By Sunday Ani
Like locusts, miscreants, roughnecks and deviants, as well as the stranded and homeless have invaded Lagos, defecating and urinating indiscriminately on waterways, canals, rail lines and major roads, exposing residents to myriads of environmental health hazards. This is the lot of Lagos State, the ‘Centre of Excellence.’
Not even President Muhammadu Buhari’s Executive Order 009, titled “The Open Defecation-Free Nigeria by 2025 and Other Related Matters Order,” or Section 118 (f) of the Lagos State Environmental Management Law (2017) could discourage the practice of open defecation as it has continued unabated.
The executive order, which is primarily to ensure that Nigeria becomes free from open defecation by 2025, came handy following a report that about 48 million Nigerians practice open defecation, making Nigeria the second in the world among the countries with such unhealthy practices.
A report released in June this year by WASHNORM that about 48 million Nigerians still practice open defecation has once again brought to light the dangers posed by the practice in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos State, where the practice is fast becoming a norm.
WASH-NORM, an annual national assessment on the status of water, sanitation and hygiene services, in its 2021 Water, Sanitation and Hygiene National Outcome Routine Mapping (WASH-NORM) III report, revealed that about 48 million Nigerians still practice open defecation.
In the beginning
In times past, it was common to find people urinating by the roadside or in corner along major roads or highways and, sometimes, inside the gutter along the streets. It was also common to see people defecating by the side of expressways.
However, in doing that, they would always try to hide themselves under some strands of grasses or shrubs, no matter how scanty. They equally made sure they did so 50 metres or more away from the main road.
That was then. Nowadays, the story has changed. You now find people urinating and defecating openly on the roads without entertaining any iota of fear or shame. Instead, it is the passers-by who turn their faces away from such ugly sights and briskly walk away from the scene.
Today, Lagos has come under heavy attack by the practitioners of open defecation as faecal matter dots the railways and major roads, particularly those still under construction. The waterways are not left out, and those involved in the act cut across all ages, classes and professions.
This obnoxious and notorious practice is gradually pushing the Centre of Excellence to an excellent centre of open defecation, with its attendant health challenges.
The new 10-lane Lagos-Seme expressway, still under construction, is a reservoir of such oddities. From Mile 2 down to Agboju, able-bodied men are seen at any time of the day, particularly in the morning and evening hours, defecating on the new road under construction.
Although both sexes are involved, men are the main culprits. They mess and deface the road with human faeces and urine, leaving the environment and its surroundings with putrid stench capable of affecting one’s olfactory lobes adversely and constituting health problems.
The impunity and panache displayed by those involved in this inglorious act leave one wondering whether all is well with their mental state. Sometimes, they are seen defecating in groups of three, four or even five, as they puff away at sticks of cigarettes.
The same or similar scenarios play out at the auto spare parts market inside the Lagos Trade Fair Complex, along the Lagos-Badagry Expressway. As soon as you get into the compound fencing the market, by your right hand side, you see caution signs written boldly on small billboards warning people not to urinate around the place as the penalty for doing so is N5,000.
There are about five of such warning signs within the triangular area but beyond that spot, at the far left hand side, people defecate without let or hindrance, and nobody disturbs them. However, the difference between those at the trade fair complex and those on the Lagos-Badagry-Seme road under construction is that, while the culprits in the former have a few shrubs and grasses that cover them up to their waist, the culprits in the latter expose their entire body to the public.
Investigation revealed that those who engage in the act along the various rail lines in the state are not as daring. They are afraid of being caught by security agents, so they defecate mainly at night when they are hardly noticed. Most of the rail lines that crisscross the lenghh and breadth of Lagos fall victim of this indecorous conduct. From the rail lines that run through Ijora to the ones in Oyingbo and Oshodi, down to Ikeja Along, the story is the same: people dropping faeces indiscriminately along these routes.
