Criticisms Trail N’Assembly’s Bill On Control of Infectious Diseases

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Ahmad Lawan

Deji Elumoye and Udora Orizu write that the infectious diseases bill before the National Assembly has generated heated debate among various stakeholders who questioned its timing and content.

There has been outrage and criticisms over the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill which passed first reading at the Senate but speedily passed for first and second readings at the House of Representatives when the lawmakers resumed plenary on Tuesday April 28 after a five-week recess.

The bill entitled “National Health Emergency Bill, 2020,” sponsored by Senator Chukwuka Utazi, passed through the first reading at the Senate last Tuesday but not without an observation by former Deputy President of the Senate, Senator Ike Ekweremadu, who requested that draft copies of the bill be given to all senators before further consideration of the bill. Ekweremadu in kicking against the bill through order 14(1) of the Senate standing rules, said his privileges and that of the other Senators would be breached, if details of the contents are not made available to them before given further legislative consideration.

“In line with Order 14(1), which has to deal with privileges, as one of the serving Senators, I move that draft copies of the bill should be made available before any other legislative action is taken on it.

“This is very important because, it won’t augur well for the Senate to to follow the same route with House of Representatives where a controversial Bill on Control of Infectious Diseases, was passed for first and second reading last week. Copies of the one that had just been passed for first reading in the Senate today, must be made available to us for required responses and contributions at the appropriate time.”

The President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, therefore directed the Sergeant-at-arms in the Chamber to distribute copies of the bill to all Senators ahead of its consideration for second reading next Tuesday.

Shedding more light on the bill, its sponsor who is the Chairman of Senate committee on Primary Healthcare and Communicable Diseases, Senator Chuwuka Utazi, said the contents and intendment of the bill are not the same with the one before the House of Representatives.

His words, “Although I have not read the content of the one before the House but provisions such as compulsory vaccinations for all citizens and other compulsion for that matter, are not there. The main purpose of the bill is to strengthen our Quarantine Act by way of required amendments and to take care of all the issues that have to with the management of pandemic like the ranging COVID-19. In doing that, we want to ensure that instead of having firebrigade approach of solving the problem of this nature, we have a law that can handle all that. We want to put everything under a law to address health issues.”

He added that unlike the one before the House of Representatives, the National Health Emergency Bill introduced on the floor of the Senate today, will not generate any controversy as not less than 102 senators have written their names as co- sponsors .

Said he, “I don’t see any controversy about the bill that 102 members of the Senate sponsored. The bill is to address the issue that’s posing public health emergency around the world. There are so many things that are not covered under the Quarantine Act. These are the things that are troubling the country today which must be addressed through required legislation in form of the bill. I have not read the House bill, but what I know is that we have a bill that will address the health issues connected with COVID-19 and beyond, so that such issues, whenever they occur in the future, we have a law to address them. What we have in the Quarantine Act doesn’t cover all the protocols that we supposed to follow. If they were there, the Presidency and the PTF will not be coming up with one guideline or the other.

We want to harmonize the approach on how to face the issue.”

Highlights of the bill include a clause which empowers the federal parliament to annul a quarantine order made by a sitting President. Clause 3 (7) provides that “if a resolution is passed by both Houses of the National Assembly annulling the order or declaration, it shall cease to have effect, notwithstanding subsection (3) or (4) (whichever is applicable), but without prejudice to anything previously done by virtue thereof.”

The bill also provides for compulsory vaccination of children shortly after they are born. Clause 45 (1) provided that “the parent or guardian of every child in Nigeria shall ensure that the child is vaccinated against the diseases set out in the Fourth Schedule. “(2) The Registrar of Births and Deaths shall, immediately after the registration of the birth of a child, issue to the parent or guardian of the child a notice requiring the child to be vaccinated against the diseases to which this section applies.

