By Kunle Somorin
In the National Assembly, there has been so much frenzy on what should be done to equalise opportunities for people with disabilities. Penultimate Thursday, Senator Bode Olajumoke’s Bill requesting for a Commission to take charge of the cause was tabled. Simultaneously, the House of Representatives was also committing a similar welfare Bill brought by Hon Abike Dabiri to the Beni Lar-led Committtee on Youths and Women Affairs, after it scaled the hurdle of second reading. But why did it take so long for people with disabilities to be recognised as a vulnerable group to be protected? Last Tuesday, a special forum was convened by the International Republican Institute to dissect the position of people with disabilities within the framework of the Electoral Reforms of the present administration. Leadership’s KUNLE SOMORIN who was at the seminar reports:
It was an emotion laden event. Even when the active participants asked not to be pitied, nobody was in doubt that this vulnerable group of men and women with special abilities are being discriminated against, solely on the account of their physical deformities and challenges. The snag is that many of them were not born with these vicissitudes. Some of them were born free and whole, but the vagaries of human existence, inchoate policies of government, especially unchecked quackery in the health sector, reckless driving and poor infrastructure have driven many of our compatriots to the fringe of living.
The helplessness of what fate had dealt on these persons; notwithstanding, many of them have overcome the limitations of their state to carve a niche for themselves in academics, commerce, technology, the professions and other noble spheres. They are lawyers, educators, development professionals, accountants, even engineers. Some have reached the zenith of their professional callings, as professors within the ivory towers, icons in businesses and sports. But they have been united in one area, where many of them sightless, with leprous fingers, weak and distorted limbs and legs, people with hearing impairments and all have not been able to conquer: the political realm.
Yes, quite a number of them have had the good fortune of being called to serve as Special Assistants/Advisers in some 11 of Nigeria’s 36 states, but that to them is mere tokenism. “What is Special Assistant, when you have someone like Danlami Bashar, a lawyer of decades with a string of 5, degrees and you are talking of SA, why can’t he be made Attorney General of a state?” blurted a participant in reference to the President of the Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities (JANPWD). He found the expression of some of his disabled colleagues distasteful that some of have been given political appointments!
“It is a big disgrace and humiliation that the best we can get is a derogatory designation as Special Assistant on the Disabled in the states…Does it mean we are incapable of dealing with normal situations?”, he asked rhetorically.
Notwithstanding the emotiveness of the participants, it was a bull-eye for this special vulnerable group. The assemblage of some of respected technocrats and politicians drawn from the international development agencies, government, academia, bar and bench, political parties’ stalwarts and media attested to the seriousness of the issue under discourse. This more than ever underscored the attention the issue of equality before the law and the need to redress the patent imbalances in access to public offices, skewed enfranchise and limited opportunities to which the disabled groups have been exposed. The exposrue of the widening hiatus now as the country embarks on another journey to review its constitution and reform Electoral system could not have come at a better auspicious moment.
Led by eminent jurist, Justice Bola Babalakin as chairman, ably assisted by the immediate past chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission and retired president of the Appeal Court, Justice Mustapha Akanbi, the tone was set for an intellectually stimulating exercise. The Guest Speaker was iconoclastic university teacher and constitutional lawyer, Dr. Osagie Obayuwana. While papers were presented across three sessions on the following sub-themes: Elections and People with Disability: An Overview, presented by Ms. Ekaette Judith Umoh, the Executive Director Family-Centred Initiatives for Challenged Persons (FACICP); Advocating the Rights of People With Disability: The Role of the Media by Mohammed Okerejor, a former Director of News Voice of Nigeria and later managing director of DAAR Communications and Political Participation of People with Disability: The Way Forward addressed by Ladi Iliya, the National Vice President of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC).
Opening the session, Justice Babalakin stressed the inevitability of the main theme. He noted that it was a long-overdue process of ensuring that people who are physically challenged are engaged constructively in the nation’s electioneering process “in a manner that results in improved participation and representation.” He called on members of the National Assembly and journalists that it was a divine mission to ensure that those otherwise not mainstreamed into the governance process of Nigeria are released from the shackles of marginalisation and unorthodox forces of eternal subjugation.
