Ndubuisi Orji, Abuja
The speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila is in the eye of the storm. A bill seeking the repeal of the Quarantine Act and the Control of Infectious Act jointly sponsored by him (Gbajabiamila), Paschal Obi and Tanko Sununu, chairman of the House Committees on Health Institutions and Health Services respectively is generating concerns in the polity. Those opposed to the proposed legislation, with the short title “Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020, say there is more to the bill than meets the eyes.
The Control of Infectious Diseases Bill, which is popularly referred to as the NCDC bill gives sweeping powers to the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC).
The House on resumption from its five weeks’ forced break last Tuesday, had resolved to set aside its rule to enable it give expeditious consideration to the NCDC bill.
But little did it know that the move will raise suspicion about the objectives of the promoters of the bill and enmesh the proposed legislation in controversy within and outside the legislature.
Usually, after bills are introduced in the House, it is scheduled for second reading at a different date, during which the lawmakers debate the general principles of the bill, and after that, it is referred to the relevant committee, which conducts a public hearing on it and fine-tunes it, and submits a report to the House. The committee report is considered at the Committee of the Whole and approved, before its eventual passage.
However, at last Tuesday’s plenary, the House resolved to suspend its rules to allow the bill go through first, second readings, the committee stage and third reading the same day. The House leadership had listed the first and second reading of the bill, as well as its consideration at the Committee of the Whole in the Order paper for April 28.
Perhaps, if the House leadership has the benefit of hindsight, it would most likely have been very circumspect in the handling of the issues relating to the bill, which according to Gbajabiamila, is intended to strengthen the NCDC in tackling infectious diseases in the country.
Gbajabiamila, in his lead debate, explained that the bill is intended to give more powers to the NCDC to be more proactive in tackling infectious diseases. He noted that at the moment, the NCDC is more or less reactive in the discharge of its functions.
According to him, “ This bill also seeks to do one thing. We have a very important body; extremely important body in dealing with infectious diseases, epidemic and pandemic. But that body which is called the NCDC has very little power, very little.
“What the NCDC can do now is reactive. This bill allows the NCDC to be proactive. It also imposes a duty on medical practitioners to provide information on suspected cases to the NCDC DG.
“It also gives the DG power to order for vaccination when there is outbreak of disease. The penalty for violation of the quarantine act range from N100 to N500, that tells you how old the act is. The bill raises the fine from 200k to N5m depending on the gravity. The bill seeks to empower the NCDC to do its job better.”
Indications that the bill will not have a smooth sail as intended by the sponsors emerged when Bamidele Salam complained that members are yet to get a copy of the bill, as is customary during debate, to enable them make informed contributions to the proposed legislation.
Salam admonished the House to jettison the decision to rush through the bill, so that members can make inputs.
According to him, “ I have not seen a copy of the bill we are trying to propose. I want to advise if it is just a period of one week, if we can agree that we are going to read this bill on Tuesday and there would be no public hearing, the appropriate committee of the House we can refer it to them and then take this bill again on Tuesday after we might have seen copies and made input through the committee before we come back to the final decision.
Former chairman, House Committee on Public Petitions, Uzoma Nkem-Abonta, while buttressing Salam’s point urged the House to thread with caution.
Nkem-Abonta argued that there was no need to rush through the bill, especially as most members do not have copies of the proposed legislation, to enable them make informed contribution.
“I have seen the title of the bill and I have not seen the bill. Why I am saying this is that I have seen the Quarantine Act, it is something bigger than disease control. In essence, what I am trying to say is we should not because of what we are trying to do make a big error. If we are going to do away with public hearing, then we must seek for direction and not speed.”
“ I trust the intellect of the Speaker. But we should not because of what we want to do, do greater error.
If we are going to do away with public hearing which is an integral part of lawmaking in any parliament, then we must seek for direction and not speed. The urgency we need now is providing solution, cure for COVID-19. This bill is a long time cure, not an immediate cure. On that note, I insist that we should apply direction and not speed,” the lawmaker posited.
Regardless, the deputy speaker, Idris Wase, who presided over the debate referred it to the Committee of the Whole, after it scaled second reading. However, the consideration of the bill at the Committee of the Whole, which was slated for same day was latter deferred to this week.
