As Nigeria’s Northwest grapples with insecurity, over 500,000 Nigerians have been forced to flee their homes. When violence breaks out, vulnerable groups such as people with disabilities bear the heaviest brunt. In this report, The ICIR’s Nurudeen Akewushola travelled to Sokoto and Zamfara to document the stories of being disabled and displaced.
When terrorists invaded Kwanar Maje village in Zamfara one deadly evening in 2021, everyone scampered for safety. Some hid in their farmland, some hopped into the forest. 30-year-old disabled Lawal Musa also ran for his life as he stumbled intermittently while wobbling in the bush.
Even though Lawal luckily escaped, he came back to meet the lifeless body of his father, who had been gruesomely murdered by the terrorists. Traumatised and left on his own, Lawal now begs to make ends meet at Anka IDP camp following his displacement from his former village.
“We were chased from our village by bandits because they were killing people incessantly, but I was lucky to escape by God’s grace.
“The saddest moment of my life is that my father was killed by the terrorists,” Lawal said, his voice breaking intermittently.
Aside from the fact that Lawal has to contend with being disabled, he also battles with epilepsy with no means to access health care services. Amidst cold and harmattan seasons, Lawal sleeps on a bare floor, in the open.
Lawal is one of the people with disabilities whose lives were turned upside following terrorist attacks in Nigeria’s Northwest.
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Missing data, failed policy
The security situation in Northwest Nigeria is fueling the fastest-growing displacement crisis in the country. The development has left many villages deserted, with people facing harsh conditions after losing their livelihoods or farmlands.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, as of 2021, Zamfara, the epicentre of violence in the Northwest, records the highest number of displacements in the region, with over 123, 102 IDPs.
In Sokoto State, an estimated 72,106 IDPs were identified.
Amidst this raging conflict in the region are people with disabilities who have been identified to be disproportionately affected by displacement and are at greater risk of violence, discrimination and exclusion. While some of them are left behind, the ones who manage to escape face barriers in accessing humanitarian support such as food, sanitation, and medical assistance.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act in 2019. Section 25 of the law mandates the government to ensure the safety and protection of people with disabilities in all situations of risk, violence, emergencies, and natural disasters taking cognisance of their peculiar vulnerability.
As part of her response to the situation of displacement in the country, the federal government set up a committee to develop a policy to guide the management of IDPs in 2003. Various government and non-governmental groups rubbed their minds while gaining inspiration from existing international laws. The outcome of this effort, adopted nine years later, came to be known as the National Policy on Internally Displaced Persons in Nigeria.
Approved in 2021, the overall goal of the policy is to strengthen the institutional mechanism and frameworks for the realisation of the rights, dignity, and well-being of vulnerable populations through the mitigation of impact and achievement of durable solutions to internal displacements in Nigeria. Part of the policy recognises people with disabilities.
According to the policy, IDPs with disabilities “shall receive medical care to the extent practicable, which shall include psychological and social services whenever necessary”.
“The physical environment(of IDP camps) shall be modified to improve movement, and those who need mobility devices such as wheelchairs or hearing aid equipment are to be given. Where necessary, they should also have access to trained personnel such as caregivers, physiotherapists, and sign language interpreters.
Additionally, information should be made accessible to them, IDPs with disabilities should be prioritised during service delivery, and children with disabilities should be enrolled in special schools.
Data gaps and widespread under-reporting make it challenging to assess the impact of terrorism ravaging the country on people with disabilities. This is due to the fact that most assessment reports limit indices to sex (male and female), age (children and aged) and geographical location, excluding people with disabilities. This makes it difficult to target them for possible humanitarian assistance.
For instance, the population of people with disabilities is not captured in the several rounds of reports by the International organization for Migration despite the fact that the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that there are about 29 million Nigerians living with at least one form of disability in the country.
No longer at ease
Ahmad Ibrahim’s village, Yarkatsina in Zamfara was besieged in 2015. Even though Ahmad was a famous scholar in the community, his prestige could not save his eldest son from being gruesomely murdered by young men whom he claimed he knew them and their parents.
“I can’t even compare life here with where we left, because when we were there, we had farmlands animals. Everything was okay then, but here we are, just managing life. “
Ahmad said he would have loved to go back to his farm and harvest his produce, but doing that would be suicidal as the village has turned into a death trap.
“What l will never forget in my life is my son who was killed by enemies innocently; that was my horrible and unforgettable experience,” Ahmad said.
Ahmad had been experiencing eye defects before his displacement, but now he has lost his vision totally amidst the struggle for survival, making him unable to work and fend for himself like before.
He explained that access to food is the biggest challenge for the displaced people living in the camp as they battle official neglect.