“People with disabilities are products of natural existence”, he enthused.” They found themselves where nature placed them. It is therefore the duty of the entire populace to make them happy”. He reminded participants as co-travellers on this planets, it behoves the lawmakers and advocacy groups to avail the disabled persons of empathy, love and for government to consciously accord them the “the course of freedom, to rights and privileges of citizenship”. These, he explained are the rights to vote and be voted for.
Waxing poetic the octogenarian legal luminary said:
Yesterday is cancelled cheque
Tomorrow is promissory Note
Today is ready cash.
To explicate his justification of the need not to brood about the past, but the expediency of the speeding up of the integration process of the disabled.
Country Director of the International Republican Institute, Dr. Mourtada Deme and the Mission Director of the United States agency for International Development, Ms Sharon Cromer asseverated the underlining principles behind the USAID-IRI intervention as part of the democracy-strengthening mission globally, a mandate that is being pursued in over 140 countries.
For them, by providing political exposure and experience to those who did not have ample opportunity to participate, political space within Nigeria would be expanded through advocacy campaigns in order that respect of peers and reluctance to challenge the status quo would be relegated.
Insisting that USAID and IRI are mere facilitators, Deme said it was only to provide a forum for interaction that the summit was convoked. Quoting copiously from international conventions and Declarations, he situated the position of people with disabilities as being at par with and not inferior to the so-called able bodied men and women. These laws include Article 1 in the 30 Articles embodying the Universal declaration of Human Rights which proclaims that: “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”, even when he observed that in the last two decades, international attention on people with disabilities had thinned down and eclipsed by advocacy from other vulnerable groups, such as gender activism, child’s rights advocacy. He recalled that Nigeria is signatories to a number of such conventions, even as there is a groundswell of opinion that they are yet to be domesticated into the country’s statute books.
He called for concerted efforts to give recognition of the special needs of the most vulnerable people and the urgency to promote the realisation of these ideals.
“It is not enough for government to refrain from taking actions that could negatively impact, the obligation is there for government to take positive action to reduced the disadvantages and give appropriate preferential treatment to vulnerable groups so as to ensure full participation and equality”, he exhorted.
To drive the process of inclusiveness, participants agreed to trash the following desiderata for People with Disabilities within the composite framework of the Political Reform Agenda:
- Is information on voters’ registration and the electoral processes accessible to everyone?
- Do civic education projects carry information in accessible format for the deaf and the blind, such as sign language and Braille?
- Are there appropriate methods for assisting voters who may have difficulty voting themselves?
- Are ballot and electoral information accessible to the deaf and the blind?
- Are the registration and polling places accessible to the physically handicapped?
- Are polling officials aware of their responsibilities to the deaf and the blind?
- What can we do to change the current system to improve accessibility to the electoral processes?
- Is there a legal framework regulating government policy on disability issues?
- Are there mechanisms to ensure representation of persons with disabilities in the constitution, Acts of Parliaments and other documents
- Are disability issues mainstreamed in the critical sectors like health, education, employment, and transportation?
- To what extent does government collect data on the use of its services by people with disabilities
Having set the ground norms, panellists reflected on them and proffer possible solutions.
Taking an overview on the electoral processes and people with disabilities, Ms Judith Umoh, herself physically challenged, stated that the world over people with disabilities face obstacles from enjoying their fundamental rights and freedom. She noted that because of the peculiarities of these sociological groups it behoves of government to break the umbilical cords of environmental, social, economic and political inhibitions to the realisation of their full potentials.
She dismissed the term “disability”, as a social construct and “not a description of our inabilities”. Arguing that treating issues of disability as “charity’ is in itself uncharitable because of the innate potentials and capabilities of the people so described as disabled. According to her issues relating to PWDs are human rights issues, as according to her “well over 19 million Nigerians” are with one form of disability or the other.
What To Do
Peeved by the seeming apathy of the political leadership, Umoh enjoined the legislators present to think through and expedite action on the Bills before them dealing with disability issues. Article 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, she said deals with Political Participation of People with Disabilities, where it is enshrined the state parties should guarantee “effective and full” participation, including ensuring voting access, facilities and materials in consonance with their needs and rights of choice and understanding.
Some of the challenges highlighted as exemplified in the Nigerian case are exclusion of these 19-24 million Nigerians in the electoral processes. Crowded out of the political space, persons with disabilities by snide and negative media, they have limited tools of amplified election.
