The political activist was publicly flogged, had her hair shaved off with a broken bottle and was imprisoned 16 times.
It is just over a year since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Nigeria. Since then, 1,923 deaths have been recorded by the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). For many Persons with Disabilities (PwDs), it has been a year of exclusion and isolation, with severe economic, health and psychological consequences.
While it is thought that there are some 25 million people living with disabilities in Nigeria (15 percent of the population), there are no specialist hospitals or facilities to meet their needs. Many general hospitals which might otherwise provide services have been forced to close units because of the pandemic.
It was only in 2019 that Nigeria passed the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act and many people with disabilities say they are still unable to provide for themselves or obtain quality medical care.
During the early stages of the pandemic, when radio stations buzzed with news, advice and guidance about COVID-19, little of the information being provided took the needs of PwDs into consideration: How does a hearing-impaired person listen to radio jingles? How does a visually impaired person manage social distancing?
When “palliatives” – food items such as rice, spaghetti, instant noodles and garri (cassava flour) – have been distributed by government agencies and NGOs, it has been hard for people with disabilities to collect them. Many say they had to compete with non-disabled people at the collection points to get a share and would go home empty-handed.
Five Nigerians with disabilities share their stories:
Muheez Abdusalam: ‘No-one wants to help the blind boy’
Muheez Abdusalam, 18, is a visually impaired grammar school student in Ibadan. He also has an unpaid internship at a radio station.
In 2018, Muheez’s father died, so the family now relies on the meagre earnings from his mother’s small grocery shop as well as money occasionally given to him by his boss at the radio station.
Before the lockdown, Muheez used to move around with the help of a mobility stick which enabled him to feel his way while he was walking and to avoid obstacles. But at difficult spots, such as road crossings, he would have to rely on strangers to help him.
Right before the pandemic struck, his walking stick stopped working when a connecting wire within it snapped and he had no money to replace it. And, now, because of the risk of catching COVID and the accompanying social-distancing rules, no one wants to hold his hand to guide him across the road.
“It has been more difficult for people to assist me these times,” he says. “The first thing most of them do the moment they hear you say ‘Please’ is to run. Nobody wants to hear what next you have to say.”
The difficulties he now faces in trying to get assistance has led to him risking his life on the roads.
“Recently, I needed to get somewhere that required me to cross two lanes of the express road. I was rooted to a spot for more than 30 minutes because nobody wanted to assist the blind boy.
“I summoned the courage to cross by myself without any form of assistance. When I couldn’t bear it any more, I dashed across the first part of the road, paused, and thanked God while asking him to take me through the next part. It was God that saw me through. I could have died.”
During the lockdown from March to July last year, Muheez struggled to get to his internship at the radio station. The 45-minute trip now takes much longer because he has to spend so long crossing the roads. He gave up after four months of trying to make the commute without assistance. But staying at home, as all Nigerians have been advised to do by the government, has put him in dire economic straits.
“You asked me to stop hustling to avoid contracting the disease, that is appreciated. But you should also realise that staying at home without anyone to fetch me a kobo [the smallest coin, equal to one-hundredth of a naira] is unrealistic. So, I have to go out.”
For a time during the pandemic, Muheez could not even afford to buy a protective mask to wear outside, he says. “The provision of protective gears should also be looked into. It is not enough to continue to say ‘Protect yourself, protect yourself.’ Do something to help us achieve that.”
Raheem Yusuf Olatunji: ‘People sneeze onto your head’
While most of the official advice during the pandemic has directed people to wear a face mask and to wash their hands or sanitise, this may not be enough to keep Raheem, 32, safe.
Raheem, who lives in Bodija, Ibadan, survived polio at the age of three and now relies on a wheelchair to get around. For him, it is important not only to wear a mask but also something to cover his head.
“Whenever I go out, which is not often, I wear a cap in addition to the mask. If someone standing above me sneezes or coughs, it does not come straight down to me. The cap can take that,” Raheem explains.
As someone who has had polio, which is also caused by a virus, Raheem has been warned that he may be more susceptible to other viruses like COVID-19.
“Whether one has survived any condition or not, the best thing that you can do is to avoid any disease which may likely worsen one’s health condition,” he says. This means that he has to be extra cautious, using a sanitiser to clean his wheelchair whenever anyone touches it.
Through his company, Yutex Entertainment, Raheem works as a social entrepreneur who promotes, manages and invests in PwDs in the entertainment industry – many are poets, writers, comedians and actors. His business is struggling because concerts, plays and other events where his clients might perform have mostly been cancelled due to pandemic rules which ban gatherings of more than 50 people.
To make a little extra money on the side, he also runs a shoe-making business. But the number of customers for that business has dwindled during the pandemic and he has to be cautious about going out to buy materials for it anyway.
“There is reduction in the level of patronage because of the poverty in the land,” he says. “What people care for now is what they want to eat. They are still managing [with] their old shoes, very few are making new shoes… I don’t risk my life hunting for materials [in the markets] because I don’t know who has the virus.”
Raheem worries that PwDs will become more isolated from society as a result. “You can only depend on yourself to do some daily tasks because if the person assisting you is infected, they might unintentionally pass the virus to you.”
Abimbola Okikijesu: ‘We are human beings as well’
On a normal day, Abimbola Okikijesu, who has albinism and is in her 30s, works as a self-employed caterer and events planner in Ibadan. When she goes outside, she must wear sunscreen and sunglasses to protect her skin, which lacks melanin, and her eyes from damage the sun can cause.
Days before the lockdown was officially announced, she had landed a job making a cake for a birthday party.