There is yet another class of people who prefer to move their bowl on the banks of the Lagos lagoon. Anytime they are pressed, they would go to the bank of the lagoon and defecate inside the water. Like the ones who do theirs on the road, they are also courageous and proud doing that. Like their road counterparts, sometimes, they do it in groups of three or more, as they smoke cigarettes or marijuana.
One common trait in the two groups is the boldness they muster to look menacingly into the eyes of passers-by who, most of the time, are forced to look away and hasten their pace in order to leave the vicinity.
Daily Sun found that the majority of the people involved in the act are those that have accommodation problems. They are people who either live under the bridge, inside the garage and inside make-shift shops or those who sleep in rickety, abandoned vehicles, which abound everywhere in the state.
It was equally gathered that people who live in houses that lacked toilet facilities were also actively involved in the game. They were the ones guilty of defecating inside black polythene bags and carefully dropping them in the middle of the road most times.
Commenting on the development, a man who identified himself simply as John said all blames should go to the government for refusing to take care of citizens. John argued that providing public toilets and charging between N20 and N50 from individuals just to urinate was evil because most people involved in the act could not even afford such meagre amounts. He argued that such facilities should be copiously made available at no cost because some people were too poor such that instead of spending N20 just to urinate, they would rather channel the money into other pressing needs since they could always urinate inside the gutter or by the side of the road without any molestation or arrest.
He said: “This city is a wonderful place. A lot of things happen. Some landlords in ‘face-me-I-face you’ kind of houses do not provide toilets for their tenants. So, where do you expect such tenants to defecate? The answer is obvious. They would do it anywhere that is convenient for them. Apart from such people, hundreds of thousands of Lagosians are homeless. Some of them cannot even find a place to lay their heads in the garage; they sleep on the road. For instance, the Lagos-Badagry-Seme 10-lane expressway, which is still under construction, is home to many Lagosians. You may not know this until you visit the place around 10:00 or 11:00 in the night and you will be surprised at the number of people you will see sleeping on the road, defying every possible danger.
“I blame the government for all of these. The government should be able to provide shelter, which is one of the three basic necessities of man, to its citizens. After food and clothing, the next important thing to man is shelter. A responsible government should be able to provide that to her citizens. And where it is not possible to do that, public toilets should be provided at no cost for the citizens’ usage and they should be provided at every nook and cranny of a major city like Lagos. But here, such a thing does not exist. The few public toilets that are provided are not even properly maintained and they charge so much just for somebody to urinate. That is the height of wickedness and that is why many people resort to messing up the environment. The government should wake up to its responsibilities, please.”
For the president and founder of SelfWorth Organisation for Women Development, Mrs. Chinyere Anokwuru, the action amounts to a health hazard waiting to happen.
She said: “Honestly, I don’t think it is right. It is not good at all. In fact, it is a health hazard waiting to explode. It should not be encouraged.”
She thinks that those who are involved in such acts are mainly the homeless who sleep in garages or under the bridges. “I believe that those doing it are mostly people that sleep under the bridge; they don’t have houses in Lagos. They shouldn’t be encouraged,” she submitted.
On the way out of the situation, she said the government had a big role to play: “What I think the government should do is to provide more mobile toilets on the roads. The local and state governments and even communities around the areas where such incidents occur can help to provide mobile toilets and ask people to pay a token for using them. When such provisions are made, the people involved will also understand that it is better than doing their stuff on the road; I don’t think it is nice.”
She expressed fears about the vulnerability of children in such an environment with its attendant risk of contracting one infection or the other, and called on all hands to be on deck in discouraging such behaviours.
“The children around such areas can mistakenly step onto such faeces and it becomes another problem. I think people around such areas should also caution one another; they should be bold to tell the people doing it that it is not right. They should be discouraged from doing that on the road. It is not a pleasant sight to behold at all. I don’t even like the idea at all. Whoever is doing that should stop; they should desist because it could easily lead to an epidemic in such areas,” she stated.
