Lagos, Nigeria – Nigerians know when election season is nigh.
Politicians eating corn in the market, dancing with children on the street, and giving out bags of rice, plastered with pictures of their faces, as souvenirs – familiar signs in the country’s politics that favour personality cults over ideology – become common.
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Like clockwork, those signs began reappearing last June when registration for the 2023 elections began.
For years, voter turnout has been on a decline, from 65 percent in 2003 to 34 percent in 2019, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission. Pundits and politicians often blame voter apathy and electoral violence, ignoring what certain stakeholders in the electoral process say is a lack of inclusiveness in Africa’s largest democracy.
And that has given Lois Auta, paralysed from polio since she was two years old, cause to worry – for herself and other people living with disabilities (PWDs).
During the 2019 general elections, Auta ran for a federal lawmaker position in the capital Abuja, under the Accord Party. “It was filled with good and bad moments,” she told Al Jazeera. “Coming out to run showed resilience and courage, despite the factors that can stop a woman with disability.”
Recent data for persons living with disabilities in Nigeria is hard to come by, but according to a 2018 report from the World Bank, one in six Nigerians are living with a disability.
Yet, Auta is one of very few to run for political office or even participate in an electoral process that has historically given little attention to the needs of this significant population.
Little wonder then that as of May 30, a month to the end of registration, PWDs accounted for less than 1 percent of completed registrations.
‘Go home and sleep’
Experts say the marginalisation of people with disabilities extends beyond elections, to other facets of life in Nigeria. Many complain of inadequate healthcare, lack of access to public buildings, and the effects of continued economic instability in a country where nearly half the citizens live in poverty.
And when they decide to vote or be voted for, the process is cumbersome if not near impossible, they say.
“The realities and treatment of three most marginalised and underrepresented demographics: women, youth and people with disabilities, all intersect,” says Ayisha Osori, former head of Open Society for West Africa (OSIWA) and author of Love Does Not Win Elections which details her experience as a female political aspirant.
“The common challenges for women and PWDs include the cost of elections, in a country with high levels of poverty and unemployment,” Osori told Al Jazeera.
During the 2019 elections, Auta had little trouble with navigation at her polling unit even though some campaign venues were not wheelchair-accessible.
After voting, she asked to fill out the INEC-designated form for feedback from PWDs to help in its planning. None of the staff was aware of its existence there or at several other polling units, as she found out later.
There were other challenges too.
“Some of us who don’t have fingers cannot vote,” she said. “People with albinism and visual impairment too. Not all polling units have access to Braille ballot paper.”
During her campaign, she had gone on a radio programme alongside two male opponents angling for the same position. A male listener called in to say there was hope for the men, but not for her. “Go home and sleep,” he said.
“People see disability and gender before the credibility and capacity of the candidate,” Auta told Al Jazeera. She lost that election but says she was inspired to keep trying to get more PWDs involved in the electoral process.
The vehicle for that has been Cedar Seed Foundation, a nonprofit she founded in 2011 to help others feeling “excluded and underrepresented”, get social protection. Its first project provided 120 wheelchairs to people in need.
Earlier this year, a new Electoral Act was signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari, with a provision for “persons with disabilities and special needs to be assisted at the polling place by the provision of suitable means of communication, such as Braille, large embossed print, electronic devices, sign language interpretation or offsite voting in appropriate cases.”
Four years ago, an INEC policy framework was launched for “the inclusion of PWDs in all aspects of the electoral process” and “to reduce the barriers they face”.
The electoral body now allows people to include their particular disability on their voter registration so it can plan for their needs, according to Luka Buba, an INEC civil society liaison official in Lagos.
Gabriel Taire, INEC officer for the Ikeja area in Lagos, told Al Jazeera the agency is increasing voter education and ensuring nationwide implementation of the framework.
“When they come, we don’t delay them….we attend to [them] immediately,” he said.
The Ikeja registration centre has a staircase and no ramps. Taire says some team members go downstairs to attend to those unable to take the stairs. He also notes Braille paper will be provided for the visually impaired and facial capture for those who cannot thumbprint.
According to Buba, INEC did not properly execute the 2018 framework during the 2019 elections because there was “no accurate data about where the assistive devices should be deployed and provisions were not made for all polling units”.
The allocated budget for disability inclusion in the 2023 elections is being channelled into creating awareness about the process and procuring magnifying glasses, tactile ballot guides, signage posters, sign language interpreters and other aids, he said.
Experts say these are good steps in the right direction but that inclusion is still far away.
“The last time I checked, poll units remained inaccessible,” says David Anyaele, founder of the Lagos-based Centre for Citizens with Disabilities (CCD). “The worst are the state electoral commissions. It is a no-go area for now in terms of access and participation in the electoral process.”
Anyaele, who has lost both arms, was instrumental in lobbying for the passage of a 2018 anti-discrimination legislation in favour of PWDs. He says CCD also reviewed drafts of the INEC framework and has been monitoring its implementation.
“The joy is that we have been able to secure a legal framework that prohibits discrimination and the other harmful practices against citizens with disabilities,” Anayele said. “We recognise the collaborative posture of some state institutions to our work [but] the election management body must take appropriate measures to [fully] implement the Electoral Act 2022.”
“I feel discriminated [against] on a daily basis as a woman with a disability [but] the framework has given a voice to persons with disabilities,” Auta said. “We are making gradual progress. Where we were 10 years ago is not where we are now.”
The conversation about inclusion
Furthermore, PWDs say the conversation about inclusion has focused only on the right to vote, as well as physical impairments. “In the community, we have people with mental disabilities,” Auta said. “I think what we can ask for is a review.”
“[And] if persons with disabilities are aspiring for an elective office, volunteer to support them,” she said.
According to Osori, a woman with disabilities winning an election in Nigeria would entail investing in building proper parties. “It would take disabled women, women in general, realising that instead of playing the game as is, they must change the game.”
This year, Auta contested for a parliamentary seat in her native Kaduna state on the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) platform but lost the primaries. She says she knows only one PWD who has won an election in Nigeria – a man who lost his reelection bid – and she is keen to change that.
“We’re at zero percent,” she said. “That’s why I want to change the narrative.”