Daily Trust (Abuja)

Nigeria's Open Toilet System

Lack of adequate public toilets and poor sanitary manners account for people's penchant for disposing body waste in public. He alights hurriedly from the 'araba' bus at the ever busy Berger bus stop.

As usual this morning there was a large crowd passing through the area on their way to various destinations. The young man in suit, obviously one of the numerous civil servants in the capital city, moves quickly to the side of the pedestrian shelter where about four people are taking refuge from the mid morning sun. He pulls down the zip to his trouser and soon he discharges a long wave of urine. Done with his action, he pulls up his zip, takes a brief look at his immediate environment and moves to the busy street. He hops on another bus going to Utako. All through his brief call of nature, not as much as anyone, perhaps besides the reporter spares him a stare. In the city of Abuja and in other parts of the country, scenes like this are commonplace.

Defecating openly and passing of waste in Nigerian cities like Abuja and others seems not to inspire the horror that it would normally bring about in other countries of the world. Ironically, it has become an accepted norm in the country with pedestrians and motorists alike ignoring people openly defecating on the road. It is a common scene to see people, irrespective of social class or religious affiliation, taking ample time to urinate in public in virtually every part of the city. Lack of adequate punitive measures that are enforceable many agree appears to be the sole reason why this anti social attitude is on the increase. Large signs threatening to 'deal' with such offenders do more to attract rather than dissuade such attitude. This reporter noticed one such resident urinating beside a public facility. Not far from the spot was a public toilet , and right in front of the young man was a wall with graffiti warning residents not to urinate on the spot or face punitive measures.

A visit to parts of the city reveals a growing number of public toilet facilities. Although many are not in top conditions hygienically, the services they provide seem not to dissuade the unhealthy practice of discharge of human waste. Of concern to many residents too is the fact that in many parts of the city, horrific sights of human waste can be found in various spots, with residents having to vault over such to get to their destinations.

Georgina Oluoma, a business executive, however believes that the main reason why people do not make use of such public toilets is the fact that they are not hygienic. She tells Daily Trust also that 'it could be because of the fear of getting toilet diseases like thrush etc that some prefer to do 'short put' (defecation in public). Others do not want to see other people's mess that was not flushed in such toilets. Another reason could be that of water scarcity in their homes or environment. By doing it in public they do not have to bother about flushing you know.'

'I think it is an old habit that people find hard to drop. Two, there is still poor awareness on the need to use public toilets. Three, the public toilets are not evenly distributed for people to use. Four, some people may not have money on them and will want to empty their bladder at all cost. Lastly, I think it is because nobody has been punished for it' enthuses Dare Adeyemo, a linguist.

But Alade, an operator of one of the public toilets in the city, disagrees that cost is a reason for poor patronage of public toilets. 'To use the public toilet is not expensive. With just N30 or even N20 for some, you can have access to the facility. To take your bath too is the same. I don't think the price is the cause for people's attitude.'

For Adebayo Mojeed, a media executive, orientation is key if such attitude is to be nipped in the bud. 'Aside from the fact that most public toilets are badly kept, the orientation of an average Nigerian, particularly members of the lower class who constitute the bulk of the nation's population, does not favour the modernity attached to defecation,' he says.

Columnist, Okey Ndibe sees a deeper psychological trend as he calls the system one big open toilet system. 'If you want to gauge how badly Nigerians have been animalized, then pay attention to how, and where, many of them defecate. Just recently, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) reported that 33 million Nigerians have no access to decent toilets. As a consequence, said the report, these citizens of Africa's most populous nation answer the call of nature in the open. Let's begin with what I'd call the animalization quotient. We are accustomed to lower animals relieving themselves without regard to location or the presence of others. In adopting the way that dogs, horses and cattle go about things, Nigerians, in effect, exhibit sheer animal instincts. It wounds one's sense of dignity and fellow-feeling to realize that millions of Nigerians have been compelled to exist and behave like animals.'

He adds: 'long habituated to inhuman conditions, many Nigerians have ceased noticing those peeing or defecating in the open. Or, when we notice, too many of us have lost our sense of outrage at the oddity. Public acts of pissing and defecation have become - more or less - normal, part and parcel of our social experience and landscape.'

Also Dabe Saki in a blog has this to say: 'Nigeria suffers what I call 'severe toilet deficit' (this is in spite of the fact that the World Bank considers its 23 per cent access to flush toilets as impressive among its 'rich' country peers on the African continent). I believe that the ratio of toilets to persons (or toilets per capita) could be as many as 1 to 100 (not empirically based. Nb: one way of calculating 'toilets per capita' could be household or census data, using number of users per household, shared, communal or public toilet). In many urban and rural areas, short put method is quite common and some toilets are potentially shared by as many as 100 or more households. The lack of toilets is easily noticeable around our beaches which are contaminated by faeces (in addition to other forms of human waste). Nigeria contributes her fair share to the estimated global population of over 2.6 million people who lack toilets, and as Water aid estimates, over 40 per cent of the world's population who lack 'safe, clean or private place to go to the toilet. Unfortunately, many public institutions like schools, civil service offices and private companies do not have functional and decent toilets. In some cases, the existent ones are either 'flooded', too dirty or reserved for the 'big ogas and madams.' This is a sad situation, and I believe that it has particularly depressing implications for productivity and learning.'

Mr Timeyin Uwejamomere, the acting Country Representative of WaterAid Nigeria recently urged the government to carry out more sensitisation programs to dissuade the public from such acts, while providing more public conveniences. 'It is a shame that you drive through the city of Abuja, particularly early in the morning between the hours of 6 am and 8 o'clock on the major roads , including traveling along the road that leads to stadium from Apo village and you see people squatting and defecating. Part of this problem is because we do not enforce some of the basic regulations of our city. For example, the public places - restaurants, petrol stations - are supposed to have toilet facilities.The local government ,of course ,in Abuja which is supposed to have public services in market places, and in areas where you have large number of people visiting everyday - super markets, plazas - they are all supposed to have toilets."

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