Since last week, the proposed legislation has generated so much concern in the polity, with citizens spinning all sorts of conspiracy theories. Apart from allegations that the sponsors of the bill plagiarised a similar bill from Singapore, those opposed to the bill say the way and manner the House leadership is pushing for its quick passage is suspicious. Some have also argued that some clauses in the proposed legislation are draconian.
Basically, the opposition to the bill is anchored on the clauses which empower the police to arrest offenders without warrant, the declaration of any place the Minister of health deems fit, including private property, as isolation centres and the administration of vaccines during outbreak of infectious diseases.
Nkem-Abonta, while appearing on breakfast television programme on Channels Televsion, said apart from giving too much power to the NCDC, several aspects of the proposed legislation infringes on the rights of citizens.
“How can you give somebody a right to immunize us; to give us vaccination whether we like it or not. The bill as proposed went too far in giving so much powers to the NCDC. I object particularly to Sections 3,6,8, 15.,30 of the proposed bill. They are dangerously couched that if allowed to go on, then all these scandals that we are hearing about networks, and all what, Bill Gates, their vaccination, chips and so on appears to be a reality. Because the speed too; that is why I said direction is better than speed.
“ I do not consent that somebody should seize me at any point in time and give me vaccination that I do not want. We should have a say.”
However, the chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Benjamin Kalu, said the controversies over the NCDC bill are unnecessary. Kalu told Daily Sun in a telephone interview that the bill is essentially to close the lacuna observed in the Quarantine Act. The lawmaker, who stated that the bills was sent to members of the House through their various emails, accused the opposition of crying wolf, where there was none.
“Many have also raised concern that it is plagiarised. But there is no such thing as plagiarism in legislative drafting. It is not uncommon for laws of nations to be made from laws that already exist. A lot of persons have said that based on conspiracy theory, there is an element of mandatory and forced vaccination. There is no forced vaccination. Vaccination is only for those, who wish to travel out or into the country; just like you have your yellow fever card. Even if it is there, we will not allow it. Some of us will say no to it.
“When people, especially the opposition rushed to the television and started raising allegations, it was uncalled for,” the House spokesman stated.
Nevertheless, he noted that the House can reverse itself on the decision to give the bill an expedited passage, if need be, in line with public sentiments, as the parliament will not impose anything on the people.
In the wake of controversy trailing the bill, those opposed to the bill had launched a hashtag #stopNCDCbill# on Twitter to mobilize support against the bill.
The PDP in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, last weekend insisted that there must be a public hearing on the bill, to enable Nigerians make their input.
In response to an avalanche of criticism in the social media, especially on Twitter, the Special Assistant, to the speaker, on New Media, Kunle Somoye, has equally launched a hash tag #PassNCDCbill#, to debunk allegations against Gbajabiamila, in respect to the bill, and drum support for the proposed legislation.
Ironically, the NCDC, which is going to be the highest beneficiary of the proposed legislation, last week said the bill could wait until after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chikwe Iheakwezu, Director General of the NCDC, while responding to question on bill, last week had noted that it will be better, if the proposed legislation is deferred until after the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said: “Of course, the bill requires more consultation, I am personally not in favour of starting the bill in the middle of a crisis; I think we need to get over the crisis, get our heads around what has happened and use the momentum to engage with all stakeholders to come up with a bill that will really serve this country for now and in the future.”
However, Kalu told our correspondent that it is not in the place of the NCDC boss to tell the House when to pass the bill. According to him, “ it is not the NCDC boss that will tell us when to pass a bill or not. He is not a member of the National Assembly. Executive will not tell when it is right or not to pass a bill, we don’t work within the whims and caprices of the executive. They can make their recommendation.”
However, analysts say no matter how well intentioned the bill might be, the controversy that has trailed it, is likely to affect the quick passage of the legislation as intended by the House and its eventual assent by President Muhammadu Buhari.
Pundits say at the moment, three course of action are open to the House, in respect to the bill. The first one is to rework all the contentious clauses at the committee of the whole. The second option is to defer the passage of the bill to allow for more consultation or to pass the bill as it is presently couched. Which option would the House take? This question will be answered, as the Green Chamber reconvenes this week.