When Disability Meets Privilege

Ebenezer Obadare

Authorities in Nigeria squander an opportunity to make a statement about human dignity and genuine social inclusion.

Ebenezer Obadare

The unwarranted humiliation last week of Mr. Debola Daniel and his family at a KFC outlet located inside the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA), Lagos, ought to have been a teachable moment on the dignity of the human person and the crying need for genuine social inclusion in Nigeria. Unfortunately, the reaction of the airport authorities probably guarantees that the Nigerian public will come to remember the incident—if it does at all—as yet another instance of official rashness and highhandedness.

Having fulfilled airport security protocols, Mr. Daniel and his family had decided to hang out at the KFC, only to be told by the manager that wheelchairs were not allowed within the establishment, a pointedly inhumane and discriminatory policy that the manager confidently repeated even after she was confronted by Mr. Daniel’s incredulous wife and brother.

Outraged, Mr. Daniel, a well-known disability rights advocate, took to social media to narrate his ordeal: “Today, I felt less than human, like a guard dog not allowed into the house. Lonely and isolated.”

Official reaction to what Mr. Daniel also described as “the worst sort of public humiliation” he had ever experienced was swift. The Acting Executive Vice Chairman of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), Dr. Adamu Abdullahi, condemned the mistreatment of Mr. Daniel, describing it as “not only unlawful but also inhumane and contrary to the values that we, as a society, hold dear.” He also promised to “work closely with relevant authorities to ensure appropriate redress for the aggrieved consumer in this case, as well as ensure that the KFC outlet in question takes full responsibility for its actions.”

For its part, the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) went one step further. Following a quick investigation, it proceeded to shut down the KFC outlet and demanded both “an unreserved apology” to Mr. Daniel and a policy statement of non-discrimination to be “pasted conspicuously at the door post of their facility at MMIA before it resumes operation (sic).”

The reason for the authorities’ uncharacteristically swift (and, in the case of the FAAN, legally dubious) reaction is not far-fetched. Mr. Daniel is no ordinary Nigerian living with disability, but the son of Mr. Gbenga Daniel, a former State Governor and serving Senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. While this does not change the fact that he should never have been treated the way he and his traveling entourage were, it does raise the question of whether the authorities would have pulled out all the stops as they did, were the affected person a regular Nigerian without the same family connections. Afterall, and as Mr. Daniel himself noted, the manager at the KFC outlet had reaffirmed that denying custom to wheelchair users was standard policy, suggesting that Mr. Daniel was not the first person with disability to be so gratuitously humiliated by the establishment. If previous wheelchair users lodged an official complaint, as one imagines they did, why was there no reaction? Mr. Daniel also noted that while he would normally have used a lounge, the elevator had been out of service “for the past three years.” Which raises the question: If, as its quick reaction seems to suggest, FAAN really cares about persons with reduced mobility being able to access services and facilities at the airport, why would it allow an elevator to be out of service for three years and counting?

Without intending to, both FCCPC and FAAN have underscored the uncomfortable Nigerian truth to the effect that, when it comes to accessing social goods and services, coming from the “right” family is more important than being in the right. In light of this, it seems probable that the reaction of FCCPC and FAAN was instigated more by a fear of incurring the wrath of, and or pleasing a powerful political figure, Senator Daniel, than genuine hurt at the embarrassment of a disabled person.

If anyone understands the systematic ignominy that is the lot of disabled people in Nigeria, it is Mr. Daniel himself. As he puts it: “To be disabled in Nigeria is to be undesirable, unwelcome, and accepted. As I’ve said before, it’s a lonely, scary, and isolated place.” Not only is Mr. Daniel right, an honest and much needed conversation on why disabled people tend to be treated as sub-human anywhere in the country would have been more productive than shutting down the KFC outlet and extracting a quick apology from it.

A 2022 report by the Abuja-based Agora Policy on the status of Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) in Nigeria is grimly illustrative: “only 1 percent of PWDs are employed in the formal sector; only 2 percent of PWDs have access to education; 92 percent of PWDs are in dire need of rehabilitation services; 96 percent of PWDs have no access to assistive devices; and 98.5 percent of public buildings are not accessible to PWDs.” In other words, disabled persons are an afterthought in the Nigerian public and policy imagination, and numbers alone do not begin to capture the depth and extent of their persistent degradation.

What explains this attitude toward disabled persons in Nigeria? The following paragraph from the same Agora Policy encapsulates the problem: “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’. 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 undignifying spectacle witnessed on busy streets in urban centers whereby some disabled people use their disability for the sake of emotional extortion is one effect of this dehumanization.

When they are not being physically or emotionally abused, disabled people, especially disabled minors, also run the risk of being haunted down for traditional rituals, the belief being common in some communities that their “unusual” body parts possess unspecified spiritual benefits. There are regular reports of ritual killings of hunchbacks in Nigeria and other parts of the continent.

The Nigerian Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities (Prohibition) Act signed into law by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019 (and so far, adopted in only nineteen states of the Nigerian federation) marks an important milestone on the road to recognition and inclusion for the disabled. It goes without saying that the Act would be meaningless if not complimented and shored up by a society-wide change of attitude, one whereby disabled people are regarded and treated, not with pity, but with the same dignity and sense of innate worth that is extended to all human beings regardless of their physical status.

*Professor Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy: https://www.cfr.org/blog/when-disability-meets-privilege