The bill provides that anybody guilty of tampering with the mark of an infectious disease area will be liable to a N100,000 fine. It is contained in Clause 22 which provides that “a designated health officer may cause to be placed any mark on or about a premises in which any case of infectious disease has occurred for the purpose of denoting the occurrence of such disease, and may keep such mark affixed for a period of 14 days, and any person removing or obliterating any such mark without the authority of a health officer commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N100,000.00 (One Hundred Thousand Naira) or to a community service as may be the determined by the Magistrate.”

The proposed law also empowers health officers and the police to take any action they deem necessary to ensure compliance. Clause 15 (4) states that “a designated Health Officer or a police officer may take any action that is necessary to give effect to an order under subsection (3).”

The bill further stipulated that only cremated ashes should be allowed into the country. Clause 40 (1) states that “no corpse or human remains or bones other than cremated ashes, shall be brought into or transhipped or exported from Nigeria, unless accompanied by a medical certificate or other evidence showing the name of the deceased, the date and cause of death and the measures adopted to preserve the body.”

At the Green Chamber, the proposed legislation titled, “Bill for an Act to Repeal the Quarantine Act, Cap. Q2, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 and Enact the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill, make provisions Relating to Quarantine and make Regulations for Preventing the Introduction into and Spread in Nigeria of Dangerous Infectious Diseases; and for Related Matters.” was jointly sponsored by three legislators namely the Speaker, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila; Hons Pascal Obi and Tanko Sununu.

The Bill seeks to create a legal framework to bestow powers on Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to manage the outbreak of infectious disease outbreaks, like coronavirus pandemic and curb its spread. Given that the COVID-19 pandemic is currently ravaging the world, the Bill however wasn’t praised by the public, it rather met with outrage and criticisms by various stakeholders and citizens who claims it is draconian in nature and infringes on fundamental human rights.

A look into the various sections of the bill showed the excessive power that will be given to NCDC, which explains the public’s cause for concern.

Section 6 for instance, gives the Director-General right to order for compulsory testing of persons residing within an area if he suspects, Section 23, stipulates the arrest of persons on the streets suffering from infectious diseases, Section 7 empowers postmortem tests based on suspicion, it also empowers the DG to stop even a wake keep based on suspicion, section 15 empowers the DG to issue a notice and take over a citizens property and declare it an isolation centre without the consent of the owner, section 24 empowers any enforcement officer to get order from a court to destroy any building where an infectious disease would have occurred.

Before the criticisms starting rolling in, some lawmakers opposed the passage of the Bill.

Hon. Sergius Ogun at the plenary had asked the House to think twice and avoid giving so much powers to the NCDC.

He said, “Be careful with thrusting omnibus powers on an agency whose responsibility it will be to determine whether or not, a vaccine is necessary for combating a given outbreak. Such could give rise to conspiracy.”

On his part, Hon. Uzoma Abonta opined that the Bill is coming at a wrong time, urging the lawmakers to apply restraint on the speed.

According to him, “Direction is superior than speed. We are all aware of what is awash in the social media. Why am saying this is, I have seen the quarantine act, something bigger than disease control. We need a bill for control of prevention disease.

What I am trying to say is we should not because of what we are trying to do and make big error. If we are going to do away with public hearing then we must seek for direction and not speed.”

Responding, the Speaker while saying drastic situations requires drastic measures declared that “If you look at the language of the bill the NCDC “may” be empowered. It is also not true to say public hearing is an integral part of every bill, but public hearing gives the people outside the opportunity to contribute.

What this means is that the House will have to subject every bill to public hearing.”
“I thought we are here to address some very serious and important issues. This bill like i said is to improve on what we have. The essence of the Bill is what we should keep our focus on and work out the details and I plead that we pass this Bill and send it to the Senate.”
At this point, the question was put by the presiding Deputy Speaker, Hon Ahmed Wase, and the Bill got maximum votes, as it was referred to the committee of the Whole for consideration.

Some Nigerians, however, took to their twitter handles to voice their views with the hash tag #StopNCDCBill. Even the former Minister of Aviation, Femi Fani-Kayode on his twitter account described the Bill as “evil.”