Another person who is suffering from vision impairment is Muhammadu Buda who was born blind. A native of Kunawa village in Sokoto, Buda gathered all his earnings from the rearing of livestock and farming and relocated to the capital following incessant attacks by terrorists. But after spending all his savings with no other source of income, he was kicked out due to his inability to pay house rent. Amidst the struggle, he was hit by a car rendering him more incapacitated.
Narrating his experience, Buda said; “ They came to our village in the night and dispersed people after they stole all our animals. if you stay, they will catch and tie you like animals and then take you to the bush, where they will be lashing you mercilessly.
“When they came, even though I could not see, I had to run for my life. I would just move and hide anyhow and anywhere since that was how God created me. I stepped on everything I came across. There was a time I even laid down on a snake, but after l felt it and I discovered that it was a snake, I ran away,” he recounts.
Now Buda lives in despair, and even though he depends largely on support from donors, the once successful farmer now engages in subsistence farming to cater for his family.
The agonies of women with disabilities
Forty-year-old Hussainatu was coming back from where she went to fetch firewood when this reporter met her at Goronyo IDP camp. The mother of six had been struggling with life after her leg became disabled after post-natal treatment.
“Even if they distributed food, who is aware of us? Even the last time they distributed it l didn’t get anything, and I even went there. This “Moringa” is the only thing l rely on.”
Husseinatu recalled that life was easy when they had cattle, sheep, and a farm, but now they are left with nothing. She expressed her hope that peace would be restored in their village so that they could go back and continue their normal lives.
Fifty-year-old Hawau from Gundumi village in Sokoto became disabled after suffering from guinea worm disease in her leg. According to her, there were security men manning their village before who later absconded due to the fear of terror attacks, leaving them at the mercy of terrorists.
“Suddenly, the following day (after the security operatives had left), bandits invaded our village, shooting sporadically. They broke into shops, looted and destroyed many things as people ran for their lives. Then the following day, all the people of the village dispersed from the village and left behind only four households.”
“So, when they entered our village, l couldn’t go anywhere; l just laid down on the bed waiting for them to come because l could do nothing but God saved me from them.”
Hawau bemoaned the lack of transparency, fair distribution, and misappropriation of relief materials by the agents of the state government.
“There was a time we were given some relief materials, and somebody from this same village with us parked all the items to his relatives and sold the rest to the market.”
Hawau insists that as farmers, no amount of relief materials can cater to most of their basic needs. She said the only way the government can help is to restore peace in the area or relocate them to a safer place to continue farming.
Displaced and Neglected: Sorry tale of disabled children
For 15-year-old Basiru Muhammad, his parents left him behind with an Islamic teacher in Gusau after they went back to their village.
They were formerly internally displaced persons in Saminaka, a host community for IDPs in Zamfara, but when life became unbearable for them, they were left with no other option but to go back to their village to continue farming despite the security situation.
Basiru suffered a leg fracture years ago when he fell down from a tree. Since then, he has been struggling to walk. Unable to cater to his welfare, his teacher sends him on errands in order to get food to eat.
Basiru explained that when Bandits attacked their village, his parents encountered difficulties rescuing him due to his situation, citing that he was left under the custody of his teacher.
A native of Dakwarawa village, Basiru and other children engage in street begging to make ends meet. Apart from informal Islamic schooling, none of them is enrolled to conventional schools.
Getting education while displaced…
Many of the displaced young children in Saminaka- a host community for IDPs in Gusau- the state capital attend informal Islamic schools under the supervision of Mu’azu. Clad in tattered clothes, there were seen seated on the bare floor as they held their slates, reciting verses of the Quran.
Mu’azu Hamisu who is also a displaced person from Mayasa village, told The ICIR that there are some of the pupils who live with their parents and there are some who live under him. He explained that the pupils left under him need to beg on the street to get food as he also does not have the ability to take care of them.
“I can’t feed them because I’m also a displaced person from Mayasa village. I’m struggling to feed my family as well. They would rather go out and beg for food because I can’t afford to feed them,” Mu’azu explained.
I can’t feed them because I’m also a displaced person from Mayasa village. I’m struggling to feed my family as well. They would rather go out and beg for food because I can’t afford to feed them.
According to the National Commission for Nomadic Education (NCNE), banditry, kidnapping, insurgency, and early marriage in the northwestern part of the country are the major causes of the increase in the figure of out-of-school children in Northern Nigeria.
Muhammadu Sani and several other children in Sokoto and Zamfara are victims of this alarming trend. Sani was in primary three before he was displaced from his formal village, but the security situation has shattered his plan to continue his education.
The 20-year-old was forced to wheel himself out of the village after facing death threats from terrorists who continued to invade their households and spared him due to his situation leaving behind a warning that he would be killed if they ever met him again.
“I would like to go back to school because already l used to go to school when we were at home; I was in primary three,” Sanni told The ICIR
I would like to go back to school because already l used to go to school when we were at home; I was in primary three
Eighteen-year-old Ruqayya was pushed off a cliff by her friends when she was younger, and that was what led to her leg being disabled. Her father was once a successful farmer before they became displaced. Now they live as displaced persons after their village, Danjiro was brought to its knees by terrorists.
Before she was displaced, Ruqayya was enrolled in school and was in primary three.
“I used to go to both western and islamiyya when we were in our village. I was in primary three there, and I would like to go back to school,” she said.
Ruqayya told The ICIR she has been given a school uniform a day prior to the interview. However, findings by The ICIR show that the schools in the camp are in a dilapidated state.
Twelve-year-old Shamsiyya was among the students enrolled in one of the schools inside the camp, but the structure does not cover her peculiarity. She has a hearing impairment, but there is no sign language interpreter in the school who can interpret to her what the teacher teaches in the class. Even though she is in primary three, Shamsiyya cannot write her name.
A report on inclusive education by the World Bank shows that illiteracy among children with disabilities has increased globally. The report shows that children with disabilities are always at a disadvantage when formulating educational policies while the gaps between them and their peers without disabilities keep growing.
According to the report, of the estimated 65 million primary and secondary school-age children with disabilities, at least half of them are out of school. Like Shamsiyya, they face barriers to enrolling and learning at school.
Recent data by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) shows that Nigeria now has 20.2 million out-of-school children. However, determining the exact number of out-of-school children with disabilities is nearly impossible due to the absence of official data.
As a result, any educational initiative would almost certainly fail to meet the needs of children with disabilities. This is the fate of Shamsiyyah and other children with disabilities in Nigeria’s Northwest. The trend is worsened by the security situation in the states.
There are two schools inside the Goronyo IDP camp, but both of them are in a dilapidated state. The residents told The ICIR that there are only four teachers manning the two schools.
Displaced and Rejected
Six-year-old Hussaini Shehu was born amidst violence in Yarkatsina village in Zamfara. His eyes became infected after he stopped breastfeeding. As a result of the inability of his parents to afford health care services for him after displacement, his condition became worsened.
“We left our village as a result of the killing of the senior brother of his father that’s why we seek refuge here.”
Like every other child in the settlement, his parent cannot afford to send him to school, which, according to his parents, is due to his situation and their inability to access his kind of education.
“Yes, we would like to enroll him in both western and Islamic schools, if we get support or if he will be sponsored, we will send him to school,” she said.
“Sometimes his friends mock him because he cannot see. There was a day that he fell in a well, and instead of others to rescue him, they left him and mocked him.”
Thirty-year-old Hauwa’u from Mayasa village in Zamfara narrated how her child Muhammadu Miftahu, persistently faces stigma, mockery, and discrimination among his peers who see him as a different being.
“They call him “cripple cripple” and sometimes they deliberately hit his affected legs so that he can fall and they can laugh at him.”
Zuwaira, the mother of Nana, was displaced from Rojin Tsamiya village in Sokoto. Even though her child, Nana, is 2, she has not been able to crawl.
Zuwaira said she used to take her child to the hospital for treatment, but her inability to afford the money for treatment and drugs rendered her helpless. She battles stigma from the people in the camp who believes her child had been infected by “evil spirit.”
“When people see us, they would be mocking and laughing at her, saying that she looks like a “spirit” because of her small head.
In an interview with The ICIR, a Sokoto-based advocate for the Social Inclusion of people with disabilities and founder of Rebuilding Hope on Wheels Initiative, Amina Rahmah Audu, pointed out that people with disabilities are in the worst situation amidst conflict ravaging the region, calling on the government to work with civil society organisations to tackle the problem.
“People with disabilities are of larger number in Northern Nigeria or Northwest. When violence strikes, the impact is the same as it has affected everybody, but it is even more for people with disabilities. Because there are people with disabilities or people of the older generation who cannot see, there are some who cannot run due to the impairments that they have. It makes it very difficult for them to be able to run or see where they can run to. And in most cases, you know when sudden chaos such as a village being under a strike, you find out that they’re even left behind or maybe even shot dead by the kidnappers or bandits. This has happened several times.
“The essence of us now having them to be really properly looked in after is to have implementable policies that at least whenever such incidence happens there’s a protocol of evacuating them and also relocating them to maybe IDP camps or something like that.