Psychology of actors
Looking at the psychological connection to such behaviour, the consultant psychologist, Lagos University Teaching Hospital, Ikeja, Dr. Leonard Okonkwo, said such people might not have anything wrong with their mental state. He attributed it to the bandwagon effect, which derives its solid support from the society’s failure to condemn it in concrete terms.
Dispelling any modicum of opinion linking such behaviour to the mental state of the people involved, he said: “Abnormality has nothing to do with deviant behaviour. When behaviour is termed as deviant by the society, you say that such behaviour is abnormal. But, you find that people who are doing these things are doing so mainly because they see others doing it and nobody has punished them. So, they think it is normal to live that way.”
He also stated that where such an act is being carried out equally goes a long way to determine whether people who are engaged in it could be classified as normal or abnormal: “Where they do it determines their mental state. Do they do it in Ajegunle, Oshodi or in Victoria Island (VI)? When you find somebody doing it in VI, then you may now ask some questions because that is a very unlikely place for people to do such things.”
He reiterated the place of bandwagon effect in the circumstance when he said: “Sometimes, you could find people who do this thing because it is not really seen as abnormal, since others are doing it. So, many people will do the same thing, if they are pressed, because others are doing it without any punishment.”
He also did not forget the place of necessity as the mother of invention, when he said: “Again, when there are no alternatives, people just make use of whatever is available. If alternatives are not made and people are pressed, they just have to do what they need to do. I am still trying to say that the people doing this are most likely not abnormal because they are things that the majority of the people in society will do, especially when they do not have any alternative.”
He agreed that the only time to suspect that such a person might have a psychological problem was when such an incident happens in an unlikely place.
“But, when you find people doing such things in places where it is most unlikely to happen, like in Ikoyi, VI or Victoria Garden City (VGC); then you know that the person is most likely to be abnormal. I would be surprised to see that kind of behaviour in VGC,” he said.
He decried government’s failure to enforce the extant laws against such behaviours, asking, “Even though there are legislations against some of these behaviours, how much of it has been enforced? Even if it is being enforced, how much publicity does such enforcement have? I don’t know how many stories you have read about people being sentenced to five months imprisonment for defecation on the road. So, people just take it as normal.
“Moreover, what is the literacy level of our society? Majority of people in the society are still illiterate; they don’t know what is happening around them. So, if they see people doing something around them, they are more likely to do the same thing.”
On whether the same circumstances of the people that defecate on the road apply to those that do the same inside the water, he said: “I know it is something that used to be done a lot in the village, where people’s level of awareness is very low. Even in the village, if they want to do that inside a stream, they go downstream where the water is flowing because they are conscious of the effect it will have on them. That is why they go downstream where it will not affect them. So, most of the time, I only see it as normal practice because you find a whole lot of people doing it in that environment.
“In summary, I am not condemning it but I am not saying it is a good practice or something that should be encouraged. Of course, it should be highly discouraged. I am just talking of the normality or abnormality of the people who are doing such things. Many times, it is not that they are abnormal but it is just that the society condones it in certain places and when it is done, it will no longer be seen as a deviant behaviour. So, you can’t call it abnormal because there are situations where you can find people who are clearly normal doing those things. I have also given situations where you can refer to such people as abnormal. For example, if somebody just jumps out of a bus on Allen Avenue or in VGC or VI and begins to urinate by the side of the road, then you know that the person is abnormal.”
Giving insight into the health implication of such an act, Dr. Nneka Ossai described it as unhealthy because it posed serious health challenges, especially to the people around the vicinity.
She said: “It has health implications because there are lots of bacteria in faeces and if anybody accidentally gets in contact with it and eventually touches the food or any edible thing being consumed by such a person, he or she could be infected with one disease or the other.”