However, with the lockdown in place, along with strict limitations on gatherings, the event was cancelled. Even after the lockdown was lifted in July 2020, business did not return to normal and now she has lost most of her income.
When Okikijesu heard that food provisions were being distributed by the Oyo state government to PwDs and others in need at an orphanage in Ibadan, she went to see if she could get some.
She says what she found there was chaos. Many of the more than 100 people who turned up left empty-handed, she says.
She believes the government has not taken the needs of PwDs people into consideration.
The umbrella association that represents PwDs in Nigeria is the Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities (JONAPWD), an advocacy group and charitable foundation. It has local branches across the country. However, there are also smaller charitable organisations that look after the needs of people based on their particular disability.
“For me, since there are associations responsible for each type of PWDs, the government should have gone through the associations [to distribute assistance],” Okikijesu reflects.
“This is the absence of inclusion. They see people that are ‘whole’ as the only people that deserve their attention while neglecting those with disabilities. Let them begin to see us. Let them identify with us. We are human beings as well.”
Ifeoma: ‘My dreams of walking again are on hold’
Ifeoma, a university student in her 30s, is a spinal injury survivor. She does not want to give her family name because, she says, many of her former university friends in the eastern part of Nigeria where she used to study are still unaware of her disability. Ifeoma says she feels uncomfortable with the thought of people knowing about the hardship she is facing. She has had to move from her home in eastern Nigeria to Ibadan, where she is receiving medical care at University College Hospital (UCH).
After an operation at UCH in 2015 to correct a spinal protrusion, Ifeoma could no longer walk. Her mother moved with her to Ibadan for treatment but, soon after, suffered a stroke and had to return home where she is bedridden. Now, Ifeoma lives with her 15-year-old nephew who helps care for her by doing housework, running errands and fetching water.
Ifeoma had physiotherapy for two years after her operation. Then she was told she would need more physiotherapy to improve her chances of being able to walk again. She was seven months into a further two-year course when the pandemic hit. The sessions are expensive at about 22,000 naira (about $53) each, and the taxi ride costs an additional 14,000 naira ($32). The doctors say that if she can complete her physiotherapy she stands a good chance of regaining the use of both her legs.
But the pandemic has put her physiotherapy, and therefore her dreams of walking again, on hold. The hospital she attends was flagged as a COVID hotspot early on in the pandemic and the physiotherapy unit was closed down. Even if it had not been, Ifeoma says, she would not want to go to the hospital and risk catching COVID there.
“I have not gone to the hospital again since this whole thing began. I do not go out as often as I used to. My immune system is also low and if I am exposed, I can be infected easily,” she says.
During the lockdown from April to July 2020, Ifeoma, who relies on a wheelchair to move around, fell down in her house and broke her arm.
“When I called the doctor, he told me that I should try and think on what I can do on my own to deal with the broken arm. I could not go to the hospital because of the pandemic. When the pain was becoming unbearable, someone introduced me to a doctor in another private hospital who came to my aid.” The doctor visited her home to set the break and, 14 days later, returned to remove the caste. Thankfully, her arm has since mended.
Before the lockdown, Ifeoma says she was about to start an events-planning business; she had printed posters and started to put the word out about it. But when the lockdown happened, everything ground to a halt.
“It affected me a lot, affecting even my mental health, there are times when I’ve thought of ending it all,” she says. “Sometime last week, it was some form of war. I became really tired, broke and bored. Something kept telling me to do it. Even my nephew was suspecting that as he would always ask, ‘Why are you so silent?’ I will tell him nothing.”
Ifeoma says she has only received help from women working for a non-governmental organisation who came to visit her. They gave her food and some money and replaced her damaged wheelchair.
“It is just the thought of my mother that has kept me going,” she says.
Raji Ade Oba: ‘I was arrested because I couldn’t hear the rules’
“The deaf person does not know if a hammer is coming behind him. Even if someone shouts to the deaf man to run, he does not hear and does not know what to do,” says Raji Ade Oba, a 35-year-old researcher and teacher.
He stresses the importance of social media messaging when it comes to advising people about new rules during the pandemic.
When the lockdown started in March, curfews were imposed in different parts of Nigeria and announced on the radio. But Ade Oba hadn’t heard them. So, when he left his house to go for a short walk in his neighbourhood, he did not realise it was under curfew.
“I almost got knocked down by one of the police officers from behind. I was arrested and manhandled, before being taken to the police station where I let them know that I am a special needs person, that I was unaware of the curfew at the time.
“Well you wouldn’t blame them, I did not write ‘deaf man’ on the back of my clothes. There is no way they could have known. My own disability is not visible,” he says.
“It was God that saved me that day. Nobody cares whether everybody has access to whatever information they pass around, but to them, everybody is a lawbreaker. How could I have been killed over a law I had no prior access to? Over a law nobody wants to hear you broke unintentionally? I almost got lynched.”
With the curfews also came economic hardship; his work dried up while his wife, a businesswoman, was unable to go outside to work during lockdown. Even though he has been told to register with the Nigeria National Association for the Deaf (NNAD) to receive palliative help, none has been delivered to any associations for PwDs yet.
“The truth is we can no longer continue to depend on government that hardly shows up for us at all times. The only body that can vouch for you when oppression and these social exclusion things begin to set in, is your own association.
“So, what I expected was the government should have met with leaders of PwD groups to let them understand what exactly is going on in this world of COVID-19.”
By doing this, Ade Oba believes, they would not only have understood what their needs are, but also how to meet them.
If you live in Nigeria and you or somebody you know needs help, please contact the following organisations:
Joint National Association of Persons with Disabilities (JONAPWD)
Mentally Aware Nigeria Initiative (MANI)