Debola Daniel and the Inconvenient Truth

Olusegun Adeniyi

Monday, the 2nd of April was marked globally as World Autism Awareness Day. Despite the millions of families who grapple with the challenge in our country, the day passed us by without much awareness. Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that about one in 88 Nigerian children is on the autism spectrum. That means we have more than two million autistic children in the country; children who have been left without a future. I know many families who have had to relocate abroad to seek treatment and better living condition for their autistic children and countless others who live a miserable existence in Nigeria because they are helpless.  

Unfortunately, the problem is far deeper. As I have argued repeatedly on this page, the tragedy of Nigeria is not in government failure but rather in the failure of society. The former is merely a consequence of the latter. And to that extent, until there is an attitudinal change at the level of society, we are not likely to see much improvement in the way we are governed. Today, we live in a country where to have any form of health challenge (be it mental or physical) is to be criminalized and dehumanized, no matter your status. Increasingly, we are becoming a jungle where only the ‘fittest’ survive, without consideration or compassion for the weak and vulnerable. That was what Debola Daniel experienced last week. But we know about his plight only because of who he is. Debola is son of Otunba Gbenga Daniel, a former Governor of Ogun State who is currently a Senator. But because of his physical disability, he suffered humiliation at an eatery where he was known. 

For those who may have missed the drama, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) last Thursday ordered the closure of the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) outlet at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) in Lagos. This was after Debola narrated (on his social media page) how he was denied entry due to his use of a wheelchair. “Being disabled often rolls over my spirit, leaving behind a trail of shattered dignity and forgotten humanity. Nowhere more so than in Nigeria,” Debola lamented, while drawing attention to the prevalence and broader implications of these discriminatory practices in our country.

What makes the case compelling, as Professor Ebenezer Obadare wrote in his American Council on Foreign Relations blog on Monday, is that even for a status-obsessed society like ours, disability still trumps privilege. Because the KFC staff who dealt with Debola knew who he ‘IS’! Yet, they had the temerity to treat him the way they did, which shows the level of stigma attached to living with disabilities in Nigeria.

Let’s take a few lines from Debola’s account of what transpired: “I arrived at the airport as normal for my Virgin Atlantic flight to London. I’m a frequent flyer and I’m extremely familiar with all due processes at Murtala Muhammed Airport. Years ago, after all security and immigration formalities have been completed, I would normally go to the OASIS lounge to wait for my flight. For the past three years, the lift to the lounge has been out of service so I’ve often found solace in other establishments, sometimes lounges, sometimes restaurants. Today I chose KFC – what a colossal mistake. I entered the restaurant with four other travel companions consisting of my brothers and wife. The security personnel at KFC, Samuel, greeted me by name as I’ve been there multiple times. Just as we were about to sit, the lady at the till – who was apparently the manager – called out loudly, ‘NO WHEELCHAIRS ALLOWED’. Our group paused in confusion, before my brother, Taiwo, asked what she meant. She refused to listen to reason and stood her ground that at @kfcnigeria Murtala Muhammed branch, wheelchairs and wheelchair users of all shapes and sizes were not permitted in the premises and we should leave immediately.”

Debola then went on to narrate the various interventions by people around him with the KFC management that failed to yield any positive result before he concluded on a philosophical note: “It harkens back to dark periods in recent history. ’No wheelchairs allowed’; ‘No coloureds allowed’; ‘No blacks allowed’…Today I felt less than human, like a guard dog not allowed into the house. Lonely and isolated…There are approximately 27 million Nigerians living with some form of disability. That’s over 13% of the country…”

I understand that the KFC management has apologised to Debola as demanded by FAAN but that does not mitigate the gravity of what happened. Or that it will not happen again elsewhere. Incidentally, in January last year, Debola had expressed a similar concern based on another discriminatory experience. “To be a disabled Nigerian is a lonely, scary, and isolated place. I have often struggled to articulate my Nigerian experience in a way people could understand,” Debola wrote while sharing the story of a concert he could not attend at the time. “There’s never a place for you. Not in the infrastructure, not in social settings and increasingly not in society.” 

What happened to Debola was not an isolated incident. It reflects the attitude of our society towards the physically challenged. In every area of life, people with one disability or another are discriminated against and deprived of their rights. For instance, most hospitals, schools, places of worship etc. are not wheel-chair accessible across the country. In their 29 September 2020 paper, ‘Social inclusion of persons with disabilities in Nigeria: Challenges and opportunities’, two World Bank staff, Rosa Martinez and Valarakshmi Vemuru, argued that when the attitudes of a community are negative towards a vulnerable group, they will struggle much more to realize their potential. “Persons with disabilities in Nigeria persistently face stigma, discrimination, and barriers to accessing basic social services and economic opportunities,” they wrote. Cosmos Okoli, an enterprising man who has proved that there is ability in disability once buttressed the same point: “We have had cases where some principals and head teachers refused admission to candidates not on the basis of incompetence but for their disabilities.”

When on 23 January 2019 President Muhammadu Buhari assented the Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act, there was excitement among stakeholders. But, as we have seen over the years, the challenge is more about the attitude of Nigerians to the plights of this vulnerable group. It has little to do with the law. Even during the military era, we had the ‘Nigerians with Disability’ military decree of 1993 which provides “a clear and comprehensive legal protection and security for Nigerians with disability as well as establish standard for enforcement of their rights and privileges.” That offered no protection to them and decades later, even under a democratic dispensation, nothing has changed. That the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), FAAN and other agencies are responding after Debola recounted his experience at KFC is not because they care but rather because of his status.