He wrote, “I’ve warned about the dangers of the vaccine that will be proposed as the answer to COVID-19. This will result in millions of deaths. Nigeria is trying to pass a law that will make it compulsory to take that vaccine as part of the world depopulation agenda. This is Evil.”

Criticizing the Bill, the main opposition party Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) said it considered moves to shut out Nigerians from public debate on such a crucial legislation as ominous and raising suspicions of sinister objectives as the nation combats the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.

The party’s spokesperson, Kola Ologbondiyan, expressed concern that such an approach was already worsening public mistrust in the polity as well as heightening apprehension over the intentions of the presiding officers of the House of Representatives and the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led administration at this critical time.

The PDP insisted that Nigerians must be carried along in the decision making process of such a critical legislation, stressing that anything short of that would be counter productive and capable of breeding an avoidable public resistance, especially, given the deepening fear and anxiety in the polity over the COVID-19 pandemic. The party, therefore, counseled Gbajabiamila to review his position and allow for public hearing on the bill.

Also, The Director General of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu said he was not consulted in drafting of the legislation and that he’s not in favour of drafting a Bill in the middle of a crisis.

A former Senator representing Kogi West at the National Assembly, Senator Dino Melaye, has also commenced moves at the Federal High Court Abuja to halt further hearing of the Bill. Melaye told the court that the Bill infringes on the right of Nigerians, contrary to constitutional provisions.

Also 36 Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have described the Bill as a threat to human rights and abuse of power. The CSOs in a joint statement said the Bill is ambiguous, lacks clarity and should be subjected to public scrutiny/hearing. According to them, “The Control of Infectious Diseases Bill vests overbearing discretionary powers on the Director General of the Nigerian Center for Disease Control (NCDC), while making no provision for reviewing and controlling the exercise of such powers.

“The Bill empowers the NCDC to restrict fundamental rights and freedoms at will, and abuse constitutionally established institutions and processes, without any form of accountability. While the threat of infectious diseases may be apparent, measures deployed for their prevention must be within the ambits of the law and must protect citizens from willful abuse of rights. It is important to note that the spirit of section 45 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) validating laws that may restrict the exercise of certain human rights requires that such laws must be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society and also, must be subjected to judicial review. This Bill, in its proposed form, fails to meet this standard, as it is not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society. There is therefore the need to clearly define terms used, extent of powers granted, and penalties for breach.”

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), on its part, said the Bill violates the constitution and human rights. Chairman of CAN, North-central Zone, Rev. Israel Akanji, who spoke against the Bill during an interview on Arise Television, the broadcast arm of THISDAY Newspapers, said the Bill gave so many powers to the Minister of Health and the Director-General of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), which would negate the constitution and the fundamental human rights of Nigerians.

“The bill negates the belief system of the different religious groups in the country. The bill does not address certain religious beliefs of the people and should, therefore, be rejected by all Nigerians, irrespective of their religion. For example, some religions do not believe in autopsy, which the bill is projecting”.

Similarly, the PDP caucus Leader in the House of Representatives, Hon. Kingsley Chinda, on his part, while describing the contents of the bill as draconian in nature, called for a rejig.

Chinda, who made the call when he appeared on The Morning Show, a breakfast programme on Arise News channel, a sister broadcast arm of THISDAY Newspapers, commended the sponsors of the Bill for their foresight, but warned that the contents of the Bill if not rejigged will give room for it to be politicised which will lead to serious abuse of power.

He said: “By the wording of that Bill, it will be politicized considering the political history of Nigeria. Anybody who becomes director general of NCDC and is given this powers, of course the person that appointed him belongs to a political party. We practise a multi party system unlike Singapore where they have one party system.

“It will be politicized 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.”

Expressing his stance on the view that the timing of the Bill is wrong, he said: “I agree with the DG of NCDC, Chikwe Ihekweazu, that the timing of the Bill is not right because we are in a 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.”

Chinda while shedding light on what he will like rejigged in the Bill said: “If you look at 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 Nigerian 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 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 keep based on suspicion. So my worry is that most often burials have religious correlation, if you are conducting a wake keep 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 keep or burial of any person. Section 14 empowers the DG to place a citizen under surveillance on mere suspicion, I keep emphasizing on ‘mere suspicion’ because what that means is discretionary.

“Section 15 empowers the DG to issue a notice and take over a citizens property and declare it an isolation centre without the consent of the owner. What these 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.

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

Apart from criticisms, the lawmakers were accused of receiving bribe from a foreign sponsor to see to the speedy passage of the Bill.

This was contained in a statement issued by the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) last week. In the statement signed by its spokesperson, Ikenga Ugochinyere, the coalition said it has credible intelligence that the alleged deal on the passage of the Bill was struck during a trip to Austria a few months back. It called on the House to suspend the Bill and await for proper input and scrutiny after the pandemic.

Following the clamour by stakeholders, the House Speaker finally bowed to pressure, and announced that the House will hold public hearing on the bill. Hon Gbajabiamila also said the House has set up a 12-man committee headed by Hon. Henry Nwawuba to probe the $10 million bribery allegation. He, however, disagreed with critics who condemned the timing of the bill and its content, saying the bill is for public interest. He said the allegations that the Bill is a sinister attempt to turn Nigerians into guinea pigs for medical research while taking away their fundamental human rights was far from the truth.

According to him, “The Control of Infectious Diseases Bill will be put forward to a public hearing where stakeholders’ contributions will be sought to make improvements to the bill before it is reviewed and debated by the Committee of the Whole. It is from the accumulation of these myriad views, suggestions and good-faith critiques from within and outside the House that we will arrive at final legislation that meets the present and future needs of our country, and which we all can support in good conscience.”

“The social distancing guidelines under which this House and the whole country operates, for the time being, means that the usual format of public hearings is not tenable. If a socially distant public hearing becomes workable, we will certainly explore that option. Nonetheless, the House will provide alternative platforms for all Nigerians who desire to send in written documents that articulate their concerns, make recommendations on amendments and perhaps present other formulations for a new framework for managing infectious diseases in Nigeria. All the contributions we receive will be considered and aggregated to improve the proposed legislation.”

Speaking to THISDAY, the Chairman of the Committee to probe the bribery allegation, Hon. Henry Nwawuba said the allegation is cheap blackmail and the committee will investigate the matter thoroughly.

He said, “It is an investigative committee. The sentiments amongst members are high on the blackmail. The bill is a much needed bill and quite timely. We have noticed over time that there are those who systemically oppose the H.O.R and suspect every good intention we have. Unfortunately they have taken things too far this time as our constituents have besieged us with questions which we cannot provide an answer. No member nor leader of the 9th House has been paid by anybody to do his or her job. We see this as cheap blackmail but to be doubly sure an adhoc committee has been set up to investigate the matter. We will be making recommendations to the entire house in 10 days when we submit our report.

QUOTE

The bill provides that anybody guilty of tampering with the mark of an infectious disease area will be liable to a N100,000 fine. It is contained in Clause 22 which provides that a designated health officer may cause to be placed any mark on or about a premises in which any case of infectious disease has occurred for the purpose of denoting the occurrence of such disease, and may keep such mark affixed for a period of 14 days, and any person removing or obliterating any such mark without the authority of a health officer commits an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N100,000.00 (One Hundred Thousand Naira) or to a community service as may be the determined by the MagMagistrate

QUOTE

At the Green Chamber, the proposed legislation titled, “Bill for an Act to Repeal the Quarantine Act, Cap. Q2, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004 and Enact the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill, make provisions Relating to Quarantine and make Regulations for Preventing the Introduction into and Spread in Nigeria of Dangerous Infectious Diseases; and for Related Matters.” was jointly sponsored by three legislators namely the Speaker, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila; Hons Pascal Obi and Tanko Sununu. The Bill seeks to create a legal framework to bestow powers on Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to manage the outbreak of infectious disease outbreaks, like Coronavirus pandemic and curb its spread