Government & Disability Activism In Nigeria
Leroy Moore: Thank you Julius Shemang for agreeing to be interview. Now I want to go back in time and can you give us brief historical roots of Nigeria from the time of independence from United Kingdom to now.
Julius Shemang: The history of Nigeria since independence in 1960, is tied to the fact that our Leaders just love to pay lips and eyes services. Every year they will read their budgets and earmarks billions for disability community and this money we will never feel impact because they are misappropriating and diverting it into their private pockets. Matters of fact, if they are truly committed to providing infrastructures and adequate facilities for our people, the issue of begging and destitutions will be contained and limit to a scope. But it is not so here.
Taskforce are randomly sent out to harass and intimidate supposed beggars many of who are orphans, widows, without jobs to eke a living. And since government has no plan or adequate programmes to address their plights they are found all over the towns and cities begging. We work with political parties and votes during elections but no posts or status is accorded to us other than to “assist” our traducers and oppressors. This ugly trends has continue from Independence on October 1st 1960 till date. Really, one should be worried being marginalized and very much deprived in his father/motherland. We are trying of course, and with little support we can make huge inroad and impact but the help is always not forthcoming
Leroy Moore: You told me that you became Deaf later in life and also became active in the disability rights movement. What is the difference then when you first got active to now in the disability rights movement in your city/country?
Julius Shemang: Coming into Deaf and Disability world from the world of Hearing was like been in the flame of hell. I came to see that everybody was not giving equal recognition and opportunities, and the disabled suffer more of such discrimination in the society. At some points in time I got upset at the way and manner the able-bodied population viewed disability and treat issues relating to the disabled with charity rather than as a matter of one’s right. With this, I began to think out ways of helping myself and other disabled in the state and nation at large. I went to New Nigerian Newspaper (NNN) headquarter here in Kaduna State with the sole aim of seeking space in the paper where I can be putting pen to paper on issues of the disabled so as to advocate for them and to draw the attention of government and society. A man I was introduced to who I later learned was an Editor of the paper, told me having listened to my mission that “SPECIAL EDUCATION NO BE JOURNALISM” and that since I studied special education I should go to any Deaf school in the state and look for teaching job there. His comment didn’t deterred me as I told him that I had what it takes to write a story and that I be given a chance at least to prove the ability in my disability. He then directed me to see one MEVER AYILA, news Editor at the newsroom whom I was told will be taking charge of my issue. I did my first write up in the paper titled “THE DEAF WANT TO BE HEARD” which discussed how the Deaf were being denied admissions into higher schools like College of education, Polytechnic and University to read courses of their choice, the lack of employment for them and other sundry issues. That was the beginning of my involvement in advocating for the rights of people living with disability then. NNN is one of the many legacies of late Sir Ahmadu Bello the then Premier of Northern Nigeria. Apart from NNN I also got involved in writing and reporting both news and features/opinion articles in other media organizations including television and radio. People begin to have a second thought rethinking about people living with disability unlike before when their opinions were all negative. From there, I took the initiative further by founding my own newspaper - Kafanchan Times. I got help from some Journalists who partnered with me. I was able to float the newspaper, and it comes out once every month. It more than addressed the issues of Disability Rights which I have been advocating for for long. Lack of serious funding and my teaching job later contributes toi collapsing of the paper, I still wish to revive it but economic recession bites harder here.
Leroy Moore: You are the fourth Nigerian with a disability in the last five years, I had a chance to interview from musicians to activists. Tell us about organizations for people with disabilities in Nigeria and how were they got established and what have they been working on?
Julius Shemang: There are different organizations OF and FOR people living with disabilities in Nigeria. Organizations OF people living with disabilities are those organizations that are formed and own by Nigerians living with disabilities. The Joint National Association of Persons With Disabilities (JONAPWD) is the mother or umbrella body of all Nigerians living with disabilities with headquarter in Abuja the Federal Capital Territory and branches in each of the 36 States in Nigeria. JONAPWD is a collection of and coming together of the various clusters of people with disability, the Deaf, the Blind, the Albinos, the Mentally Retarded, the Physically Challenged, the Lepers and others categories as disabled into one big umbrella in order to fight a united and common front. Before the establishment of JONAPWD each cluster was formed as a Non-Government Organization (NGO) to advocate and fight for the welfare and rights of her members and with each group making different requests to government which was seen as improper for people working for common and similar objectives, hence the birth of JONAPWD as a mouth-piece. Other orgganizations of people living with disabilities also exist and are playing supportive roles.
