By Greg Odogwu
It’s official. Nigeria shall become the Open Defecation Capital of the World latest in October this year. By then, we shall overtake India as the country with the highest number of people defecating in the open. And that will, effectively, add another inglorious feather to our hat of shame!
This is not the first time Nigeria is overtaking India in bad records. Last year, the findings of Brookings Institute based on a projection by the World Poverty Clock, showed that Nigeria had overtaken India as the country with the largest number of people living in extreme poverty, with an estimated 87 million Nigerians living on less than 1.90 dollar a day.
To put things in their proper perspective, we are not on an equal keel with India because Nigeria’s population is less than 20 per cent of hers. So we should not even be measured against India based on population ratio, as the odds are stacked against them.
For instance, at the time the Asian country was rated as the “Poverty Capital of the World”, there were about five per cent of Indian citizens living on less than 1.90 dollar a day, while at the time we overtook them, we had more than 40 per cent of the Nigerian population on the same poverty level. Alarmingly, that meant that almost half of our entire population are living in life-threatening poverty.
And today that we are talking about open defecation, UNICEF, and also our country’s Ministry of Water Resources, confirmed that 47 million Nigerians practise open defecation. That means that an outrageous one quarter of Nigeria’s population answer nature’s call indiscriminately, anywhere they find a space to squat.
Considering that we live in the 21 century, this is totally disgraceful and unacceptable.
But that is not even the worst part. The most annoying fact is that our successive governments seem not to be doing anything about the ugly situation. The way it stands, it seems we just sit down and allow nature take its course. In other words, things will be spoiling and we will be watching without lifting a finger. While other serious nations worked hard to get off the worst-nations roll, we watched our population balloon, infrastructure decay and jobs disappear. That was how we overtook India as the most impoverished.
To make this point clearer, we must take a detailed look at how India is presently fighting to drop the inglorious garb of “the Open Defecation Capital of the World”. While we sat down and watched our growing children get accustomed to a Nigeria where sanitation and hygiene infrastructure are dysfunctional, the Indian government decided to turn the tide by introducing what it described as “collective behaviour movement for rural sanitation”.
In 2011, a Water, Sanitation and Hygiene census was conducted in India, which showed that only 32% of her rural households had toilets. But under Narendra Modi government’s Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission), the WASH situation of the country began to change. The government focused on changing behaviour on a large scale, and began implementing the world’s largest rural sanitation drive.
It allocated ample monies and hired the staff to mobilise communities around sanitation, in what is known in the development world as Community Led Total Sanitation. According to Research Institute for Compassionate Economics, popularly known as RICE, half a million community mobilizers – known as Swachhagrahis in India – have been deployed in villages and districts to actualise the government’s vision.
In 2014, PM Modi after his election, had announced the goal of eliminating open defecation by 2019.
Accordingly, the speed with which toilets were being constructed gained momentum. Over 4.5 million toilets were constructed between October 2014 and October 2017. This then jumped to 9.12million by December 2018. The country’s Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation set up a real-time tracker on its website with a clicker that marked the completion of each toilet.
By October 2017, more than 243,000 (of India’s 650,000) villages, 201 out of 677 districts and five of its 29 states, had been declared Open Defecation Free. This then reached 539,000 villages, 580 districts, and 27 states by December 2018, in just 15 months.
Meanwhile, it is important to clarify that the figures reeled out here are independently verified, and not mere government propaganda. It is instructive to note, for instance, that in 2011 before the WASH census was taken in India, the official government website had claimed that 72% of India’s rural households had a toilet. However, an independent census revealed that the true figure was 32%. Feeling challenged, the Indian government conducted a survey in 2012, the following year, which found that actual toilet coverage was 36% of households.
The present Indian government, therefore, is in agreement with development partners that 96% rural sanitation coverage has been achieved in four years. This is why UNICEF has noted that the country may actually beat the earlier scheduled timeline of being declared Open Defecation Free by October this year. Nigeria shall then replace India on the WASH Hall of Shame.
Essentially, our government can decide to learn from India or remain in a state of denial, continuously leaving everything to God to solve for us. We have to give it to India’s leader Modi, who recognized the nexus between underdevelopment and environmental decadence; and the link between diseases and WASH.
In spite of his predecessor’s programme which gave Toilet Subsidy to Below-Poverty-Level households, Modi continued on an expanded hygiene and sanitation programme, doling out government incentives to rural dwellers and building toilets for earlier uncaptured BPL households.
The Indian government was so determined on its set agenda that a RICE study reports that the SBM “routinely used coercion and threats to achieve toilet construction, and in more limited cases, use”. Coercion included harassment, fines, denial of public benefits, and in some cases even detention by the police.
The story is different in Nigeria.
Despite the fact that access to sanitation has been on the decline, the Federal Government had never declared it a national emergency. According to official data, during the Millennium Development Goals era (from 2000 to 2015) we were sliding from bad to worse. In fact, at a time the MDGs would have helped us improve, Nigeria’s access to sanitation declined from 30% in 2010 to 28% in 2015. Not even a single local government area in Nigeria was Open Defecation Free.
Today, the only little difference is that 10 out of Nigeria’s 774 LGAs have attained open defecation free status. Cross River State is the only state in Nigeria with three ODF LGAs – Obanliku, Yakurr and Bekwarra.
Nevertheless, I think the state and federal governments should get back to the drawing board and design more pragmatic ways of tackling open defecation in the country. Ours is not peculiar to the rural areas; everywhere you turn in Nigeria – from the most sophisticated neighborhoods of Lagos to the best paved boulevards of Abuja – people routinely engage in open defecation with a growing sense of impunity.
The practice has become so commonplace that it is culturally ingrained. Schools, hospitals, markets, recreation centres, and even banks do not give priority to toilet facilities. All sorts of excuses are given for not providing the WASH service even in rented apartments – from unavailability of water to broken down structures. Indeed, with our laidback attitude regarding this issue, it might take a century to achieve ODF status here.