The National Assembly should ensure a critical review and robust public hearing of the bill, writes Adewale Kupoluyi

Over the decades, African countries have had to contend with a variety of problems ranging from brain drain, poverty, bad leadership, famine, and diseases. These diseases have not only killed many people but have prevented the continent from developing in tandem with the abundant human, material, and natural resources. The importance of good governance becomes imperative to draw Africa and Africans out of this misery. Nigeria, a leading African nation is not left behind in its quest for development and good governance by putting in place strong democratic institutions and legislation that would make this possible.

The ravaging coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) reinforces the need for appropriate legislation. In the exercise of its statutory functions, the House of Representatives has introduced a new bill, which was sponsored by Hons. Femi Gbajabiamila (Speaker), Pascal Obi and Tanko Sununu, to address the archaic nature of the subsisting Quarantine Act and the limitations of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to curb the spread of diseases. The new bill, with the long title ‘Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020: A Bill For An Act to Repeal the Quarantine Act and Enact the Control of Infectious Disease Act, Make Provisions Relating to Quarantine and Make Regulations for Preventing the Introduction into and Spread in Nigeria of Dangerous Infectious Diseases and for Other Related Matters’.

The bill covers diseases like the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), Avian Influenza, Cholera, Dengue Fever, Hepatitis, Malaria, Measles, Tuberculosis, Yellow Fever, Measles, Polio, Meningitis, and Coronavirus, among others. Obnoxious aspects of the bill include provisions that the NCDC Director-General may, by written order, prohibit any person or class of persons from entering or leaving the isolation area without his permission, prohibit or restrict the movement within the isolation area of any person or class of persons, authorise the destruction, disposal or treatment of any goods, structure, water supply, drainage and sewerage system or other matter within the isolation area known or suspected to be a source of infection.

The scope of responsibilities looks too wide and inchoate. The bill also provides that goods brought into or removed from an isolation area in contravention of an order shall be forfeited to the government and could be seized, dealt with and disposed of. It equally accords power to order an autopsy on bodies of persons, who had died of suspicious symptoms.

This clause is at variance with Muslim’s constitutional rights of freedom of religion and offends the Sharia Penal code system as applicable in the Northern states of Nigeria.

Specifically, Section 12 empowers the NCDC DG on mere suspicion to prohibit the burial of a deceased by family members. Again, this is a clear violation of citizens’ right to human dignity. Section 13 of the bill gives DG the power to order the isolation of people having or suspected to have an infectious disease for a period of time subject to his discretion.

Section 17 prescribes that if in the opinion of the DG, a building is so overcrowded as to expose the occupants to the risk of infection by an infectious disease, the DG may by written notice; direct the owner or occupier of the building to abate the overcrowding or to close the building or part thereof.

Sections 30 and 46 of the proposed legislation are repugnant because it allows forceful vaccination against a person’s choice and will. Section 70 of the bill gives immunity that ousts the jurisdiction of the court to hear human rights abuse claims as no liability shall lie personally against the DG, health minister or official, and police officers during implementation. Section 79 prescribes a N500,000 fine and six-month jail term for persons who either violate the quarantine restriction or refuse to take vaccinations in case of an outbreak or a suspected outbreak of an infectious disease in Nigeria. Ordinarily, lawmakers are expected to ensure that national interest, security, and welfare of the people take prominence in whatever legislation they are making without sacrificing due process and law.

At any time, transparency, accountability, and openness should guide their activities as true representatives of the people. It is on this premise that the proposed bill deserves to be interrogated in line with the established legislative process. Before now, our legislators have been accused of sponsoring bills that have little or no benefits to the aspirations of the people. Except for a few, most of our lawmakers prefer to engage in legislative rascality for selfish or political reasons. The moves by the reps can best be described as ill-timed, suspicious, and antithetical to the genuine desires of Nigerians. Aside from that, many members of the house had protested that they were not served copies of the new bill before it was hurriedly passed during the first and second readings as most of the lawmakers were absent because of the subsisting national interstate lockdown.

Major stakeholders that would have enriched the quality of the bill were not also carried along. For instance, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, the incumbent NCDC DG said he was not involved in drafting the legislation and that promoting such a bill in the middle of a pandemic was not the best decision to make. Another clog in the way of the bill is the allegations that it was plagiarised from the Singaporean Infectious Disease Act of 1977. No doubt, the Quarantine Act that was enacted in 1926 requires amendment but the taking over of properties and arrest of persons without warrant or recourse to the courts appear ultra vires. Acquiescing absolute discretionary power takes away the constitutional powers of the courts to determine the criminality of an action. The compulsory subjection to vaccination nonetheless raises the suspicion that there is a grand plan to inoculate Nigerians against their wishes amid the conspiracy theory beclouding the origin, nature and dimensions surrounding coronavirus pandemic.

Nigerians deserve rich legislation from our lawmakers going by the huge yearly resources gulped by the National Assembly. In 2019, a bill with the short title, ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019′ also known as the social media bill, which was meant to criminalise the use of social media, was initiated in the Upper Legislative House but was widely rejected by the people. The social media bill was also reportedly plagiarised from Singapore. To avoid dancing in circles, the Senate should take a cue from the mistakes of the House of Representatives as it begins deliberations on a similar version of the legislation with the short title, ‘National Heath Emergency Bill, 2020’, sponsored by Senator Chukwuka Utazi, Chairman, Senate Committee on Health.

Given the loopholes associated with the legislation such as forced vaccination, verbatim copying of sizeable segments of the bill, limited participation by significant members of the house, exclusion of inputs from key stakeholders, the curious speed deployed in debating the bill, apparent conflict with peoples’ religious beliefs, and the general outcry by members of the public, the House of Representatives should ensure a critical review and robust incisive public hearing.

It is trite that good legislation must not be ambiguous, must not have a retrospective application (Section 4, 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as amended), must not legislate the impossible (Lex cogit ad impossiblia), must be of equal application and not selective (Lakanmi v. AG Western Region) and more importantly, should not oust the jurisdiction of the courts. Can the infectious diseases bill be said to be adhering to the principle of sound legislative drafting? Certainly not! Therefore, all stakeholders should rise to the occasion and do the needful.

Kupoluyi wrote from Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta