Chinda: Infectious Diseases Bill Draconian

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Kingsley Chinda

Eromosele Abiodun, Nume Ekeghe in Lagos and Udora Orizu in Abuja

A leader of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) caucus in the House of Representatives, Hon. Kingsley Chinda, has warned that the controversial Infectious Diseases Bill, if passed and signed into law in its current form, will be too draconian.

He added that the bill could encourage abuse of power considering the political history of Nigeria.

While supporting calls to rejig the bill, he stated that Section 15 of the bill gives powers to the Director-General of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to acquire any property in any state on mere suspicion, adding that the clause contravenes the Land Use Act, which vests that power on state governors.

Chinda spoke when he appeared on the Morning Show, a breakfast programme of ARISE News Channel, the broadcast arm of THISDAY Newspapers.

The lawmaker, who commended the sponsors of the bill for their foresight, however, stated that its provisions were draconian, with various sections grossly abusing the constitution and rights of citizens.

“By the wording of that bill, it will be politicised considering the political history of Nigeria. Anybody who becomes director-general of NCDC and is given these powers – of course, the person that appointed him belongs to a political party. We practice a multi-party system, unlike Singapore where they have a one-party system.

“It will be politicised and I think that’s the area we have to look at. Even where you want to give such powers, it should be tied to conditions so that when you exercise it, it is not completely discretionary. I don’t think it’s proper to leave it the way it is now, besides the fact that it will encroach other existing laws; it will lead to serious abuse.

“Section 15 empowers the DG to issue a notice and take over a citizen’s property and declare it an isolation centre without the consent of the owner. What this means is that the DG enjoys so much power even against the provisions of Land Use Act. So without the consent of the governor, the federal government through the DG can acquire any property in any state under this law,” he added.

The lawmaker, however, said the bill was in the interest of the public, and shouldn’t be thrown away but reviewed to suit the local need.

According to him, “Nigeria needs a new bill that will take care of emergency situations, particularly as it pertains to infectious diseases because of our experience during the Ebola era and the present COVID-19. Of course, we have heard the criticisms that the bill was copied from the Singaporean version and there’s nothing wrong with that as far as issues of plagiarism are concerned, statutes and legislations do not fall within that purview.

“But in adopting foreign statutes, you must consider local circumstances. So when you build them in, you must adopt them in line with the local circumstance. This particular bill didn’t consider that at all. Nigeria is operating a multi-party system and it’s a federation so there will be serious need to adjust that bill to our own local circumstance,” he said.

Reacting to the view that the timing of the bill is wrong, he said: Chinda said: “I agree with the DG of NCDC, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, that the timing of the bill is not right because we are in the middle of a pandemic. There are things that we could still learn as we go on.

“By the time we conclude with this whole pandemic, I’m sure that there are new revelations, which need to be captured in that bill. We need to open it up so that people can make contributions and at the end of the day, we come up with a very quality bill.”

On what he would like to be reviewed in the bill, he said: “First of all, the title of the bill is too long. If you look at the title, the impression is that the bill has to do with only infectious diseases. But Section 5.1 of that bill also gives powers to the minister to move into any other disease, which means it goes beyond infectious diseases.

“If you also look at the office of the DG of NCDC, which was not created by this bill, all the powers to administer this bill were given to the office of the director-general of NCDC. And you know that the director-general’s office was created by another law, which is the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control Act 2018. Under the present Infectious Diseases Control Bill, some of the powers of the board in NCDC Act of 2018 were given directly to the DG alone, which runs contrary to that other bill.

“Also, if you look at sections of the constitution, particularly, chapter 4 of the constitution is grossly abused by the contents of this bill. I will also come to the argument that section 45 allows for that which I do not agree with.

“Firstly the president is given the power to declare a public emergency in the present bill that’s being considered. I think under section 3 of that bill, the bill now went further to say that the president will publish such declaration but didn’t determine what form the publication will take. What stops the bill from telling us exactly how this should be done?

“Section 6 also provides for compulsory testing on mere suspicion. The DG has the right to order for compulsory testing of persons residing within an area if he suspects. My own concern is, yes, if you fail to undergo that testing you commit an offence but again how do you publish? That it is also not spelt out in the bill.

“Section 7 empowers postmortem tests based on suspicion. It also empowers the DG to stop even a wake based on suspicion. So, my worry is that most often burials have religious correlation. If you are conducting a wake and the suspected corpse is not there, why do you need to stop that? That clearly infringes on constitutional rights to freedom of thought, religion, worship, association.

“And then section 12 empowers the DG on mere suspicion to stop the wake or burial of any person. Section 14 empowers the DG to place a citizen under surveillance on mere suspicion, I keep emphasising on ‘mere suspicion’ because what that means is discretionary.

“Section 24 empowers any enforcement officer to get the order from a court to destroy any building where an infectious disease would have occurred. My worry and concern are do you need to destroy a building to curb an infectious disease? That’s not a solution, of course, you can sanitise the building or disinfect; this is too draconian.”