The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had repeatedly pledged the commission’s commitment to increasing participation of the People Living with Disabilities (PWDs) in the electoral process.
The commission, had also at different times acknowledged that the population of PWDs, who observed their civic rights to partaking in electioneering processes was grossly poor, thereby adopted several measures to arrest the situation.
To this end, INEC increased its engagements with stakeholders and stepped-up enlightenment campaigns to ensure inclusion of PWDs in electoral processes.
The commission also announced that important voter education materials and guides would be produced in Braille forms for the benefits of the visually impaired.
However, stakeholders at a two-day national conference on mainstreaming PWDs into electoral processes, held December, in Abuja, recommended that beyond producing voter education materials in braille, INEC should produce electoral materials in Braille forms so as to enable the visually impaired participate actively in the electoral process.
The two-day conference, themed: “Inclusive Participation of PWDs in the 2015 Elections” was organised by INEC in conjunction with the UNDP-Democratic Governance for Development (DGDII) project.
The conference amongst other things also demanded a dedicated policy to ensure that the Albinos and peoples affected by leprosy are exempted from queuing up during accreditation and voting to reduce their health risks.
It also suggested that security agencies should be sensitive to PWDs and that polling units are easily accessible for the PWDs. At the same time enjoined political parties to ensure equal opportunities in the process.
While declaring the conference open, INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega, acknowledged the low participation of PWDs in election process. He disclosed at the conference that the commission lacked the requisite legal provision for equitable participation for PWDs in Nigeria’s electoral processes.
He also said the population of PWDs, who take part in electoral processes grossly underrepresents the group.
“PWDs in Nigeria constitute about 25 per cent of our national demography whose participation in the electoral process cannot be toyed with. PWDs have been under represented not only in the electoral and political process but in almost all sphere of life in Nigeria, hence the commission’s deliberate policy to integrate them into the electoral process.”
Jega, who was represented at the conference by the INEC Information and Voter Education Committee (IVEC) Chair, Dr. Chris Iyimoga, noted that the commission had increased engagements and enlightenment campaigns to ensure inclusion of PWDs in electoral processes, adding that important voter education materials and guides would be produced in braille for the benefits of the visually impaired.
Apparently responding to demands by PWDs that INEC should consider the use of braille or off-site voting for the 2015 elections, Jega said the commission could only operate with the provisions of the constitution.
“Permit me to state at this point that the commission can only do what it is legally empowered to do. We need to have a legal framework in place that will empower the commission in its quest for equitable and participatory democratic process,” Jega stated.
In a sharp contrast to Jega’s position, the Director, Anglo-Nigerian Welfare Association for the Blind (ANWAB), Danlamin Basharu, in his paper titled: “Legal Framework for Mainstreaming Persons with Disabilities into The Electoral Process,” established that Section 56 of the Electoral Act 2010, (amended) empowered INEC to create accessible atmosphere and environments for PWDs to participate in the elections.
Basharu, who is also a member, Committee of Experts for the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2015-2018, opined that this provision of the Electoral Act received little attention from INEC, due to its non-binding nature.
Although, Basharu admitted that very little (or northing) was mentioned about the PWDs in the 1999 constitution, and that the Act did not explicitly address concerns of the PWDs. He said INEC did not fully meet the need of PWDs as provided in the Act during the 2011 elections.
“During the 2011 elections, INEC did not fully meet the special needs of PWDs as provided for in the Electoral Act. Polling booths were still not accessible to wheel chair users; voter’s cards were not available in braille for the visually impaired; there was a marked absence of any sign language support for the deaf and they were not carried along in the electronic media jingles and political advertorials.”
Basharu however suggested that the voter registration forms should capture specific needs of various PWDs and, as contained in the section of the Electoral Act, INEC materials should be available in braille for the visually impaired.
He also called for application of Section 51 of the Electoral Act to the PWDs, considering the chaotic situation, which usually greeted the voting process. The section empowers presiding officers to separate queue between men and women in areas where culture does not permit mingling of opposite genders.
Similarly, the United States Diplomatic Mission to Nigeria indicated a keen interest in the inclusion of PWDs in Nigeria’s political system.
The Deputy Chief of Mission, Maria Brewer, in her remarks noted that the USAID was committed to disability inclusive development with its focus in access to electoral processes among PWDs.
Brewer also said the mission was following closely the progress of the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities bill, as she pledged requisite support from development partners.
“We have followed with interest, the progress of the disability bill through the National Assembly, and we look forward to a law that will have positive impact on PWDs in the election arena and elsewhere. Of course the United States and other international partners can provide some supports, but the most critical driver of progress for Persons Living with Disabilities will come from within Nigeria, from the government and the civil societies like you.”
Meanwhile, INEC’s Deputy Director in Charge of Civil Societies, Mrs. Rose Oriaran-Anthony, in an accurate response explained that the commission had concluded plans to engage the PWDs in the six geo-political zones, ahead of the 2015 elections.
Oriaran-Anthony, who at the conference presented a paper titled: “Mainstreaming PWDs into the Electoral Process, an Update,” noted that the PWDs now understand the challenge of INEC and that also understand better, challenges facing the PWDs.
This, according to her, would guarantee better inclusion for PWDs and ensure their participation in the process.
“We have a new charter on the rules of engagements, we are coming out of this conference enriched and well prepared, because the PWDs understand the challenge of the commission, while the commission also understands their challenges. This conference is going to make the election more inclusive, between now and the 2015 elections, you will see many PWDs participating in the elections, not just as voters but as candidates standing for elections. From Sunday, we will hit the road across the six geo-political zones, we are organising workshops at the zonal level,” she said.
Other stakeholders, including representatives of political parties, civil society organisations, PWDs and the media, at the conference pledged commitments to enhancing capacity of these special people to actively participate in the electoral processes, starting from the 2015 general elections.