A book famine’: In Nigeria, copyright laws mean visually impaired people can’t access many books

Converting books into accessible digital formats for blind and visually impaired people is illegal in Nigeria. They want to change that.

Rendani Nemakhavhani


Lagos, Nigeria (Minority Africa) — When Jamiu Jubril, 23, gained admission to study English at a university in north-central Nigeria, he knew little of the uphill task he was about to embark on for the next four years. Being a blind student, the journey was steeper than initially envisaged and on many occasions, he was broken.

“My passion was to go to school and study English. It kept ringing in my head even when it seemed impossible,’’ Jubril tells Minority Africa.

The ‘impossible’ he refers to is the reality of the Nigerian education system for many visually impaired students. A major hurdle Jubril had to overcome was getting his hands on accessible format copies to make learning possible for him.

“In the department of English, in any school, you will be given a lot of books to read… which include novels, plays and poems and even course materials. A lot of books are usually prescribed and they are all in hard copies. They were all inaccessible to me,” he says.

Only 1 – 7% of the world’s published books make it into accessible formats and in Nigeria, disability rights activists estimate this number to be less than 1%. Conversion of books into accessible digital formats for visually impaired people is illegal according to extant copyright laws in the West African country.

If Jubril were to make an accessible digital copy for himself through scanning or other means, he could face legal consequences.

“I used to seek out those who had the habit of reading aloud. Sometimes, some of them were only reading aloud, they had no idea I was going along with them,” Jibril says. “This drew me back a lot. I was always at the mercy of my mates.”

As of 2008, which is the most recent statistic, 42 out of every 1000 Nigerians had a visual impairment, a number that experts say must have risen.

As Jubril was navigating the maze of academic complexities, he had no idea delegates, diplomats and marquee publishers were having a series of meetings in Geneva at the United Nations, arguing for and against what would eventually be The Marrakesh Treaty, which was eventually signed in Morocco on 28 June 2013 and later became effective on 30 September 2016.

The Marrakesh Treaty (formally known as Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Visually Impaired Persons and Persons with Print Disabilities) grants more access to published works for people with visual impairment and other print disabilities.

Fatai Waleey,  a Lagos-based lawyer, explains that it grants exceptions to extant copyright laws and enables disabled people to access published works in a format accessible to their disability without being found wanting of copyright laws.

‘What the copyright laws do is to protect the interests of copyright holders. That is the general explanation of the copyright regime in Nigeria,” Waleey says. “What the Marrakesh Treaty seeks to do is to create an exception to this general position of the copyright law.”

While Jubril pled with other students to squeeze part of their time to read class notes and materials to his hearing, David Okon, two-term president of Nigeria Association of the Blind [2006-2015], was making arguments as a delegate of the World Blind Union at the United Nations to give visually impaired people the legal right to demand or reproduce books in formats accessible to them as long as it is not done for commercial purpose.

“We noticed that there was a book famine for blind and visually impaired people and other reading disabled persons in the world,” Okon, who is the current chairman of the association’s committee on education and the Marrakesh Treaty, says. “As it was, there were legal obstacles to books being published in an appropriate format for blind and visually impaired people including those who have reading disabilities.”’

Okon, who is equally blind adds that the treaty is simply asking for exemptions to be made for visually impaired people to the laws that forbid reproducing the intellectual property of an individual in any other form, even when it is not being done for commercial purposes.

“For you to [reproduce], you have to seek express permission from the individual or the right channel and the right owner has the right under the former law to say yes or no,” Okon says. “What we were saying is that the blind and visually impaired persons should be included in the exemptions, to be able to access books.”


“Adopting a treaty”

Despite the intervening years since the Marrakesh Treaty has been signed, it is yet to be domesticated into the Nigerian legal system.

The treaty, according to Okon, has faced bureaucratic sandbag in the form of the Nigerian government, which has not been responsive to the efforts made by the Nigeria Association of the Blind in conjunction with the World Blind Union.

“We don’t even know where the document is as we speak,’’ Okon says. “We don’t know if it is with the National Assembly or still with the Federal Executive Council. We are planning to use the Freedom of Information Bill to demand the whereabouts of the document.”

Waleey explains that there are two levels involved in adopting a treaty. The first level, he says, is ratification and the second level is domestication.

“For the Marrakesh treaty to be applicable within Nigeria then the treaty has to be domesticated in Nigeria,” Waleey says. ”The treaty must be placed before the National Assembly like every other bill in Nigeria.

“In addition to that general requirement of bill passage, the bill [which is] the treaty that has already been ratified at the international plane must also be accepted by the majority of the houses of assembly in the federation.”

