NIGERIA: Disabled protest at discrimination

Disabled students and graduates have staged peaceful protests in several Nigerian cities over what they consider unjustified discrimination against them by government officials. They claim they are victims of injustices in the areas of employment and scholarship grants.

A few weeks ago, members of an association of the visually impaired held demonstrations in the streets of Owerri, capital of Imo state in south-east Nigeria. They claim the government was indifferent to their plight and highlighted two main issues.

First, the government without justification or prior notice had terminated their bursary and scholarship allowances despite several appeals to state Governor Ikedi Ohakim. Second, they pointed to the lack of employment opportunities for their members in the public sector.

"Since this government came to power, disabled persons in the state have been experiencing a lot of difficulties. So many of us have graduated and we don't have jobs," declared Clinton Amaechi, the group's spokesman.

Physically challenged people held a similar demonstration in Jalingo, administrative capital of Taraba state in north-east Nigeria. The handicapped graduates accused the National Directorate of Employment, a government agency, of failing to pay grants allegedly promised to help them to set up small and medium business ventures after training.

In Owerri, Jalingo and several other Nigerian cities, handicapped students and graduates have said it is the government's constitutional duty to empower them. They do not want to be objects of charity and pity.

"We reject, once again, the attitude of some government officials who treat the physically challenged condescendingly by placing emphasis on charity instead of rights and justice," said Justina Owokunle, a handicapped coach for disabled male and female footballers.

A cross-cutting theme among the protestors has been the need to introduce the principle of positive discrimination in admission processes into tertiary institutions. They pointed out there were no clear-cut criteria for offering admission to physically disadvantaged candidates at some Nigerian universities.

Vague humanitarian reasons were usually invoked in granting some paternalistic admission concessions to disabled candidates. But in many universities disabled applicants were simply denied admission.

There is a fragile but growing consciousness among members of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and examination officials of the need to reserve, under law, a percentage of admission places for disabled students.