The controversy surrounding the “Infectious Diseases Control Bill” in the National Assembly is understandable considering the contentious aspects of the bill. And no existing law could have prepared the country for COVID-19, a new plague that has devastated the world since January 2020, not even the 1929 Quarantine Law which the new legislation was touted as its replacement. The sensational outburst of the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) that the lawmakers had been offered $10 million to pass it, unsubstantiated and without proof, would usually have led to threats of libel suits.
But the targets of attack, House Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, Hon. Pascal Obi, and Hon. Tanko Sununu, the three sponsors of the bill, seem to be acting with restraint. The Speaker defended the bill as being in the public interest saying none of the allegations against the sponsors was true. According to the Speaker, “unfortunately, we now live in a time when conspiracy theories have gained such currency that genuine endeavours in the public interest can quickly become mischaracterised and misconstrued to raise the spectre of sinister intent and ominous possibility.”
The Bill is said to have progressed with unnatural haste within the House. It had swiftly made it through the second reading and was about to clear the third when red flags were raised. By the middle of last week, critics assailed the bill from many directions; even the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) had cause to call for its withdrawal. Senator Dino Melaye had filed an action at the Federal High Court, Abuja, seeking to halt further consideration of the bill. The House Caucus leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the opposition party, Kingsley Chinda, observed that the bill is draconian.
But the most scathing review of the bill was done by 41 civil society organisations which took the far-reaching step of coming together to sign a declaration expressing alarm that the House could accelerate the passage of such a critical legislation without adequate input from relevant publics, without the courtesy of a public hearing and without consultation with affected stakeholders. The organisations said the failure of the House to do such vital consultations, therefore, was contrary to the principles of regular, transparent, citizen-centred legislation on such important issue.
In a detailed analysis of the bill, the civil society organisations noted that the bill makes provisions for the quarantine of appropriate subjects and measures to prevent the introduction and spread of dangerous infectious diseases in Nigeria. But in doing so, the bill contained provisions which constituted threats to fundamental human rights and abuse of power. It observed that the powers vested in the Director-General of the NCDC were overbearing and with no control, and no accountability. Such powers include the use of force to enter into premises without warrant, to prohibit meetings and gatherings. The DG of NCDC is also authorised to destroy structures and order any person to undergo vaccination. The issue of forcible vaccination is one aspect where the Senate version differs from that of the lower House.
The civil society organisations which includes such notable bodies as Amnesty International, YIAGA Africa, the International Press Centre, the Lawyers Alert, Enough is Enough, Women’s Advocates Research and Documentation Centre and many others observed that the bill violates Section 45 of the 1999 Constitution. The bill gives no clear definition of “surveillance” and “health worker.” The Bill also confers the power of investigation on the DG of NCDC, a power which will create jurisdictional disagreements between the commission and the Police as arrests and investigations are statutorily the functions of security agencies. The NGOs demanded that the Bill be subjected to public scrutiny.
The House reacted positively to critics and by the end of last week, it had accepted to hold public hearings. One of the country’s most prominent lawyers, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN, had earlier in the week said the Bill was “superfluous, unconstitutional” because the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention Act (2018) has taken care of what the lawmakers are trying to achieve. It was misleading on the part of the House to say it was amending the 1929 Quarantine Act, Falana said, because there’s already a development between 1929 and now. The 2018 Act has taken care of the entire provisions of the new Bill.
On close scrutiny, it would appear that Falana is right. In 2018, the NCDC erupted in applause when in November President Muhammadu Buhari signed the bill. What the House needs now is to amend the NCDC Act to incorporate, if need be, some of the provisions of the proposed bill which are not in the NCDC Act (2018) already. All over the world, the NCDC is the arrowhead, the scientific and professional authority leading the response to world health issues. Unless there is an overwhelming reason to do otherwise, the House should save itself all the aggravation and simply amend the NCDC Act.