One such pejorative classification was a banner headline in a national daily that reads : “A Cripple for the Post of Local Government Chairman”.
Another major challenge highlighted are that: “The registration and voting processes are muddled, not disability sensitive; there are no sign language interpreters at the registration and polling booths, electoral materials are not in Braille’s and not accessible to the blind. Amputees and leprosy survivors are disenfranchised because they are not able to cast their votes due to absence of thumb and in most cases there is the lack of physical access to registration and polling booths for wheelchair users.
In another breathe, the disabled complained that the insensitivity of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) discriminate against them in their employment procedure.
The 2006 Electoral Acts also came under scrutiny. According to the group the Constitution which in Section 42 and 43 talked about grounds of discrimination does not take cognisance of people with disabilities which to them have been major ground of discrimination in all spheres. They proposed that a clause should be inserted to provide for “Affirmative Action” for persons with disabilities”. Moreover, they urged the National Assembly to replace the word “may” in Section 57(2) of the Electoral act to be replaced with “shall” to make the laws enforceable.
It was also suggested that a sub-section of Section 57 should compel INEC to provide separate queue or priority voting for persons with disabilities; while INEC should provide in its guidelines for amputees and leprosy survivors alternative method of voting.
They also seek an amendment to the constitution to make it mandatory for INEC to reserve 10 percent of its staff strength for the disabled.
The Role Of The Media
Mallam Mohammed Okorejior’s presentation dwelt extensively on the expected role of the media to help people with disabilities overcome the legion of challenges before them. He challenged PWDs to engage in self-examination before embarking on support-seeking for their self-assertion. He pointed out that it is antithetic to modern ethos for PWDs to consign themselves to mendicants or “social outcasts that should live on crumbs from the masters table”, especially those who take advantage of little setbacks and subject themselves to “living on doles”. He lauded JONAPWD for carrying the campaign for emancipation away from the street to the desks and the boardrooms.
He pleaded with journalists to celebrate the achievement and coming of age of some of the disabled persons and that there is a need to sensitise the reading and listening public that “a blind man is not a mentally deranged man, and can go on to become a lawyer; and that a lame man is not halted in speech and can go out to become a politician…” He challenged the disabled persons who have conquered the limitations of their circumstance to get involved in partisan politics in order to defrost age-old stereotypes about PWD.
To lap up the expenses that could go into promotion of the exploits of the PWDs, he suggested intervention of corporate bodies, while advising the media not to jettison this social responsibilities by being too pecuniary over advocacy programmes and sustained campaign for the disabled.
He noted that because the Nigerian media is known for its responsiveness and responsibility, he was certain they it will partner with the JONAPWD. He reeled out PWD who have by virtue of their skills warmed themselves into the heart of the media as of rights, not sympathy. These include great musicians like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles. Recently, he mentioned a blind American Vietnam War veteran who won a golf tournament and became a celebrity every newsman was looking for. “This is the sort of thing the media in Nigeria should be doing, that our heroes, whatever their situations, will be well sung and honoured”, he added.
The underlining principle to achieve media acclaim is the determination of the PWDs to say loud and clear: “Give me a chance to prove myself; I can do it just as you can, if not better”
Political Parties To the Rescue
Like most political parties present, the Guest speaker, Dr. Osagie Obayuwana, who chairs the National Conscience Party (NCP), said they have made provisions in their party’s constitution and manifesto to positively discriminate against the disabled persons. They are given free forms and encourage according to him. The same with the Alliance for Democracy and Action Congress represented by Hajia Saidat Sa’ad. But the ruling People’s Democratic Party, represented by Chinwe Onwuha, where most of the PWDs at the meeting eye said it would make provision for a Disability Unit to look into the welfare, incorporation and representation of the interests of the PWDs.
All in all the seminar resolved to submit the principled positions taken at the one-day event to the Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais Electoral Reforms Committee. The programme was given a boost with the presence of four key Parliamentarians including Chairman, House of Representatives Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Hon Eziuche Chinwe Ubani, his Education counterpart, Hon Farouk Lawan and Hon Beni Lar, chair, Committee on Women Affairs, as well as Hon Abike Dabiri, who is sponsoring the Bill on an Act to protect the rights of people with disabilities. They all promised to full support the effort to raise awareness and legislation on the rights of the disabled.