Last week, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, did something queer and unusual. He co-sponsored a bill along with the Chairman, House Committee on Health Institutions, Pascal Obi and his counterpart in the Committee on Health Services, Tanko Sanunu, to repeal the old Quarantine Act with a view to strengthening the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) for effective service delivery.
He did so without prior circulation of the bill to other members in line with the norm of legislative proceedings and literally rammed it down their throats even with genuine resistance of the obstinate ones on the opposition side.
He vigorously canvassed it based on the expediency of the time as occasioned by COVID-19 pandemic. Though he apologized for his failure to circulate the bill properly, blaming it on the emergency situation in the country, he insisted that it was not the first time a bill would be passed on the floor of the House without proper circulation ahead of debate.
If the expeditious manner with which the bill passed the first and second reading on the same day was curious, the content of the Act itself had generated more questions than answers. Titled ‘Control of Infectious Disease bill,’ the proposed amendment seeks to, among other things, empower the NCDC to be more proactive in preventing the introduction into and spread in Nigeria of dangerous infectious diseases, and for other related matters, to compel parents to vaccinate their children at birth, empower minister of health to declare any premise as an isolation centre for the purpose of preventing the spread or possible outbreak of infectious diseases and also empower the police or health official to arrest, quarantine violators without warrant.
It reads in part: “The minister may, for the purpose of preventing the spread or possible outbreak of an infectious disease, by notification in the Gazette declare any premises to be an isolation area.”
While there is a consensus on the need for a reform of the archaic Quarantine Act to meet the challenge of the new global health issue, many Nigerians are quite uncomfortable with the draconian nature of the bill and the curious push for its speedy passage.
For avoidance of doubt, Gbajabiamila belongs to the inner caucus of the Lagos State establishment, which probably suggests why he wanted private property to be forcefully acquired by the minister of health for isolation envisioning the existential threat of the rising cases of Coronavirus pandemic that lies ahead in the state. Everyone knows by way of observation that Lagos as the epicentre of the dreaded disease has run out of space for isolation. And the authorities are not pretending about it.
The Director-General of the NCDC, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, at a recent briefing of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 had said: “Concerning the availability of bed spaces for the management of patients, there is no doubt that we are struggling in certain places, especially in Lagos State, and to an extent Kano State and Abuja. But the biggest challenge right now is in Lagos where bed spaces are really tight.”
Perhaps, Gbajabiamila as one of the key stakeholders in the state was looking at the worst scenario and the lack of capacity to cope. But what happens to the right of owners of private property he wants minister of health to take over by fiat? He has no answer for it in his sponsored bill. Expectedly, legal experts are already kicking, saying it is draconian and cannot stand the test of time as it is tantamount to turning logic upside down.
Again, there is also apprehension that the vaccination for children at birth may be made compulsory if eventually the billed is signed into law. Linked with conspiracy theories in the social media, critics alleged that the sponsors of the bill might be having some sinister motive, insisting that Nigeria should not be used as Guinea pig for testing the potency of a purported vaccine when the western nations and China where the disease originated from have not done so. Much more damning is the insinuation trending on twitter that over 90 per cent of the content of the bill was plagiarised from Singapore’s law.
With deluge of criticisms trailing the bill, it goes without saying that the amendment has failed the test of public scrutiny and the two chambers have to go back to the drawing board to craft a new draft that would be acceptable to all and sundry.
Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, representing Surulere Federal Constituency, is one of the oldest ranking members of the House of Representatives. With a toga of progressive, he has an inclination to be on the side of the masses by sponsoring bills that seek to promote public good. At the early inception of his tenure as the Speaker, he sponsored a bill purporting to stop the DISCOs from issuing estimated bills to customers who have not been supplied with prepaid metres. And he got a loud applause for it, even though nothing much has been heard about it. Similarly, with the index case of Coronavirus pandemic in Nigeria, he moved a motion asking for suspension of issuing of bills for electricity consumed for a period of two months as part of their social responsibility. Another round of ovation followed. However, for the latest bill, he missed the bull’s-eye.