By Francis Ehwerido
On Wednesday last week, President MuhammaduBuhari signed Executive Order 009 to make Nigeria open defecation free by 2025. Among others, “there is established in the Federal Ministry of Water Resources a National Secretariat called ‘Clean Nigeria Campaign Secretariat.’
The Secretariat is authorized on behalf of the President to implement this Order by ensuring that all public places including schools, hotels, fuel stations, places of worship, market places, hospitals and offices have accessible toilets and latrines within their premises.” I am very interested in this part of Executive Order 009.
The issue of public toilets in Nigeria is more of cleanliness and maintenance than availability and accessibility. Except for standard hotels, banks, some corporate organistions and a few places of worship, there are very few other public toilets in Nigeria where everything is alright (neatness, freshness, user-friendliness, functioning toilet facilities, etc). Even in some hotels, you see defects once in a while. The toilets in filling stations are horrible. I have not found any one satisfactory. Many churches too struggle to keep their toilets up to acceptable standards. I am leaving out government buildings and ministries, and even some airports, let us let sleeping dogs lie in peace.
I expect the Clean Nigeria Campaign Secretariat to have inspectors, who will move around public buildings to ensure the goals of Executive Order 009 are met. Toilets are like those hidden parts of our bodies (armpit, anus, etc.). The fact that these are not the parts of body that people get to see on first contact does not mean they should not be properly cared for. Public toilets should have dedicated attendants to keep them clean 24/7. On the other hand, users of these toilets should handle the facilities with care. When you meet a toilet clean, ensure it is clean after you use it, and stop stealing the tissue papers, toiletries and the toilet gadgets and fittings.
Another part of the Executive Order 009 that caught my attention is establishment of a National Secretariat called “Clean Nigeria Campaign Secretariat” in the Federal Ministry of Water Resources. Open defecation cannot be eradicated without regular water supply, so it is apt that this initiative is domiciled in the Ministry of Water Resources. I expect the ministry to make water supply a priority. Absence of water is an issue in Nigeria. You see public toilets that have been used and no water to flush the waste. If you visit some homes and request to use the toilet, your host will first of all go and inspect the toilet to see whether there is water in the cistern (water closet). Sometimes they use a bucket to put water in the cistern or put water in a bucket for you to pour directly into the bowl after use.
I spent three years in EniNjoku Hall at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, in the 80s. In those three years, water never ran in the toilets for once. Students just piled feces into the bowl, one after another. By 9am every day, after we have gone for lectures, the cleaners will come and clean the mess. But on weekends, the piling of feces starts from Friday after the 9am clean up to Monday by morning, three full days without flushing of toilets used by 100s of students. The stench was terrible. How I managed in those three years is still a mystery to me. The only male hostel that had water then was Zik’s Flats, but it was Jambites’ (fresh students) zone, so male students migrated after their first year. We preferred other male hostels to Zik’s Flats because female students scarcely associated with students who lived in Zik’s Flats.
When I remember the hopes that government plans like Vision 2010 and Vision 2020, and the various development plans that preceded them, raised and dashed, I shudder to put my hope on Executive Order 009. But I will gamble and put my hope on it. Achieving the target of making Nigeria open-defecation free requires different strategies for the rural and urban areas, but I want to focus on the urban areas today.
Stopping open defecation has never been a priority for our government and us as a people. The late Vice Admiral Mike OkhaiAkhigbe was the military governor of Lagos when I first arrived in 1987. Thirty two years later and after a succession of military and civilian governors, nothing has changed as far as open defecation is concerned in Lagos State. Take the stretch before you ascend Carter Bridge. The median between the roads was a giant toilet when I first arrived in Lagos. Today (last Tuesday), when I passed through there, the act was still very much on. The water around Carter Bridge now has the same colour with water from sewage pits. If the Lagos State Government is serious, it will months, if not weeks, to stop the act on this axis.
Our biggest war against open defecation will be the battle of the mind. Many Nigerians see nothing wrong in open defecation. I guess it is a carryover from our forefathers, but times have changed and we must evolve. Now we know the health hazards of open defecation and improper disposal of human waste and we must now amend our ways. There should be sustained public enlightenment and enforcement. Open defecation has no place in modern day living and we must jettison it.
Perhaps, as we implement the anti-open defecation order, we might add a lesser, but equally embarrassing, evil: urinating in public. In Lagos, men, especially hesitate but very little in unzipping and whipping out their penis anywhere and anytime they feel like urinating. Some people blame it on the absence of, or access to, toilet facilities in public places, but I disagree. The problem is attitudinal. A friend visits you, after three hours, he takes his leave. You escort him out, the last thing he does before entering his car is to urinate in front of your house. A bank customer leaves the bank; the last thing he does before driving off is to urinate somewhere in the open. Meanwhile banks have some of the cleanest toilets in Nigeria.
As a rule, I do not urinate indiscriminately in Nigeria, just as I don’t abroad, and it is pretty easy for me to implement. The last thing I do before leaving my house and office is to use the toilet. That is also the last thing I do when I visit friends or go to public places like hotels, offices, bank, etc. That way, I scarcely have an urgent need to urinate before I get to my next destination. But if I need to urinate due to heavy traffic, I stop at filling stations, eateries and other public places to use their toilet. And they always oblige. To stop open defecation and urination, we must change our mindset.