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Tackling Open Defecation in Nigeria

When I was living in Lagos mainland and working on the Island, getting up early was inevitable if I intended to catch an early bus at Berger, the Lagos-Ibadan expressway area. On two different occasions during that time, I made the mistake stepping on someone else’s faeces. Oh! It was the perfect recipe for ruining any kind of bright day. It was destabilising and can instantaneously reset your day. I have also visited water bodies like rivers in rural areas where I found locals who embraced open defecation as the norm.

Meanwhile, the water bodies they’re contaminating are most times the only source of drinking, bathing, and washing water for the community. These are just the tip of the catastrophe open defecation brings into our daily lives.

Open defecation remains a pressing issue in Nigeria, posing significant challenges to public health, environmental sustainability, and socio-economic development. Despite concerted efforts by the government and various stakeholders, millions of Nigerians still lack access to safe toilet facilities, perpetuating the cycle of poor sanitation and hygiene practices.

In October 2019, Nigeria surpassed India to become the number one open defecation nation globally, indicating the urgent need for action to improve sanitation infrastructure and promote proper hygiene practices nationwide. This alarming statistic reflects the pervasive nature of the problem and the daunting task ahead in achieving universal access to safe sanitation. As of November 2023, a staggering 48 million Nigerians continue to practice open defecation, solidifying our grip of the first position among nations with this harmful practice.

While these statistics don’t speak well of Nigeria, we’re still grateful for the national recognition the severity of the sanitation crisis has received. Former Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, declared a state of emergency in the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sector in 2018.

This bold move demonstrated political will at the highest level of government and signified a commitment to addressing open defecation and improving access to clean water and sanitation facilities. The declaration prompted the launch of the national campaign ‘Clean Nigeria: Use the Toilet’ which exemplified the government’s determination to accelerate progress towards becoming open defecation-free (ODF) by 2025.

Despite the challenges, there have been notable successes in the fight against open defecation in Nigeria. In October 2022, the government, in collaboration with UNICEF, declared Jigawa State open defecation free, marking a significant milestone in the country’s sanitation efforts.

In addition, 85 Local Government Areas (LGAs) across Nigeria have achieved ODF status, demonstrating that progress is possible with concerted efforts and community engagement. Also worth mentioning are the initiatives like the sanitation campaign in Jago, Oyo state, where residents are making strides towards eliminating open defecation and promoting hygiene practices at the grassroots level.

However, several challenges hinder the eradication of open defecation in Nigeria. Limited access to sanitation facilities, especially in rural and underserved communities, remains a major obstacle. The lack of adequate funding, infrastructure, and resources further exacerbates the problem, impeding progress towards achieving ODF status nationwide. Moreover, deeply ingrained cultural beliefs and societal norms surrounding sanitation and hygiene practices pose significant barriers to behaviour change and adoption of improved sanitation practices.

To address the challenges of open defecation in Nigeria, a multi-faceted approach is essential. First, there must be increased investment in sanitation infrastructure and hygiene promotion programs, particularly in marginalized communities. This includes the construction of toilets, handwashing stations, and sewage systems, as well as behaviour change campaigns to educate communities about the importance of proper sanitation and hygiene practices. If we want people to stop doing something, we must provide a superior alternative that will phase out the old ways without stress. We should also not rule out collaboration with private sector companies for the development and upkeep of sanitation infrastructure and designing creative ways to finance sanitation projects and seek technical expertise from international organizations like UNICEF and WHO to support these initiatives.

Community engagement and participation are also crucial for sustainable change. Empowering local leaders, community volunteers, and women’s groups to drive sanitation initiatives and promote behaviour change within their communities can lead to lasting improvements in sanitation outcomes.

In addition, leveraging partnerships with civil society organizations, private sector actors, and international donors can mobilize additional resources and expertise to support sanitation projects and scale up interventions across the country.

Furthermore, it is critical to acknowledge that achieving open-defecation-free status requires active participation of state and local governments. This is what was done in Lagos State last year when a localised campaign across major LGAs were launched in a bid to end open defecation by 2025.

Open defecation remains a formidable challenge in Nigeria, with far-reaching implications for public health, environmental sustainability, and human development. While progress has been made, much more needs to be done to achieve universal access to safe sanitation and eliminate open defecation by 2025.

By addressing the underlying drivers of the issue, mobilizing resources, and fostering community-led solutions, Nigeria can overcome the challenges of open defecation and build a healthier, more prosperous future for all its citizens.

Olamide is a communications professional currently based in London, United Kingdom. He can be reached across social media platforms @olamidefrancis and via


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