The discrimination against persons with disabilities is a global phenomenon. However, most countries of the world have moved from such discriminatory practices to an inclusive society for persons with disabilities. The population of persons with disabilities in Nigeria, which is about 30 million, is higher than the entire population of five countries in the West African sub-region. Unfortunately, Nigeria is one of the major countries in Africa where little or no attention is paid to the plight of persons with disabilities, hence their exclusion from governance, electoral process, healthcare, education, employment, and social and community life.
With a plethora of legislations at the international, regional, and national levels[i]for the protection and promotion of the rights of persons with disabilities, one would have expected persons with disabilities in Nigeria to be on the same pedestal with persons with disabilities in other countries in terms of access to healthcare, education, employment and political process. Nigeria signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and Optional Protocol as far back as 28th May 2007 and 27th October 2008 respectively, but the level of compliance is not significant to alleviate the sufferings of persons with disabilities.
Article 4 of the Convention sets out the general obligations of State parties, which include the adoption or modification of relevant law and policy to ensure and promote the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for persons with disabilities, without discrimination of any kind. It further states that State parties must closely consult with and actively involve persons with disabilities through their representative organizations in the development and implementation of relevant legislative, policy, and other decision-making processes. Though Nigeria is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) and its Optional Protocol, the provision in section 12 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria limits the potentials of these instruments. (“Section 12 of the 1999 Constitution: (1) No treaty between the Federation and any other country shall have the force of law except to the extent to which any such treaty has been enacted into law by the National Assembly.”
The executive and legislative arms of the government of Nigeria never thought of the importance of this instrument and the need to push it for domestication, hence the continuous denial, stigmatization, discrimination and abuse of persons with disabilities in the country. The response of state and non-state actors on disability issues is based on the charity model. Kudos must, however, be given to organisations of persons with disabilities and other civil society organisations who pushed rigorously for the passage of the Disability Bill and its assent into law by President Muhammadu Buhari on January 23, 2019.
The Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act 2018 was only signed intoon January 17, 2019. The actualization of this legal framework on disability was a struggle of 18 years. Although about seven states had Disability Law prior to this Disability Act, most of the states passed the Bill and secured the assent of their governors for political reasons. The population of persons with disabilities in Nigeria is a good number for any political thinker to give them legislation or policy to woo their votes during elections. Unfortunately, the electoral process does not accommodate persons with disabilities. A particular state with Disability Law since 2009 has yet to constitute a commission or a board for the implementation of that law. In fact, setting up a commission or a board may not change the status quo as the letters of the legislation/law adopt a charity model instead of a rights-based approach in addressing the needs of persons with disabilities.
Lagos State is known for setting the pace in law and development issues. The Lagos State Special Peoples’ Law 2011 addresses disability issues from a rights-based approach. The law also sets up a commission to oversee the affairs of persons with disabilities. Unfortunately, the implementation of the letters of the law is still a challenge 12 years after.
Government at the local, state, and federal levels pay little or no attention to the need for inclusive education for children with disabilities, hence many of them are out of school and on the streets soliciting for financial help from society. When the exceptionally brilliant ones among this community of people painstakingly complete elementary and secondary education, they find it difficult to access tertiary education. Buildings in tertiary institutions are constructed without regard for persons with disabilities. These buildings like many public buildings are not accessible. Employment discrimination based on disability occurs among state and non-state sectors. It is even more challenging for women with disability.
Generally, little attention is paid to the health and welfare of ordinary Nigerians. It is worse for people with disabilities.The poor health infrastructure in the country has not been able to guarantee inclusion for persons with disabilities. The stigmatization and discrimination from most medical personnel from a misinformed perspective about persons with disabilities pushes them into self-medication or use of alternative medicine rather than face humiliation in the hands of medical personnel.
Unfortunately, many of the health workers have no basic knowledge of human rights and the right to healthcare of persons with disability. This has in a way taken a toll on their right to health. Persons with disabilities are discriminated against based on their status and denied medical attention at various rural and urban health centres as they are in most cases treated with disdain by health workers. Almost all the hospitals in urban and rural areas are not accessible for persons with disabilities.
“There is nothing about us without us,” is the popular saying in the disability community. Unfortunately, the exclusion of persons with disabilities in political processes and practice negates this saying. Though the Act uses the word shall be encouraged to fully participate in politics and public life[ii] the concomitant relevance of this law can only be activated where there is political will. The political card is not played on merit or in the interest of the society. This is the more reason little or no attention is paid to inclusion of persons with disabilities in the political process.
The politics of exclusion of PWDs in the socio-political life of the country has to be addressed squarely. They not only deserve a place at the table of national development, they can contribute effectively to the growth of the country. The idea that government shall actively promote an environment in which persons with disabilities can effectively and fully participate in the conduct of public affairs without discrimination[iii]is practically and obviously jettisoned with the exclusion of PWDs in the leadership of any of the political parties.
With the 2023 general elections around the corner, and with the exclusion of PWDs in the past elections, shall we expect anything different from what we witnessed in the past? Only time will tell.
Ogunbiyi is an Abuja-based lawyer and the Programme Manager for African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL).