Lois Auta: A Trailblazing Advocate for Disability Rights in Nigerian Politics
I once read about the concept of enkrateia, first discussed by Socrates’ disciples and explored in the New Testament. This concept refers to a state of self-control and self-awareness whereby a person wields complete control over their life and their interests. It is sometimes referred to as “the light of self” and philosophers claim it is required to live an impactful and fulfilled life.
I have never met anyone who embodied enkrateia as profoundly as Lois Auta. There is something so intriguing about the way Lois Auta speaks of herself – it is unapologetically courageous in a manner that only comes from utter self-awareness and control. Her impact on her community is poignant and her passion to do even more is unlike any I’ve seen before. This Polio survivor is Nigeria’s first legislative candidate with a disability and documenting her story as a #WorkinWomxn is both crucial and inspiring.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Lois Auta, the Founder and CEO of Cedar Seed Foundation, Founder and President of the Network of Disabled Women, 2014 Washington Mandela Fellow, 2017 Young Global Leader Economic Forum, the first woman with a disability from Africa to receive such an award. I’m also the first woman with a disability who ran for House of Representatives in the 2019 elections out of 4,080 candidates.
When you were a little girl, what was your dream job, and are you living up to this dream?
When I was growing up, my dream job was to become an activist and to the glory of God, this has been accomplished. I am a local and global activist, known in Nigeria and globally recognized. While I was growing up, my mum tried to make me go to theological college to become a pastor (LAUGHS), but I declined. I told her “no, that’s not what I want to do.”
In your Twitter bio, you describe yourself as a “conscious politician”. What does that mean?
Yes. I am a conscious politician because I have issues that I am passionate about. Disability rights are my priority. I want to see myself sponsoring bills at the parliament – when I become a member – on the rights of persons with disabilities. The right to participate in politics, the right to go to school, the right to enjoy healthcare services and facilities, and the right to enjoy transport services and other sectors. That is why I call myself a conscious politician.
What’s it like being a female politician in Nigeria?
Being a female politician in Nigeria is very challenging. For example, I was born in Jos, I come from Kaduna, I ran in the 2019 elections in the FCT because I have been living in the FCT for over 20 years, and I am married to a man from Akwa Ibom. I am a woman, I am a woman with a disability. So, cultural and ethnic stereotypes, patriarchy, and inadequate funding are all factors affecting me, and these are not easy factors to walk over. You have to fight and keep fighting, you have to struggle and keep struggling until affirmative action is achieved, like in other countries. The 2020 WEF report stated that it would take nearly 100 years to achieve gender equality. I agree and I also disagree. With women coming up with brilliant strategies, I believe we can achieve that before the assumed time given by the WEF report.
Under the Accord Party in 2019, you ran for the House of representatives in the AMAC/Bwari constituency, tell us about that experience.
Yes, in 2019, AMAC/ Bwari constituency on the platform of the Accord Party, I ran for the House of Representatives. Yes, I lost the votes but I have won the process from many different perspectives. God used me to break the records and make history as the first woman who ran for the office of House of Rep, a woman with a disability . It was courageous, resilient and bold for me to do that. This has inspired young women and people with disabilities to run for future elections.
The experience has a sweet part and a bitter part but I thank God that history was made as to the first woman that challenged the status quo. Today I have become a reference point globally. On March 8, 2021, which was the International Day for Women, Global Citizen celebrated me among 4 other women, including Ngozi Okonjo Iweala. I am coming out again in 2023, the challenges can never stop me; be it gender, disability, inadequate funding, ethnicity, religion, or a language barrier. I never allow those challenges to override my decision to run for office.
Tell us about the impact you’ve had on the disabled community as a politician with a disability
Living with a disability in Nigeria and as a conscious politician, I have used my life to impact the disability community. Through my foundation and with the support of donors, we were able to reach out to students with disabilities from basic to tertiary institutions with scholarship awards. We give out foodstuffs and other basic needs to members of my community.
