As Speaker sheds light on Control of Infectious Diseases Bill

As the debate over the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill before the House of Representatives continues, KEHINDE AKINTOLA, writes on some of the main issues at stake.

 

WITH the latest clarification made by the leadership of the House of Representatives, the hoopla that greeted the Control of Infectious Diseases bill is bound to fizzle out.  This is particularly because of the decision of the House on Tuesday to conduct a public hearing on it. The Chairman, House Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Honourable Benjamin Kaluhad given the initial clarification during an interview with the Nigerian Tribune in response to misconceptions in certain quarters on the aim of the bill.

Before the House resolved to hold a public hearing on the bill to collect inputs from other stakeholders in the country, the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, used the session on Tuesday to give further insight into the primary objective of the move. He dismissed all insinuations of ulterior motives behind the bill, saying the members of the House would never do anything that would jeopardise the collective wellbeing of the citizens. “This House of Representatives will never take any action that purposes to bring harm to any Nigerian here at home or abroad. As we have thus far shown by our conduct, the resolutions and actions we take in this ninth House of Representatives will always be in the best interests of the Nigerian people who elected us, and no one else,” Gbajabiamila stressed. He also said there was nothing wrong in taking such legislative step now, given some obvious lapses in the existing system in the battle against infectious diseases. His words: “I disagree wholeheartedly with the suggestion that this is not the ideal time to seek reforms of the infectious diseases and public health emergency framework in the country. The weaknesses of the present system have already manifested in the inability of the government to hold to proper account those whose refusal to adhere with Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) guidelines led to the further spread of the coronavirus in Nigeria. We have had people break out from isolation centres, and others, who fully aware of their status chose to travel across state lines on public transport.”

Sponsored by the Speaker of the House, Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila and two other lawmakers, the bill scaled through Second Reading on Tuesday last week.  It seeks to,among other things, confer powers on the Minister of Health and the Director-General of the Nigeria Disease Control Centre (NCDC) to quarantine anyone, as well as for the Police to make arrests without warrant, microchip vaccine, among other provisions.There was spontaneous opposition to the bill by a few members on the floor of the House, with some lawmakers arguing that it was an affront to human rights and the Constitution. Above all, they claimed the controversial bill was not circulated for members to make informed contributions. Clause 9 of the bill provides that “Any person who donates any blood or blood product at any blood bank or hospital in Nigeria for any use or purpose; and directly in connection with such donation of blood or blood product, supplies any material information which he knows to be false or misleading, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding N2 million or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years or both. Clause 75 provides that: “The Minister may from time to time, by notification in the Gazette, amend any of the Schedule to the Act,” thereby ceding the powers of the National Assembly to the Minister of Health to amend the Act as deem fit.

The lawmakers also criticised the provision of Clause 76 of the bill: “The Minister may, subject to such conditions and for such period or periods as he thinks fit, exempt any person, premises, vessel, vehicle or article or any class of persons, premises, vessels, vehicles or articles from any of the provisions of this Act.”

Reacting to the allegation of plagiarism, House spokesman,  Honourable Kalu argued that the parliament of any nation was at liberty to adapt any applicable legislation for the benefit of a particular country. According to him, “There is no plagiarism in legislative drafting; it’s not uncommon for the laws of nations or subnational bodies to debate on law that already exist in some other jurisdictions, or on international conventions, when the objectives are the same.All you have to do is to adapt them to the local need, you adapt them to the uniqueness of your own country….Rather than looking at the letters of the law, what we should be looking at is the intention that it seeks to achieve. Because most people have been asking why do you need to review the Quarantine Act; what are the weaknesses of the Quarantine Act? The answer is that the Quarantine Act is a colonial relics.”

On the allegation that the bill was smuggled into the House, Kalu said: “People should not be afraid; we are still in the oven; we are still baking this law; it has not been finished. When people say it was smuggled into the House in the night, you know we have electronic means of disseminating information; we have our email addresses where they drop this bill before we came into the House. Some people will not go to it because they depend on their aides to be able to access their internet; truth be told: some of our people got this through our electronic platform. Yes, they have copies; we have not distributed equally because the Rules and Business staff were asked to go home, so when they were called back suddenly, you don’t expect them to work at their optimal efficiency level. So, these are the things that people need to know. Nothing was smuggled into the House. It’s not a do-or-die bill; nobody is somewhere that it must be done in a to do-or-die affair; the House will still have the final say on the bill.”

A four-term member of the House, Hononurable Uzoma Nkem-Abontashed light on the grounds for the opposition to the bill. He said: “Some of us including me opposed it on the point that we have not read it actually; we’ve not seen what the bill contains. Some of us also opposed it based on human rights ground and constitutional points. But I think they have noted our objections and decided to slow the bill so that we can now put it to greater national discourse and form an informed decision to come out with something that we can have. I want to applaud them for agreeing to slow it down so that we can look at it very, very well, so we are now awaiting members to digest it and come up with what could be good.”

Similarly, a coalition of civil society in the country had called on the House to subject it to public hearing. In a communiqué issued by the 41 CSOs, the stakeholders said: “As a community, CSOs note the following issues, among others, on the proposed bill and the process of its passage: threats to human rights and abuse of power. The Control of Infectious Diseases Bill vests overbearing discretionary powers on the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), while making no provision for reviewing and controlling the exercise of such powers.”

The coalition warned: “It is important to note that while we understand the importance of a legislative framework that guarantees effective response to pandemic/public health crises, we must do so within the rule of law and in conformity with the constitution and Nigeria’s International human rights obligations and democratic principles. The National Assembly should refrain from vesting powers beyond the remit of institutions. We must avoid the temptation of vesting absolute powers in public officials as this could be abused and misused to undermine constitutionally guaranteed rights. Laws must be made for the people and any law that fails to protect the human rights of the people as guaranteed in the constitution must be rejected in its entirety.”

 

 

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