Talking about the air people breathe, she also stated that such action fouls the air, thereby posing another serious health hazard to the people. She said: “It also pollutes the air, which we breathe. People who ply their businesses around such places are mostly at the risk of breathing in bacteria through the oxygen they take into their system and that could be very harmful. Through the process of inhaling such contaminated air, they are exposed to various kinds of bacterial infections.”
Lagos government’s position
When contacted, the director, Sanitation Services, Lagos State Ministry of Environment, Dr. Hassan Sanuth, said the state has keyed into the Federal Government’s resolve to end open defecation by 2025. He noted that in order to achieve that, the state government had identified four cardinal areas of focus, which include needs, infrastructural provision, advocacy and enforcement. He said the state government had identified the needs as the first step to bridge the gap in the infrastructural provision.
“You can see a lot of public toilets scattered everywhere. Our environmental health officers are there to ensure that houses in the state have toilets,” he said.
He stated that nothing less than 80 per cent of the houses in the state have toilets facilities, but lamented that the displacement of people that is happening all over the country had put the state at the receiving end as most of the displaced people find their way to Lagos almost on a daily basis. The development, he noted, had led to over-population with its cyclical effect of putting much pressure on the existing facilities in the state as many people live in houses that do not have enough toilet facilities.
He also noted that government’s efforts to bridge the infrastructure gap in the provision of toilet facilities is also faced with space constraints because the state is densely populated, as well as the topography of high water tables. “By the time you want to dig a borehole, you will discover that before you go about two feet, you have met water and this happens in about 60 percent of the landmass in the state. So, those peculiar challenges are there but the government has decided to site public toilets at strategic locations. At least, the state government has built nothing less than 21 toilets this year. It is the work of the local government to do that and many of them are doing that, but there are still others that don’t do anything about it. So, all the local government areas in the state are enjoined to do that,” he stated.
He stated that the problem of open defecation is being tackled seriously by the state government through several means like encouraging the private sector participation, wherein private individuals are encouraged to run public toilets as business in the value chain. “Then, we have the Public Private Partnership, where the government in partnership with some private organisations and local government areas where we have incidents of open defecation, are able to secure a place to build public toilets.
“The third one is the corporate social responsibility, where we have been talking to a lot of organized private sector players in the state. They can donate toilets, not because they want to make profit, but as a way of giving back to the society that has sustained their businesses over the years,” he said.
Dr. Nasuth equally stated that next to bridging the infrastructural gap is the involvement of the state in aggressive advocacy, aimed at changing the people’s ethical beliefs and value orientation. “We have realized that in most places, it is not that the toilet facilities are not there; it is just that some people prefer to defecate in the open due to their ethical belief or value orientation. Some people believe that they can’t use such facilities to defecate and that is why some people will leave the public toilet and go behind them to defecate. So, we are engaged in aggressive advocacy in those areas, telling them why they should use the facilities and the health implications of open defecation to them,” he said.
In addition to the three strategies already outlined, he said the government is also capping its efforts with enforcement. “Sometimes, you need to use force. In 2020, we established the Anti-Open Defecation Squad to enforce the law against open defecation in the state. Members of the squad are scattered across the black spots identified with open defecation. When culprits are arrested, they are taken to the environmental mobile court, where they are given mild punishment like sweeping the street and all that.
“Then monitoring; the government continues to monitor and evaluate. We analyse such questions as what are the major shortcomings? Where do we need to improve and what are we doing better? The state developed what is referred to as the resilient strategy, where it was specified that each local government area or local council development area must construct a new public toilet and bathroom on a yearly basis where travelers can freshen up. So, the state actually frowns at open defecation and is doing everything to meet the 2025 target of the Federal Government. A lot of advocacies are going on and the results are there. We have seen a reduction, especially in those areas, where such practices have been identified,” he stated.
On the law prohibiting open defecation, he said: “There is a law that prohibits open defecation in Lagos State. There is provision in the Environmental Management and Protection law of Lagos State. In fact, Section 118 (f) of that law clearly stipulates that open defecation is a crime in the state,” he submitted.