“Persons with disabilities are really in the worst situation ever. When you look at the situation of conflict or any other natural disaster happening, you will find out that persons with disabilities are always left behind in whatever decision or planning that they made but I am very glad to hear that the policy that they have made about IDPs and the fact that they recognize people with disabilities.”
“The only problem is that persons with disabilities are a minority group with a lot of diversities. So, it is not enough that they are mentioned, their peculiarities and their needs must also be included when proper planning is being made.”
She further stressed the need for the state governments and civil society organizations to work as partners in order to ensure the effective implementation of policy on Internally Displaced Persons.
“There should be CSOs also who should be informed about this Policy and who should now be the ones to take charge of making sure that the government does what it’s supposed to do. The government is for everyone, but the government also has its own issues. Every time certain things are overridden, especially when no prior strategies or plans have been made.
“The best thing now is for the policy to be widely known, raised awareness about the policy and then CSOs, the NGOs can now start propagating it for it to be domesticated because any legal framework it’s not all that easy and especially even the people need to understand that the government is not doing people a favour, but it’s based on their rights and how they’ve been recognised.”
Amina further expressed concern about how the crisis in the Northwest has forced people to flee their homes, stressing the need for government to ensure that the IDP camps environment is modified to accommodate people with disabilities.
What have state governments done?
Speaking with The ICIR, the director of disaster management, Sokoto State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA), Umar Isah explained that the agency is collaborating with government agencies, associations and civil society organisations with a focus on people with disabilities to ensure that the welfare of people with disabilities among IDPs in the state is taken care of.
“People with disabilities in Sokoto have an agency and they have to report to the state governor, so we have a collaboration with the agency and then we have a collaboration with their organizations. I mean, their unions. We have the list of their members with us and whenever there is a distribution, we always call the union to give them part of the items, so that they can distribute to their members.
“Whatever came in terms of emergency or humanitarian support, before we were not including them, but due to the advocacy, I called them in the meeting last year, I called their attention I said apart from the agency, you need to pay a courtesy visit to the state’s emergency, so that officially they will know your aim, and they will include them in all the distribution.”
He explained that the agency has done the assessment to identify people with disabilities in the IDP camps in the state in order to ensure that their welfare is prioritised during the distribution of relief materials.
“ I remotely asked someone to make an assessment of all the people with disability in the camps that we have, and I sent it to their agency. So in collaboration with their agency, I wrote a memo to the office of the honourable special adviser to the governor on people with disabilities. We wrote to the NEMA that National Emergency, we are taking it so that whenever they would send their own relief intervention to them directly those we extracted. So, that their relief materials come in the name of people with disabilities, so now we would hand it over to the agency, we would collaborate with them to only witness the distribution.”
He also said they have designed a “Know your neighbours” campaign to help people with disabilities in time of crisis.
On the alleged diversion of relief materials, he said the agency is aware of it, and it is working towards ensuring transparency and accountability in her distribution.
“So, that is the major we are taking now. When the camps are accessible this is our distribution officer, Mikailu Muhammad, he has been attending distribution, he distributes himself till the end of the distributions, even the recent distribution he was there distributing himself with support of the camp managers. There arose case of insufficiency, maybe the relief items cannot cover all, so that one is different because they are many, maybe we have it for only 100 people, you can not cover 400 people.”
He said the government is planning to give identification cards to ensure that the relief materials reach the needy.
When contacted, the Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management for Zamfara state, Fa’ika Ahmad, told The ICIR that the ministry is working towards ensuring inclusiveness in her humanitarian support for internally displaced persons.
“We have a ministry of community and social welfare, but of course, when it comes to the IDPs in that aspect, there is the issue of inclusion when it comes to targeting, and that is what we are trying to do. Once inclusion is handled, the issue of eligibility is being sorted out. So it depends. We don’t look at them as physically challenged persons but rather, we include them as internally displaced persons in general.
“So, of course, if you follow our pages, you see we’ve done a lot of programs with people living with disabilities,” she said.
The commissioner said the ministry is collaborating with the ministry of education to ensure that displaced children have access to education.
While explaining that the ministry is overwhelmed by the frequent influx of internally displaced persons, she explained that the ministry is collaborating with the National Emergency Management Agency(NEMA), the federal government, and humanitarian organisations to take care of the welfare of disabled IDPs and all IDPs generally.
Note: The figures in the second and third paragraphs under the sub-head “Missing data, failed policy” was edited to reflect the 2021 data on displacement.
Nurudeen Akewushola is an investigative reporter and fact-checker with The ICIR. He believes courageous in-depth investigative reporting is the key to social justice, accountability and good governance in the society. You can shoot him a scoop via [email protected] and @NurudeenAkewus1 on Twitter.