We also train women with disabilities on ICT; how to use social media to advocate for their issues and get the attention of policymakers. We were part of the advocacy that led to the disability framework by INEC which resulted in the establishment of GID (Gender and Inclusivity Department) in INEC. I was also part of the people who advocated for the passage of the disability act and today it has been signed. Now, we have a National Commission for Persons with Disabilities. We are making gradual progress; where we were ten years ago is not where we are right now. We have moved and we should keep moving.
I want to see a Nigeria where everywhere is inclusive; from our houses to offices, paths and gardens, churches and mosques and other social structures. Our infrastructure should be accessible and inclusive. Our policies should include issues of persons with disabilities, and when it comes to education, health, transport and other important things that we use in our daily lives, we should make them accommodating, accessible and inclusive. So, we need to mobilize to actualize these dreams that we want to see.
Do you think the Nigerian political scene is receptive to your community?
How have you navigated it so far? The Nigerian political sphere is not receptive. I remember when I was on a live radio interview during my campaign activities with two other male candidates, who were also running for House of Rep in the same constituency as me. Someone called and said “Madam Lois, you are a woman. You are a woman with a disability, you don’t have anything to offer, you should go home and sleep.” You can imagine that kind of mentality. This is a woman with capacity, competence, leadership skills and with local and global experience. A woman that shared a handshake with Barack and Michelle Obama and with many African presidents. The first woman with a disability to become the Young Global Leader of the WEF, the only Nigerian that was selected that year. A young woman who met with President Jonathan and President Obasanjo, has been invited to the villa twice by President Buhari. I have received awards across different continents and this man had the guts to tell me that I should go home and sleep, that I had nothing to offer.
So, we need to create the awareness that we have the abilities, and we can do it. I am a woman with 99.9 abilities. There is only a .1 disability that affected me through my legs, from the disease called poliomyelitis when I was 2 years old, and that will never stop me from becoming the great leader I have always wanted to become. My disability is a blessing and not a curse. It is a bridge and not a barricade. It is an opportunity for me to change the world. I am on the road to becoming the change I want to see in the world and nobody can stop me. Nobody, except God.
So, we need to change our perception of persons with disabilities that want to participate in politics. We need to lay a levelled playing ground for everybody no matter the status. We need to be inclusive in every agenda. Every activity, every program, and every policy has to be inclusive of vulnerable groups which are women, young people and people with disabilities.
You seem very committed to advocacy for disability rights in Nigeria. Where do you think Nigeria currently stands on this issue? Are we close to creating an equal, inclusive and accessible society?
For me, Nigeria is still trying to make it happen for citizens with disabilities. Yes, we have made a lot of progress but we need to start implementing the provision in the Nigeria disability act. With 5% reservations for employment and training opportunities for graduates with disabilities, we should always try to reserve 5% of our employment opportunities on every agenda.
I want to see a Nigeria where we have disabled walkways, transport, toilets, and ramps at entry and exit points. I want to see an inclusive Nigeria where I can board a train independently, can move around without resistance even as a wheelchair user. I want to see a Nigeria where everybody is treated equally. As it is, we are not on that level yet. We are still struggling to make it happen for persons with disabilities.
These are people, humans, and we should not be treated as second-class citizens because Nigeria’s disability community can contribute to Nigeria’s GDP if we are given equal opportunities.
If you could change one thing about politics in Nigeria, what would it be?
If I could change one thing in Nigeria’s political sphere, it is the reservation of 15% of political seats for persons with disabilities in politics who are qualified. And for women, we want to see the 35% affirmative action achieved. I want to see these percentages that I called becoming real in 2023. We also need to vote for young people into elective positions.
Politics is a hectic place for anyone in Nigeria. For a person whose identities intersect with various politically ignored communities, navigating Nigerian political leadership is hard. Despite the existence of The Nigeria Disability Rights Act or the 35% Affirmative Action by the Senate, Nigeria is still far from being a society that is truly inclusive and accessible for women like Lois Auta.
Her story of being a woman with a disability and having political aspirations holds a mirror to the society we have created and enabled. A society that is inaccessible to, dismissive of and unkind to minority groups. The journey to righting this wrong is a long one, but Lois Auta is taking the first step by clamouring to become a part of the Nigerian legislature. If policy is the language of change, then Lois Auta appears to be fluent in it.