Returning from Morocco, the National Association of the Blind, in conjunction with the Nigerian Copyright Commission started the ratification process for the Marrakesh Treaty.  The National Assembly ratified it in 2017 and the document was deposited.

The act was approved in 2018 by the Federal Executive Council and was supposed to go to the National Assembly for passage into law but since then, nothing has been done. All efforts to reach the council before publication were unsuccessful.

Nonetheless, Okon remains unfazed and continues to focus on the positive.

“On the brighter side, our activities geared the government to ratify other [unrelated] treaties that were not ratified for years,” he says.

The association is also in talks with the Copyright Commission about planning a webinar next month.

“If the country says it is the right of every citizen to have access to information and I don’t have that access, it is an infringement of my rights,” Okon says. “Because I am blind does not mean I should not have access to information.”

While Okon regards the apathy Nigerian lawmakers have shown towards the treaty as discrimination, Waleey says this might be difficult to prove in the court of law.

“Had it been the process has not been put in place, you can say the Nigerian government is discriminating against blind people by deliberately not putting it in place,” Waleey explains. “It is in place, even if it is slow. What the National Association of the Blind can do is to meet with the Government to expedite the process.”

This is a method the association has tried and continues to use, despite meeting dead ends.

Okon says, “Everyone we are asking is saying, ‘We are working on it,’ but how can you be working on something for two years, and you don’t know where it is?”


Why not Braille?

Ayansiji Toyin*, a third-year student of Mass Communication at the University of Lagos, faces a similar struggle like Jubril.

As an undergraduate of Mass Communication, being subjected to equal conditions as sighted colleagues impacts on her academic performance.

“Almost all the lecturers sell books to us, it is the norm,” she says. “But these books are not relevant to [blind students] unless we have the soft copies and no lecturer would ever give you softcopies of their materials.”

Toyin says peer support, which she has heavily relied on in learning, is not always effective. Like other visually impaired students, she has adopted the conversion of materials into Braille or scanning the materials to be made into accessible digital formats.

While current Nigerian copyright laws allow the conversion of books into Braille, the process is cost-intensive and most visually impaired people cannot afford it.

Dubbed the poverty capital of the world, over 80 million of Nigeria’s citizens live in poverty and nine out of ten disabled people live below the poverty line.

“To convert a book to Braille, you can spend ten times the original price of the same book. For example, if a book costs one thousand naira originally for sighted people, making it into Braille can cost up to ten thousand naira,” Okon says.

He continues, “Now that we are in the digital age and we have more blind people who are using the digital medium to access information, we need the law to make sure visually impaired people can convert books to digital formats for their use.”

“This is where the Marrakesh Treaty is helpful. I should be able to tell the publisher that I want the book and get it at the same rate everyone else is buying it.”

While Toyin waits for a change that will give her a platform to be on the same pedestal with her sighted classmates, the systemic issue persists.

“Yes, it is an act of injustice in a way,’’ Toyin says when asked how she feels about the barrier she has to face in school.

For her, like many other visually impaired people, the fight continues.

“If resources were provided for me, things would be different. It would have made me compete perfectly with a sighted person with equal opportunities. I would be on the same page with anyone at any time. I would not have to depend on any other person,’’ Jubril tells Minority Africa.

In 2015, he was among the small number of blind candidates who sat for the Joint Admission Matriculation Board examination; a prerequisite for getting into university in Nigeria.

Only 192 visually impaired candidates were among the nearly 1.5 million students who sat for the exam in that year when it was fully digitized with the introduction of the Computer Based Test.

When he did get into university, Jubril wrote to the Librarian to demand that the university equip the library with accessible digital copies of books, then to the Vice-Chancellor about computer-based examinations; how visually impaired students relying on sighted students to write their exams wasn’t a viable model.

Nothing was done.

”They didn’t even bother to respond,” he says.

*Toyin’s name has been changed to protect her identity.

We started a petition to demand domestication of the Marrakesh Treaty by the Nigerian National Assembly. Please sign this petition here. 

This post is published under Minority Africa Accountable: a Minority Africa vertical that investigates injustices against minorities from a solutions journalism perspective. Reach out to the editors with tips and ideas on [email protected]You can also send in anonymous tips here.


This story was first published on Minority Africa and appears with permission in this publication.

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Jairus Awo

Jairus Awo is a Nigeiran Muiltimedia public interest journalist. He believes in the power of the media as a catalyst to development and societal growth. You can tip him an idea on [email protected]

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