Onwe: Votes of 24 million Nigerians with disabilities

EXTRAPOLATING from the United Nations statistics, over 24 million Nigerians are persons living with one kind of disability or the other. They vary in the forms of their disabilities.  Thus, we have those with physical disability, that is those whose disability affects the functionality of their limbs; those with visual disability, whose impairment is the total or partial loss of sight. There are those with hearing impairment; we also have those affected by leprosy; there are those with intellectual disability; there are still those with spinal cord injury. The albinos are also there. As diverse as their disabilities may be, they are very united in their quest for a better deal from the government of the day.

   Interestingly, in recent times, there has been global renaissance of the disability rights movement which also has a tremendous impact on Nigerian disability community. Thus Nigerians with disabilities have fast ceased to be people who are detached from political participation and are just content with any crumb of charity extended to them by anybody. They have indeed changed a great deal with the changing times. The society’s reception of them is also changing for the better.  Therefore, their political culture has very considerably improved, particularly this time around. Accordingly, the percentage of persons with disabilities in Nigeria who are in possession of their Permanent Voter Card and itching to exercise their franchise is indeed amazing.

   In addition to their numerical strength, persons with disabilities are quite influential both in their respective families and the society at large. In the family for instance, persons with disabilities always command the attention of other members of the family. Then in the larger society, persons with disabilities, particularly those who excel in their fields of endeavour are always the cynosure of attention and admiration. The implication of this is that one person with disability has the capability of influencing 10 other voters. The implication of this in a democracy which is a game of number goes without saying.

   The population of persons with disabilities in Nigeria is germane in the light of the number of votes that have so far resulted into the emergence of Presidents of this country. In 1999, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo pulled 18.7 million votes to become the president. In 2003, the same Obasanjo was returned as President on the strength of 24.4 million votes.  At the 2007 election, Alhaji Umaru Yar’Adua became the President by scoring a total of 24.6 million votes. The incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan is president today on the strength of 22.4 million votes he scored at the 2011 general election. Juxtaposing this with the 24 million strength of persons with disabilities and the number of voters under their direct or remote influence, it can be said without fear of exaggeration that persons with disabilities can determine where the pendulum of victory swings in the 2015 election. 

    The core determinant of the voting pattern of the Nigerian disability community in this election will be the Nigerian Disability Right Bill which is currently awaiting the assent of the President. Every person with disability in Nigeria is sentimentally attached to this bill. It is one thing that every person with disability anywhere in Nigeria can readily connect to. No doubt, this administration has comparatively done well in involving persons with disabilities in affairs of the nation. For instance, a person with disability sits on the board of SURE-P and National Council on MSME respectively. Also, six persons with disabilities were at the National Conference. However, nothing can compare to a law that would have a wholesale impact on the lives of persons with disabilities. This bill was passed, but not assented to, under the regime of Chief Olusegun Obasanjo. It has come before President Jonathan for the second time now. Persons with disabilities have employed various tactics to actualise the assent to this bill. They have lobbied, demonstrated and even litigated. It is worthy of note that other African countries are ways ahead in legislating for persons with disabilities.  Uganda for instance, has no fewer than six different legislations covering different aspects of lives of persons with disabilities. Kenya’s legislation for persons with disabilities was enacted as far back as 2003. Ghana passed the “Persons with Disabilities Act” in 2006.

    It is imperative that Nigeria enacts a disability law not just because of her giant status in Africa, but also on the strength of the fact that she has not only signed unto, but has also ratified, the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Consequently, by virtue of Article 4 (1)(a) of that Convention, Nigeria undertook to adopt all legal and administrative measures for the implementation of the rights recognised in the convention. Thus, enactment of Nigerian Disability Rights Act will fulfil Nigeria’s undertaking under the said Convention.

   Although the President has promised to assent to the Nigerian Disability Rights Bill, reports from the disability community have it that persons with disability desire to have the bill assented to before the election date. If the bill is assented to as promised by the President before the election date, it is most likely that persons with disability would vote for the President en masse, with the attendant sympathy votes of others. On the other hand, should the disability bill remain un-assented to till the election, persons with disability may feel betrayed and may cast their votes the other way in protest, or even abstain from voting. This is understandably so considering the fact that as they would be at the receiving end in the eventuality of electoral violence, they may be disposed to stick out their neck only where their collective fundamental interest is visibly guaranteed. A disability law for Nigeria will not be indulging persons with disabilities, rather it will create the enabling environment for them to maximally contribute to national development. On the whole, enacting a federal disability law in Nigeria will actually be in the interest of all Nigerians. 

• Onwe is a Lagos-based public interest and disability rights lawyer.



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