Infectious Disease Bill: How far can Reps go?

The primary duty of the legislature is to make laws for the overall interest of Nigeria and Nigerians. The lawmakers must ensure that national interest, security, and welfare of the people take prominence in whatever legislation they are making without sacrificing due process and legality of their actions. At anytime, transparency, accountability, and openness should guide their activities as true representatives of the people. It is on this premise that the proposed bill by the House of Representatives deserves to be interrogated.

The bill was sponsored by Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila, Pascal Obi and Tanko Sununu on the grounds that the proposed law was designed to prevent the spread or possible outbreak of infectious diseases. The legislators said the current coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) had exposed the archaic nature of the subsisting Quarantine Act and the incapacitation of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to curb the spread of diseases. The 65-page bill that has passed first and second readings at the plenary is titled ‘A bill for an act to repeal the Quarantine Act (1926) 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 diseases covered by the new bill include Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), Avian Influenza and Meningitis, among others. Some provisions of the bill include the Subsection 2 that reads: “A notification under subsection (1) shall be effective until the expiration of such period as may be specified in the notification or until it is revoked by the minister, whichever occurs first”. Subsection 3 reads: “The Director-General may, in relation to an isolation area, by written order prohibit any person or class of persons from entering or leaving the isolation area without the permission of the Director-General”.

Section 17 prescribes that if in the opinion of the NCDC 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 within the time specified. Section 68 states that any person guilty of an offence under the Act for which no penalty is expressly provided, shall in the case of a first offence, be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding N100,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to both.

However, members of the House had protested that they were not served copies while the bill was hurriedly passed first and second readings on the same day. Many of the lawmakers were said to be absent to attend the sitting because of the interstate lockdown. Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, the NCDC DG has said he had not been involved in drafting the legislation, saying that he does not personally support the drafting a bill in the middle of a pandemic. There also were accusations that the sponsors plagiarised the law on disease control under the Singapore Infectious Disease Act of 1977.

The main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) had described the process as ‘discreet passage of the bill’ because it failed to get the contributions of Nigerians through public hearing. No doubt, the bill has the tendency to violate fundamental rights of the people by undue arrest. Even though the Quarantine Act requires amendments to take care of modern day realities but the enormous discretionary powers given to the health minister, NCDC DG and police in the bill is likely to be abused. The compulsory subjection to vaccination raises suspicion that there is a grand plan to inoculate Nigerians against their wishes.

In view of the likely abuse embedded in the legislation, forced vaccination of Nigerians, verbatim copying of segments of the bill, limited participation by other members of the house, unwarranted speed of debating the bill, and the outcry by members of the public, the House or Representatives should halt further passage of the controversial bill, as Nigerians deserve quality legislation from our lawmakers. In 2019, a bill titled ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill 2019′ also known as the social media bill meant to criminalise the use of social media was flawed.

The bill, which was sponsored by Mohammed Sani Musa, a senator representing Niger East, was also allegedly plagiarised from Singapore. The Senate should take a cue from the mistake of the House of Representatives as the Upper Legislative House is expected to introduce and begin deliberations on a similar bill even though the Chairman, Senate Committee on Primary Healthcare and Communicable Diseases, Senator Chukwuka Utazi had assured that the proposed legislation would be different. While the infectious disease bill is useful, it cannot be passed in its present form without a review because a piece of legislation is supposed to bring about good governance and development and not the other way round. Therefore, the reps should heed the clarion call of the people and do the needful.

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