By Hassan Bangura
In the build-up to November 17 elections in Sierra Leone, persons with disabilities demanded to be included in the government of their country. They claim to have been marginalised by previous governments, by not being given the opportunity to serve their country in positions where they can make an impact. This, they say, is a violation of their human rights as it is in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR). Article 21 of the UDHR states that: every citizen has the right to take part in the government of their country directly or through freely chosen representatives, right to equal access to public service in their country; the right to participate in periodic and genuine elections.
Teddy Foday-Musa, the Director of the advocacy group, Disability Sierra Leone (DiSil), says he is very disappointed that the issues they have raised with the National Electoral Commission (NEC) have not been addressed.
“I am very disappointed that after having a series of meetings with NEC about providing people with disabilities with the necessities that will enable them to have equal participation in the elections like other Sierra Leoneans, they have failed to do that,” he said.
Foday-Musa said the NEC kept raising their hopes of providing blind people with tactile ballot system until the eleventh hour when they were informed that they will not be able to provide that.
“That is a violation of the rights of these people to vote independently, as the constitution of this country provides for secret ballots,” he said.
Foday-Musa said even the deaf and dumb have been deprived of their rights to voter education throughout the voter education process.
“ I have never witnessed where sign language has been used to communicate to the deaf and dumb about the voting process,” he said.
However, the plight of persons with disabilities was not neglected by the NEC only, even the political parties themselves had their own share of the responsibility. According to Foday-Musa, “the political parties have also disappointed the disabled, especially the blind. We have seen all the parties launching their manifestoes in a bid to sell their intended programmes for the country if elected, but unfortunately none of them deem it necessary to provide copies of those documents in Braille. In a way, it seems like they don’t care if the blind know what their intentions are. That is bad enough.”
In their manifestoes, both the All Peoples Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) did not mention how they are going to address the issues facing people with disabilities in the country. When asked about their plans for the disabled and their demand for seat on five cabinet positions – a call by Vandy Konneh of Disability Rights Movement (DRIM) – the young generation leader of the SLPP, Ibrahim Bangura said their party was ready to do more.
“Our party as a national organization is poised towards empowering the disabled rather than just dishing out cabinet positions. If we have people with disabilities whom we know are capable to occupy and execute the duties of any office we shall make sure we give them that opportunity,” he said.
Bangura revealed that their party has awarded symbols to a considerable number of persons with disabilities and they are ready to provide more opportunities for them in their government should they win the elections.
On the other hand, the national coordinator for the All Peoples Congress (APC), Balogun Koroma, revealed that their party has always been an all-inclusive party.
“We are known for encouraging all people as the name of our party suggests,” he said. Koroma further revealed that their party is the first party to have a disabled person as Member of Parliament. He said in the coming elections their party has awarded symbols to a number of persons with disabilities. The irony, however, is that the only disabled person to become Member of Parliament, Julius Kofi, did not succeed in securing the party symbol for the November polls. Koroma said it was due to the primary elections that he lost.
Although the major political parties and other civil society organizations have made promises and commitments to see to it that persons with disabilities are well represented in society, the reality is that there is still a lot to be done. A blind law student atFourahBayCollege, Malcolm Kpana, has urged politicians in the next government to make more efforts to solve the issues faced by disabled people.
“It will not only help the disabled but also the country, as it will only increase the badly needed human capital all of these parties are promising to build,” he said.
Kpana suggests that governments should make it possible for disabled people to acquire free and quality education to help them play their own part in the development of the country.
The streets, especially in the administrative centres, are still filled with persons with disabilities of different sorts roaming helplessly, begging for alms to survive. It is the opinion of many organizations championing the cause of the disabled that these people can be better catered for in society if they have people who are like them and knows what it feels like to be disabled to represent them in governance.