in the country and that due to the insurgency in the North-East, the region hosts the highest number of people with disability in the country.

As the population of PLWDs grows in the country, and Nigerians begin plans to embark on electing new leaders in 2023, fresh data had shown that only 73,609 persons with disabilities would be voting in the election, this is according to the Independent National Electoral Commission.

INEC, in a report obtained by The PUNCH, said 73,609 Persons Living with Disabilities completed their registration in nationwide voter registration. The report also showed that 197,707 PLWDs have pre-registered online but did not complete their registration.

Activists advocate implementation of Disability Act

Activists have insisted that PLWDs would continue to experience hostility from the environment until the implementation of the Disability Act.

Some of the activists also lamented that despite the signing of the law by the President, it was yet to be domesticated in many states of the federation.

The founder of the Down Syndrome Foundation of Nigeria, Rose Mordi, said the political space in the country had no provision for people living with a disability.

Mordi argued that PWDs shunned politics because of the unfriendly system.

She further said most people with disabilities did not know their rights as citizens, adding that the government was not encouraging them.

She said, “First, no provision has been made for them. Because people with other disabilities have the brains to go to school to learn. For people with intellectual disabilities in the sector I belong to, nothing has been done. They have been neglected totally, even up till now.

“So when we talk about the political arena, they don’t even know anything about what is going on because they have not been properly educated as to knowing their rights and demanding for it. And that’s where we should start from before we talk about whether they can aspire for a position or not; they need to be properly educated, sensitised and taken care of for them to begin to advocate for their rights.

“There is a lot that is supposed to be put in place. But let me talk generally about disability. There have been a lot of talks, they are not being allowed, and this is something that needs to change because the narrative needs to be changed.”

Another activist, Folorunsho Uthman, urged disability groups to further press for laws that would enable the participation of PWDs in politics.

He stressed that there was a need for political parties to dedicate a certain percentage of party tickets to PWDs.

He noted, “Unfortunately, we all are not working from the same page to be able to get the different clusters of disability to come together and put pressure on the government to allow them to take part in the political arena. People go there on their own but they cannot fight it just by going there alone, without having the backing of others in that community. People in the disability sector have a lot to do.”

The Executive Director of the Centre for Citizens with Disability, David Anyaele, also lamented that people with disabilities still faced challenges despite the signing of the Disability Act.

Anyaele explained that after four years, the discrimination against PWDs was still very high, and blamed the ministries, departments, and agencies for not recognising PWDs in their yearly activities and programmes.

He said, “People with disabilities are still facing barriers after the disability law was passed and signed four years ago.

“The barrier has to do with our attitude. Discrimination against PWDs is still very high in this country. Research that we conducted last year showed that ministries, departments, and agencies still stigmatise and discriminate against PWDs in their programmes and activities.

“The only office that is consistent in promoting issues with PWDs is that of President Muhammadu Buhari. The President in his speeches and addresses has called on agencies to respond to the issues affecting PWDs in Nigeria.

“Regrettably, the MDAs are still struggling to understand their roles and responsibilities and what PWDs represent in the work they do. That is the outcome of our findings.

“Also, the law provides five per cent employment opportunities for PWDs. These five per cent provisions are yet to be fulfilled in most MDAs.

“It is a huge struggle for PWDs to go to school. What it costs an individual without a disability to go to school is different from what it will cost PWDs to go to school. It is much higher. PWDs struggle to get jobs and in the end, they become burdens to their families.”

INEC, political parties keep mum

Efforts to get the spokesperson for the LP, APC and PDP to react proved abortive as of the time this report was filed.On three different occasions, our correspondent reached out to the National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress, Barrister Felix Morka. He, however, claimed to be busy and would not be able to react. Several text messages were sent to him on WhatsApp and as text messages on January 21, 30, and 31 were never replied to.

Also, the publicity secretary of LP, Abayomi Arabambi promised to answer questions sent to his WhatsApp line. He did not reply nor pick up several calls put across to him on January 19, 22, 30, and 31.

Several efforts to reach the spokesperson for the PDP, Debo Ologunagba were not successful. Calls put across to him were not going through, and messages sent to him on January 21, and 25 were never replied to.

Our correspondent also reached out to the National Commissioner for Information of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Festus Okoye, but he said he was busy and promised to get back to our correspondent. Several calls put across to him on January 21, 26, and 31 were not answered.

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