Friday, 7 April was a momentous day for Obanliku Local Government Area (LGA) in Cross River State, Nigeria. On the historic day, Obanliku was publicly celebrated as the first of the 774 LGAs in the country to achieve open defecation free (ODF) status – which is no mean feat.
Approximately 124,000 people living in Obanliku now live in clean, healthy environments, and all households and key public spaces have safe sanitation facilities.
Around 25 percent of Nigerians – more than 43 million people – defecate in the open, according to the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation. To address this, the Nigerian Government has committed to end open defecation by 2025. Obanliku’s achievement brings the country one step closer to this goal.
Over 3,000 participants gathered in Obanliku’s headquarters, Sankwala, including community representatives and sanitation champions, national, state and local government officials, and NGO representatives. Together, they celebrated, shared stories of the journey, and reinforced the message that ODF status is not a pipe dream – it is possible. Guests of honour included Engineer Suleiman Hussein Adamu, Nigeria’s Minister of Water Resources, and Dr. Chris Williams, WSSCC’s Executive Director.
The milestone was not only a source of pride for Obanliku, Cross River State and Nigeria, but also for the Rural Sanitation and Hygiene Promotion in Nigeria (RUSHPIN) programme. Obanliku is one of the six LGAs covered by RUSHPIN, which is managed by Executing Agency United Purpose, and supported by WSSCC and its funding arm, the Global Sanitation Fund (GSF). The event was organized by the Government of Nigeria, United Purpose and WSSCC.
In his remarks, Minister Adamu lauded Obanliku’s achievement, but did not mince words:
“Scandalous… This is the word I use that only one local government is open defecation free in Nigeria. This is scandalous, but in a very, very positive way.”
Community problems, community solutions
The journey to ODF status was not an easy one, but a focus on community empowerment made all the difference. As progress was being made in reaching communities, United Purpose ensured that once a community agreed to end open defecation it could proceed with its own methodologies and techniques to ending the practice.
“What made this really possible was empowering the communities themselves. We had a small mantra: community problem, community solution,” said Nanpet Chuktu, Programme Manager for RUSHPIN.
Communities felt empowered to come up with their own solutions to challenges and problems, without the programme team interfering, so long as it did not harm others and it met ODF criteria.
Through collective behaviour change approaches, including Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), implementing partners worked tirelessly for three years to counter detractors who said people would never change their ways.
“Our children were dying anyhow, because of cholera and diarrhoea – we [didn’t] know that it was through our shit that we were eating,” said Obanliku resident Janet Kogoko.
ODF status is declared only after a rigorous verification and certification process, through visits by local, state and national task groups on sanitation. To achieve ODF status, every household was required to construct and use a fly-proof and improved latrine, meeting criteria set by the WHO and UNICEF. In addition, public spaces and institutions – including markets, health centres and schools – had to have adequate sanitation facilities, the latter of which had to include separate facilities for girls and boys.
RUSHPIN eventually declared Obanliku ODF in October 2016, and the official proclamation by Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Water Resources took place in December 2016.
In his remarks Dr. Williams praised the tireless efforts, initiative and innovation of the people of Obanliku: ‘’All of you have not just ended open defecation, you have had to organize yourselves, work with your neighbours, establish relationships with those in your community you may not know so well, in order to collectively come together to end open defecation.
“You have taken matters into your own hands. No one came to your community to build toilets. No one came to hand out soap. No one came to tell you what to do. You were empowered.’’
Echoing Dr. William’s admiration for Obanliku’s journey, Tim Connell, Country Director for United Purpose Nigeria, added:
“The world needs more of what has happened in Cross River State: partnership, collaboration, listening, learning and respect. And, the not-so-secret ingredients to making positive and lasting change happen. What has been achieved in the partnership between United Purpose Nigeria, WSSCC and the Global Sanitation Fund, Cross River State, Obanliku Local Government Area, the community-based organizations, the WASHCOMs, the traditional leadership and the people, is nothing short of spectacular … They said it couldn’t be done and yet you did. Your partnership and leadership in making this happen is the first step in making the impossible, possible throughout Nigeria.”
Throughout the journey, United Purpose engaged national, state and local governments, traditional leaders, religious leaders, NGO networks, civil society organizations and WSSCC’s National Coordinator and WASH Ambassador, all of whom were ardent champions for achieving ODF status.
In addition, the community-centred process enabled the emergence of Natural Leaders, community-level volunteers who took it upon themselves to mobilize their respective communities to become ODF. These leaders helped community members see the connection between sanitation, health, equality and their human dignity. The process even led to LGA officials changing their approach from enforcement to facilitation and promoting behaviour change.
Moreover, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Committees (WASHCOMs), composed of Natural Leaders, were formed and trained to ensure compliance with ODF standards. These WASHCOMs continue to encourage households to sustain ODF status and move up the sanitation ladder by improving their facilities.
Obanliku: A catalyst for results at scale
Beyond its benefits to community members, Obanliku’s achievement is significant for the entire Nigerian WASH sector. Nigeria is working to meet Sustainable Development Goal 6.2, aimed at adequate sanitation and hygiene for all, and end open defecation in the country by 2025. Obanliku demonstrates and provides concrete evidence that collective behaviour change approaches can be scaled up in the country.
In 2014, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the Government of Nigeria, the Cross River and Benue State Governments and WSSCC, to match the GSF’s funds and scale up RUSHPIN to six additional LGAs. While this funding has not yet been released, Obanliku’s experience provides good evidence and learning.
“The RUSHPIN approach that has been taken is working, because we can see the success today,” said Minister Adamu. “It gives us the confidence to move ahead and continue based on the Community-Led Total Sanitation approach, and I’m sure we are going to get there.”
The GSF supports partners to address the global sanitation and hygiene crisis, so that everyone can enjoy healthy and productive lives.
Once we understand the complexities of slippage and the strategies to address it, how do we – as WASH practitioners – move forward?
The GSF invests in behaviour change activities that enable people to improve their sanitation