By ANIEBO NWAMU
A society is judged by the way it treats the helpless, not by the way it treats the comfortable. That’s why a lot could be said about the new agency created last month: National Commission for Persons with Disabilities (NCPD). It’s now time to diligently implement provisions in the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, 2018, to promote awareness on the rights, respect and dignity of persons with disabilities. The law adapts the recommendations of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and awards punitive damages to victims of discriminations.
Who are the “persons with disabilities” anyway? Current statistics say challenged Nigerians total more than 30 million. But I disagree: two out of every five Nigerians would claim one form of disability or the other. Apart from impairments relating to sight, hearing and speech, movement, and mental health, there are also financial handicaps. Every poor Nigerian is a person living with disability! I say so because almost every vulnerable Nigerian today is at the wind’s mercy: If you’re unemployed, you don’t get unemployment allowance. There’s no soup kitchen, as is obtainable in better-run nations, where the hungry could just walk in and eat. The homeless and the starving constantly knock at the gates of the perceived rich to ask for favours. Road accidents and certain diseases (including stroke, glaucoma and spinal cord injuries) add to the number of people with disabilities on a daily basis.
When Dora Akunyili as minister of information invented the slogan “Good people, great nation”, she did not really mean to whitewash Nigeria’s image. Nigerians are, indeed, good people; and no nation has greater potential for greatness than Nigeria. What we need is a transformational leadership that could harness the abundant resources in the country for the benefit of Nigerians. Beggars, for instance, survive in the streets because of Nigerians’ kindness. I recall a beggar in Onitsha, in the 1980s, who owned a three-story building. Those who discovered he was richer than them stopped giving him money!
These days, you find beggars who fake blindness, hearing loss or bone dislocation. “Executive beggars” put on decent clothing and ask their victims to help them with “just transport fare”. Some beg on behalf of nonexistent motherless babies’ homes. But there are truly indigent Nigerians who must depend on charity for survival. I now prefer to dash money to people whose handicap I can see.
The Nigerian government has made efforts to care for the disabled before now. Intervention programmes such as N-Power, Tradermoni, Home-Grown School Feeding Scheme and others are meant to help vulnerable Nigerians. But a commission dedicated to them might draw greater attention. The downside is that the country already boasts too many agencies whose duties dovetail into one another. And funds to run them are inadequate.
The mere mention of a 30-million population should frighten even the newly appointed executive members of NCPD: Hussaini Kangiwa is chairman and Abba Ibrahim is secretary of the commission. One person living with disability from each of six geopolitical zones of the country is a member. Perhaps they should simply help schools for the blind and for the deaf available in the country, though mainly the rich send their children there. There are other schools for challenged people – non-government organisations can help NCPD to track homes and schools for them.
Otherwise, they will have a populous nation of handicapped people to contend with. Judging by even the conservative estimate of 30 million, people with disabilities in Nigeria far outnumber many other nations. A nation of 30 million would be the 47th largest in the world and the 12th in Africa. It’s greater than the population of each of Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Niger, Australia, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. It’s larger than some seven other African countries put together. It’s bigger than many of the U.S. states including Texas, Florida and New York; a combination of Ohio, Georgia and Massachusetts doesn’t equal 30 million yet, nor does an amalgam of Illinois, Virginia and Washington.
Whatever happens, we expect the best from NCPD. An enlightenment campaign will be necessary early on. Some illiterate villagers ignorantly view handicapped people, especially those with congenital abnormalities, as people under a curse. In many parts of Africa, more than a century ago, twins and albinos suffered similar discrimination and social exclusion. And the corpses of those who died of diseases that caused stomach protrusion or swollen legs were thrown into evil forests! Some people still maltreat children and old people branded “witches” and “wizards”. It’s sad that such primitive beliefs and customs still afflict many Africans even in this digital age.
Since mainly people living with disabilities will run the new commission, they should make maximal use of the platform now created for them. There should be no iota of corrupt practice there. Any disabled person who steals from the public treasury is truly “cursed” and deserves further punishment. The commission is empowered to formulate and implement appropriate policies and guidelines for the education and social development of persons with disabilities. It’s also mandated to prepare schemes for the promotion of social welfare and general well-being of persons with disabilities. Thanks to social and mainstream media, it’s now easy to disseminate information to a large audience.
And I hope the commission will be funded fairly well. The minister of humanitarian affairs, disaster management and social development, Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouq, who has been overjoyed since the appointment of the executive members of NCPD was announced, would do well to nurture her creation. NPCD is under her ministry’s supervision.
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