On the other hand, organizations FOR people with disabilities are those organizations that are established by normal people with general focus on issues of people with disabilities sharing similar goals and objectives with those of people with disabilities. We have been working assidously on inclusive policies such as education, employment, electoral system, economics empowerment, information, accessibility, participation, etc, as well as the ongoing advocacy and campaign to get the Nigeria Government sign and pass the national disability rights bill into law with an independent implementation commission in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of persons with disabilities which Nigeria is a signatory. Nigeria currently has a huge population of 180 millions out of which 25.5 millions are people living with disabilities who deserve better life. Come to think of it, Nigeria Government recently came up with a law banning street begging especially in the marginaldized north where the number of beggers is high, and with no measures put in place the law has been passed in Kaduna State. This is against the human dignity and rights of our members and violation of the United Nations Treaty on the Convention of Persons with Disabilities which Nigeria entered into. This is something we have been working on and it is ongoing.
Leroy Moore: You used to publish a newspaper for people with disabilities tell us about the newspaper and will you ever bring it back?
Julius Shemang: Like every registered organization be it media, association, foundation, etc, KAFANCHAN TIMES newspaper is intact. The paper was established in the year 2006 as a grassroot voice showcasing ability in disability and seeking to bridge the gap between the weak and the strong, the disabled and the able-bodied. The paper focus in all sphere of human endeavour not just disability issues. Production and circulation had to be put on halt a few years ago due to some constraints ranging from financial to marketing. The none return of sell proceeds by vendors to produce subsequent editions and the lack of funds to set up better structures for its operation were the major setback. The organization website also eased to continue as we did not have the means to maintain it. Although its Bank Account is intact. Re-organization is what we are doing to revamp the paper back to life and we are hoping this will come to pass soon.
Leroy Moore: I read that the Nigerian’s government hasn’t sign into law a Disability Rights Law although advocates have been pushing for it for a long time. Can you give us a history of the advocacy for the Disability Rights Law and the reaction of the government?
Julius Shemang: The struggle for a disability rights law began with the demand for the creation of a federal and state ministries for Persons with Disability affairs in Nigeria. This started some years back then and in line with united nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. The demand could not be met as government said there was no funds for the creation of such ministries. Yet, government has created ministries to address militant, women, youths and others plight. We told them they can do it but they fear doing it will led them to loss lots of money which they usually divert to their own private pockets.
Leroy Moore: I read that in 2014 Nigeria was elected into the United Nations Committee of Experts on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs)), in recognition of its commitment to addressing the plight of PWDs. However like you said how can the government implement this treaty when they haven’t pass its own Disability Rights Law?
Julius Shemang: Yes Nigeria was elected into that United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (UNCRPD) committee as you have rightly observed, but it is just to continue the status quo. We were hardly consulted. Frankly speaking, we have soundly educated persons ready to work to uplift our community but their efforts are being sabotaged. For Government to implement anything, those rabble rouser who are fond of sponsoring candidates should back off and allow us elect credible candidates who will be accountable and answerable to the community. Not those who operates like a secret cult in a matter that concern us.Do you know that here, whenever our so-called leaders travelled out to attend conferences and other events, we hardly heard from them feedback on the programme and we know nothing that transpired in such events. They have been like that and continue to be worse. They only respect their sponsors.
Leroy Moore: Now can you give us a window into everyday lives of Nigerians with disabilities from children to mothers?
Julius Shemang: Everyday, PWDs in Nigeria from a little infant to an old adult face challenges. Many are indigent, have no work and doesn't know what the day hold. Those who have work must still wake up to reality that they can be sacked or suspended from their work place! Sometimes some people who are anti-disabled will frame up an innocent PWD and that will lead to their dismissal, all on account of their disability and the absence of law to protect them. Need not tell you that there is huge competition for work as even University graduates roams the streets for job for many years. The PWDs are the least paid workers. They also enjoy little benefits. Unlike able-bodied counterparts who enjoy plenty. Need not tell you also that so many younger able people Lord it and bossed their disabled counterparts and some are wicked. They have this negative mindset and thinking that "thank God that I am not a disabled and won't allow this person get too much lest he or she "infect" me with disability! "
Many disabled parents struggled to feed their young, pay school fees and accommodation, etc. It's not easy as their take home pay is small. And they are expected to shoulder lots of responsibilities like their hearing counterparts. Many of them have aged dependent parents and relations also to cater for.
