Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku urges government to move beyond rhetoric and work towards giving Nigerians access to water
Long before President Muhammadu Buhari signed Executive Order 009 in November 2019, issues relating to open defecation, and inherent dangers that Nigerians face in defecating openly have been matters strong in public discourse. A report in the Vanguard newspaper of 20thFebruary 2020, with the title, 47.5million Nigerians engage in open defecation, says FG, indicates that from the time that Mr. President signed executive order 009 less than six months ago, most Nigerians still do not have access to water sanitation and hygiene.
The problem is two-fold at the moment and they are related. One is that even though governments in most states of the federation frequently ask Nigerians not to defecate in public, there are as yet no functional public toilets in public institutions like schools, markets, government institutions and hospitals. While there may be toilets in most of these public institutions, issues of access to these toilets is often a big issue – most of the toilets in public institutions are either reserved for the oga for issues of respect and decorum, but also for the fact that the toilets cannot run because all modern toilet systems run on water, and in our environment where even drinking water is hard to come by.
And at a time when there is an explosion of certain diseases like Ebola, Coronavirus and Lassa fever, issues of public toilets or toilets in public institutions come to the fore. With functional toilets in public institutions or at street intersections, most of these diseases will constitute little or no hazard to Nigeria’s teeming population. Take the example of the Federal Capital Territory Abuja. Even though most public institutions indeed have functional toilets, can the same be said for toilets on major and minor streets in Abuja? Absolutely not. At many prominent street corners and intersections, (and you find this in all major capital cities in Nigeria) we find warning inscriptions such as Do Not Urinate Here – Fine N100 thousand’, without ever finding a toilet on any street corner or intersection to take care of our pressing urinary needs.
While there may be indeed some toilets at motor parks and markets, the risks involved with using them often far outweigh the need to answer the call of nature in these public toilets. The problem is often that there is no water and therefore sanitary conditions are very poor. Those unable to hold their systems, and have taken the risks have often contracted serious infections. Therefore, the opportunity cost of not using a dirty public toilet is the issue of open defecation.
On a certain day at the Central Hospital in Benin City, I felt the urge to empty my bladder. At every point where I made inquiries concerning the toilet, it was either that I was asked to ‘piss anywhere you want’, or that the people I was making the inquiries to would look at me with some curiosity. I was not to know about this dangerous toilet until I got there – and had to flee from there if I didn’t want to commit suicide. That is a public toilet, and within a public institution. But within that public institution, there were other toilets in the various departments and are under lock and key. Out there in the city centre, the Ring Road or King’s Square, there is only one public toilet we know of, in front of the Oredo Local government Council. We only just knew about it on 21st February 2020, after about five years of living here.
We have consistently advocated that during the just-concluded National Festival of Arts and Culture, and before the National Sports Festival to end in April 2020, it would be expedient for the Edo State government to construct toilets at the Akpakpava, Sakponba, New Lagos Road and Airport junctions, and not just because of these national events but for Edo to blaze the trail in providing access to clean public toilets for her people. Part of the tragedy of our collective existence in Benin City is that while there is no water to flush public toilets, an administration spent millions of naira to construct a massive water fountain on the museum premises. If these funds were properly channeled on resolving issues associated with the state water corporation, issues related to inability of residents to use public toilets would not arise.
But our condition must not necessarily be this foul. Life and the living thereof is so much difficult without including issues concerning conduct or misconduct of bodily functions in the absence of the systems. In stating this, we take cognizance of the state of toilets in other parts of the world, and of the economic significance of these toilets. Across board, and across all spectrums of existence in most cities in Europe, human and animal waste have been put to use to produce biogas and help to mitigate climate change. Let us cite one specific example in Germany. After animal waste is collected, the Germans channel them into very large silos (and they look like our refineries) where the waste is mixed together with genetically modified grains like sorghum, maize and millet.
Gas thus produced from this chemical combination of animal waste and genetically modified organisms is driven right through underground pipes to most homes to the extent that one, the government generates an income from this gas distribution. Two, the system works well as an aspect of renewable energy source which has no relationship whatsoever with the utilization of fossil fuels to generate energy needs. And three, even though there are individual issues with the use of human and animal waste for biofuel and other energy needs, it does not devalue the fact that there are people somewhere creatively turning human and animal wastes to productive use.
Therefore, prior to signing that Executive Order 009, these are the issues the government ought to have considered or is considering. Making a commitment to end open defecation in Nigeria before 2025, without ensuring that there is no access to water or that there is a water policy driving that commitment is like cutting our noses to spite our faces. The government knows it would not be there in 2025. It knows that if its party takes the elections in 2023, chances are that it would have bequeathed an unattainable quest to its successor, or to the opposition.
Either way, we encourage the present administration to move beyond the rhetoric and the illocutionary and begin in earnest to work towards giving Nigerians access to water. Nigerians have become local government areas to themselves in this area in sinking boreholes at random to meet their water needs. Nothing would be gained in asserting that in the indiscriminate sinking of boreholes to meet our water needs, we continue to compound issues related to climate change, and work against its mitigation thereof.
We encourage the government to deepen discussions on these issues through engagement with stakeholders working in the areas of water sanitation and hygiene. That way, that Executive Order 009, signed in November 2019 by President Buhari would not become just one of those ineffectual monuments to be arrogated to his presidency.
––Etemiku is deputy executive director, Civil Empowerment & Rule of Law Support Initiative