Remarkably, one of the early reports released by Agora Policy, an Abuja-based think-tank spearheaded by the former Nigeria Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (NEITI) Executive Secretary, Waziri Adio, was on ‘How to Deepen Social and Political Inclusion in Nigeria.’ I was privileged to participate in some of the validation workshops along with Dr. Ejiro Otive-Igbuzor, Professor Abubakar Muazu, Mr. Martins Abantlehe, Ms. Chioma Agwuegbu, Hajia Saudatu Mahdi and Mr. Samson Itodo. The aspect on the plights of People with Disabilities (PWDs) in Nigeria is quite revealing. “Many cultures and religions perceive disability as a curse or repercussion for wrongdoing. This explains why in many communities, spiritual solutions are sought, a person with disability is isolated, sometimes hidden by their families out of ‘shame’’, the report stated. “Many PWDs, through their socialisation, learn to self-stigmatise and isolate for fear of negative reactions and exclusion by their community members. Children with disabilities are body shamed by their peers, girls and women with disabilities are sexually violated and their complaints, when made, are often dismissed by law enforcement agents.” 

The tragedy is that we have a considerable population of PWDs in Nigeria. The World Bank reported that in 2018, about 29 million of the estimated population of 195 million Nigerians were living with a disability. “Data from the 2018 Nigeria Demographic and Health Survey reveal that an estimated 7 percent of household members above the age of five (as well as 9 percent of those 60 or older) have some level of difficulty in at least one functional domain, seeing, hearing, communication, cognition, walking, or self-care; and 1 percent either have a lot of difficulty or cannot function at all in at least one domain. These estimated rates, while significant, are probably even higher because current available data likely underestimate the prevalence,” the World Bank stated before the damning conclusion: “Findings indicate that persons with disabilities lack access to basic services and that attitudinal barriers represent a major impediment to their socioeconomic inclusion. Inclusive policies are either non-existent, weak, or inadequately implemented.”

As I stated earlier, whether it is physical or mental, there is little or no protection for people with such challenges in our country. Incidentally, until President Buhari signed the National Mental Health Act, 2021, legislation in place for dealing with mental health was the Lunacy Act of 1958 which, even as the title suggests, is about stigmatisation. That explains why across the country, you still find people with mental health chained and paraded the streets like animals. Clearly, Nigeria is not a compassionate society. I shudder to imagine what would have happened if the late Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest scientific thinkers of our generation, had been born a Nigerian!

Deliberately, I shared the draft of this column with a close friend who has a special needs child.  This was her response: “As you know, my daughter is neuro divergent. It has been a battle to get her educated in Nigeria. If I ever give up on this country it would be because I want to give her the fighting chance that Nigeria refuses to give her. Healthcare for her is literally costing me my life savings and the way this society treats us makes it so difficult to create normalcy for her outside the home. This is why many parents in Nigeria, including affluent parents, prefer to hide their challenged children at home and the less affluent ones abandon them to the streets when they are young adults. There is nowhere really for them to go because the society does little to try and accommodate our children.” 

While we applaud Debola Daniel for speaking up, what happened to him is not unique. It is what millions of people with similar challenges face every day in our country. As my friend’s example illustrates, raising children who are neuro divergent is a difficult task in Nigeria. It is the same with those with physical challenges, as Debola Daniel’s experience also demonstrates. But it is beyond what government alone can resolve. What we must begin to deal with includes the exclusion, discrimination, isolation, lack of empathy and frankly, the absence of thought in all facets of our society for the weak and vulnerable among us.

Notes from Asaba

With sundry criminal cartels operating across the country almost with impunity, the task of maintaining internal security, peace and order, is now being carried out by the military. Yet, fighting and defeating security threats entails more than an application of force. Apparently mindful of this, the Nigerian Army yesterday held a stakeholders’ session with the media in Asaba, Delta State capital. With the theme ‘Imperatives of military-media partnership for the attainment of national security’, I was one of the discussants of the paper presented by Professor Godwin Oboh of Benson Idahosa University. He spoke to several issues, including how the military role has been expanded in our country to include resolving social conflicts and the collateral damage arising therefrom. The conversation that followed, brilliantly moderated by ARISE Television State House correspondent, Omoruan Adesuwa, was as exciting as the previous session after the paper by former Commandant, Nigerian Army Engineers, Major General Olusegun Adeleke.

That the Voice of Nigeria (VON) Director General, Jibrin Baba Ndace, was guest of honour at the forum is an indication that the army understands the essence of genuine partnership. Ndace, a former spokesman to the governor of Niger State between 2015 and 2019, was for several years a respected defence correspondent. That reflected in his brief presentation at the session attended by many top military personnel and media practitioners. The security challenges that Nigeria faces are complex and multifaceted and to effectively address them, according to Ndace, there is need for a collaboration between the military and the media.

In his opening remark, the Chief of Army Staff, Lt General Taoreed Lagbaja (who was represented by the General Officer Commanding, 6 Division, Major General Jamal Abdusalam) revealed what most people have always suspected. “The need to restore law and order in aid of civil authorities has necessitated the deployment of the military especially troops of the Nigerian Army in all states across Nigeria to conduct internal security operations,” Lagbaja admitted. “However, the attainment of national security requires more than just the deployment of troops and the acquisition of advanced weaponry; it entails the trust and cooperation of the citizens and media.”

Whether we want to admit it or not, it is the failure of the police that accounts for why the military that should ordinarily channel its energy and resources towards protecting our territorial integrity as a nation has had to deploy troops in all the 36 states of our country today. While I am aware that most ordinary Nigerians have more faith in our soldiers whenever they are in situations of distress, there is also a case of familiarity breeding contempt. That, I guess, accounts for some of the ambush killings that have been witnessed in recent times. It is therefore time to strengthen the police so that the military can be restricted to their constitutional responsibilities in a democracy.

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