Those who are in self-employment complained bitterly that able-bodied people do not patronize them like non-disabled because of fear of catching disability but we are able through our associations to organize many workshop and seminars to educate and create awareness that disability is not contagious. We also fight for our People's Rights but all these need funds. We are really struggling with funds especially with economic recession starring us in the face.
Therefore, we shall be appreciative and grateful for any meaningful support we can receive from any individuals, groups, corporate organizations, etc, both at home and abroad to further empower us in our drive to create awareness and to empower our people.
Leroy Moore: Do you know the advocacy and music of Grace Alache Jerry, a musician and advocate with a disability in Nigeria? If so, how can her work help the present situation for Nigerians with disabilities?
Julius Shemang: Yes. Grace Alache and several others sangs but it does little to change negative mindset and misconceptions. However, when other international world acclaimed disability heroes like Nick Vujicic, etc, visited Nigeria, we always see people cry while listening to them. But, still we have a long way to go because we have no law.
We desire more coming of these international disability achievers and heroes to our country to help us in our fight for emancipation and struggle from centuries of slavery and total lack of political will for true policy changes in Nigeria.
Leroy Moore: Now let’s go into this government bill to ban people working on the streets (what mainstream press call begging). I read that the government has painted this bill as safety and requiring children to be in school bill. Give us how people with disabilities view this bill and the history of this bill.
Julius Shemang: Actually, they are lying. If you are here, you will see these beggars, sitting quietly in some corners where people can see them and “donate” their widows mite. It doesn’t really need the alarming shouts the government is dissipating energy to combat. You must also know that our people are very religious, they love to give beggars so they can pray for them. These “elitists” government officials want Nigerian cities to be clean like New York and London without providing necessary infrastructure first and they are banning beggars. You know what/ The same elites will be looking for beggars to donate to when they are facing storms of life like business collapse, health problems etc. In other words, they are just being hypocrites!
Leroy Moore: How nongovernmental organizations and international development organizations are part of the current situation?
Julius Shemang: NGOs and the Civil Societies are behind us motivating and encouraging us. However, many of them are reluctant to send funds to us because there is no remote guarantee that all will be well soon in as much as they desire to assist, they also wish their efforts are not in vain.
It is frustrating for some of them to spend live savings to campaign and back us up only to watch the problem they are trying to help us solve remained the same. Mobility and lack of employment is the greatest problem we are facing. On our own, we are forming co-operative body, ready to farm and engage in business entrepreneurships soon as we get some funds. Many are willing to learn skills too. Some International Organizations and even local ones also sometimes contribute to our problem by dabbling into our elections affairs. They want their own candidates to win. But, some of these candidates aren’t popular with their people. This way our problems rather become complicated.
Leroy Moore: Many people across the world have saw your pictures of the protests and read articles. You also said that a lot more people couldn’t join the protest because of a lack of funds. Give us your view on how the protest grew and where have you protest.
Julius Shemang: Like i said earlier, many cannot come to join the protest because the state is divided into 23 local government areas and many are living in the remotest parts of the state. To really help them to attend will need huge budget. JONAPWD only have a rickety 10 seater Bus which is aging and could not cover long distances without needing repairs.
Government is deliberately starving us of funds in order to incapacitate us from mobilizing disability community in Kaduna State. In order therefore to register our grievances against the government insensitivity in the passage of street begging bill without provisions, we sacrificed every little amount from our pockets to occupy the Government House Kaduna, the seat of power so that the world will know that all is not well in Kaduna State and the need to correct these abnormalities.
It is not that Government cannot pass our disability laws or the UNCRPD Protocol. The problem really is lack of political will. Also many of them who have Special Needs Children like us whom we are canvassing for sponsorship and identification are still reluctant to join us and partner with us because most of their children were sent to elite schools and institutions overseas and they feel stigma of our disability. However, some of them do support us secretly without making show it.
Leroy Moore: What are disabled youth saying about this ban and how are the contributing to the protest?
Julius Shemang: The youths are very much part of the struggle. They have been frustrated, marginalized and deprived. They long for social justice in the equitable distribution of jobs and everything. They want to be listened to and be allowed to have a voice.
In fact we have youth wings and they are very active and mobile in all our organizations.
Leroy Moore: Beyond this ban and passing the Disability Rights Law, what do you want the government, the citizen of Nigeria and the international disability/non-disability community to do?
Julius Shemang: We want proper setting up of Disability Empowerment and Vocational Training Centre where various skills and vocations can be impacted to people with disabilities so that they will be self sustaining and economically independent and be gainfully employed as many are jobless and roaming the streets of major cities begging for food and sustenance. This means they will be trained and the government or donor agencies will help us to fund the training since most of them are from poor families who may not be able to pay for the trainings.
There is a piece of land given to the associations by previous administrations (Kaduna State Government). If we can get funds to develop it into Vocational Training Centre and modern shopping complex it will go a long way in bettering the lives of our people in the state. We also considered transportation and farming skills for our people. If we can have farms where we can produce food there will be money and job.
Leroy Moore: We, Poor Magazine, the San Francisco Bayview Newspaper and disabled activists in the US are with you so please give us some last words that I might of miss in this interview and share how can people stay in contact?
Julius Shemang: I should be frank enough to say that "POOR MAGAZINE" is the second international organization that got identified with us. Before now, it was and still Chief Eric Ndubueze Ufom of "Equal Rights for Persons With Disabilities, International, USA" who has been supportive. Kaduna State has the third largest population of PWDs in Nigeria and is expected not to be less than six hundreds thousands if proper census is conducted and that is why we want this census badly.
Leroy Moore: In the US we have histories of racist , classist laws against poor people-homeless people sitting on the streets, asking for money- "begging" or panhandling as they call it in the US - they have made laws rooted in English colonial law- to criminalize our lives and our way of survival- what is the history in Nigeria of criminalization of begging?-
Julius Shemang: The Law here of criminalizing begging is not yet effective because the government are paying lip services to employment and rehabilitation of people living with disabilities.
Leroy Moore: Has there always been anti-poor people-laws- anti begging laws- are they rooted in British laws?
Julius Shemang: Traditionally, the Almajiris-Street urchins in the North, most of them from broken homes further compounded the problem of serious business of rehabilitating the disabled. So many destitutes. And thoughh Government built Rehabilitation Centers, they were ill equipped and poorly staffed. Corruption also goes on at these so-called Rehabilitation Centers as foods and items including equipment meant for use of inmates are always diverted by corrupt personnel. When the inmates are suffering so much for lack of care, many will abandoned the centers to look for better alternative via begging around for livelihood.
Leroy Moore: Also, how does general society support or not support poor and homeless people in Nigeria? - Who supports the ban other than govt
Julius Shemang: The general society supports poor mostly through religious and faith based organizations since government has failed woefully in discharging their responsibilities. Hence we have mega Churches and Mosques making millions from welfare and charity works. Some of them also Institute zero percent rates Banks and lend to the poor. They use this mostly as a gimmick to attract members. Only the government support the ban on Street Begging. Some wealthy people may like it but most of them fear from religious points of view that they will lose blessings because these Beggars pray for them. As to housing, government has no concrete plan! Most poor areas and slums are taken over and turned to boulevards housing the rich and wealthy. Houses constructed by government are out of reach of the poor. The poor paid so much for accommodation. About five to six of them may manage a room. To save costs government only help a little in transportation by allowing us move freely but not on every routes.
Leroy Moore: Where are you allowed to be? - are there certain areas you are relegated to?
Julius Shemang: Areas that our members are restricted from are mostly the busiest and commercial points like markets, motorparks, and other big public gathering points. And these are the areas where our members mostly eke a living for themselves and other dependants. These are the metropolitan areas /cities. We are only allowed in very less public areas like the rural areas and other isolated places where our member hardly get a penny to fend for themselves talk less of other dependents.
Leroy Moore: We also have a concept of gentrification in the US- also rooted in British colonial concept of Gentry- meaning that if richer people move into a neighborhood it suddenly means more police presence and more anti-poor people-laws and more harassment and arrests of homeless people, panhandlers-? is that the same there?
Julius Shemang: To really assist us we need help to conduct population survey to know the actual numbers of disabled. If we have an accurate headcount and file for each PWD member including those living in remote areas, our advocacy works will be easy.
To do this we need told and equipment and knowledgeable staff to carry out the head count and to issue certificate of disability to each member. We must identify special schools and disabled People's organizations so that administration will be easy.
We lack equipment and many other important needs in our office which could have help us tremendously in discharging our duties. This is where your organization and others can come in. We are even looking at the possibility of travelling out to study some disability based organizations in order to learn best practices and obtain knowledge and information. Unfortunately, we rarely get sponsorship as government and people we look up to always disappoints. Anyway, we thank you so much for this interview. God bless you richly good.