Otteh: Public opinion not enough to sway NASS’ passage of Infectious Bill

Joseph Otteh is the Director of Access to Justice. Otteh in this interview with JOHN CHIKEZIE speaks on Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020, justice system, rising extra-judicial killings, hotel demolition in Rivers State and sundry issues

 

 

How would you look at impact of public opinion in f a controversial Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020 which has passed first and second reading?

 

Public opinion has mostly a limited impact on the passage of legislation, and the much it can do is to influence the thoughts and decisions of those who make legislation.

 

 

Although in a democratic system, public opinion is politically a very strong factor, an elected body ought to listen to the voices of the people, and members of that body who do not can be held electorally accountable for passing unpopular laws.

 

 

The extent to which the legislature listens to the people, therefore, is an indicator of how strong and textured the concept of democratic accountability is in a given society.

 

But, beyond that proposition, it shapes out quite differently in the legal domain.

Legally speaking, public opinion, whether pro or con, has no impact on the legal validity of the process leading to the passage of a law. It’s not a parameter for determining whether a law should have any effect, neither is it a limitation on the powers of the legislature to pass the law or the power of a President to sign it into effect.

 

 

Do National Assembly have powers to pass a bill after its rejection by public poll?

 

 

Given what has been said above, yes! It happens universally.

 

 

What is your view on virtual proceedings and its implications on justice system considering further extension of the closure of courts by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Muhammad as a result of COVID-19?

 

 

It’s a fortuitous development, and one born of inexorable necessity. The COVID 19 pandemic is forcing a lot of policy drivers to think outside of the box, and beyond the confines of their comfort lines. I hope it has created such an “awakening” force that will have ramifications beyond the borders of the use of virtual technology in the delivery of judicial functions.

 

 

Hopefully the pandemic will help the judiciary, the legal profession and the entire superstructure of the administration of justice in Nigeria re-imagine how Nigeria can deliver justice services in a much more efficient, accessible and prudent way, and use – in some cases, freely available – information technology tools to provide solutions to the many needs of court users.

 

 

It’s not pleasing to note that we did not invest the time, commitment and effort to hash out a new, more enabling framework for delivering justice prior to this time, and that for several decades justice policy drivers kept lamenting about the problems in the delivery of justice, when we could have done a whole lot more in alleviating these problems. 

 

 

Look at the scenario; before now, nearly everything about how our courts functioned was dependent on time-wasting, expense-involved and many times corrupt manual processes.

 

 

If a person filed an action in court, someone had to physically go to the court to do the filing, and also to return to court again and again, to check whether the matter had been assigned; whether the casefile had moved to the assigned judge; whether a date has finally been fixed for a hearing.

 

The same thing with when you applied for, say, a certified process of court. All of this entailed considerable physical movement, expense, and many times, extortion under different guises.

 

 

Heads of court knew this; Judicial Service Commissions knew this and the National Judicial Council knew this. How could they all have missed the opportunity – with all the technology that has been present – to do something to ease these burdens?

 

 

A few courts, though, made important strides – and, in these respects, we may mention the National Industrial Court!

So, COVID-19 may just be both the wake up call to the Nigerian justice sector, particularly the judiciary; a shot in the arm for the judiciary’s leadership.

 

 

Extra-judicial killings on the rise as security operatives enforce governments’ lockdown directive. How would victims of this dastardly act seek redress?

 

 

I think it is both, with respect. And not just by law enforcement agencies alone. A governor ordered the demolition of a house on allegation of the violation of lockdown orders without giving the owner basic rights of due process!

 

 

That is such an-overreach and an-overkill, and I hope the owner of that property will take the governor up on this tyranny.

 

 

The extra-judicial killings and the arbitrary law enforcement tactics by law enforcement agencies are very unfortunate because these killings were taking place within a public health context meant to safeguard lives and protect against a life-threatening contagion.

 

 

The National Human Rights Commission has said that more lives have been lost to killing by security operatives than by the virus.  You expect that reports of extra-judicial killings and other abuses would elicit some strong remonstration from our President, but, alas, no! Not unsurprisingly!

 

Do you share the view bythe Secretary of the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Gidahyelda Mustapha that governors locking down their states because of coronavirus pandemic had acted illegally as recently demonstrated in Rivers State by Governor Nyesom Wike?

 

I’m more concerned about the legitimacy of the actions of governments whether Federal or States are taking, and not the constitutional legality of their right to take such actions in the protection of public health. To enforce regulations taken to reduce the spread of this pandemic, one of the first things government should have done is to train law enforcement agencies on how to carry out law enforcement services in a pandemic or a public health crisis period.

 

 

There is no evidence this was done in any credible way. Another thing you do is to establish monitoring and accountability mechanisms to ensure that operatives are sticking to the rules and maintaining order. Again, there is little evidence to show this was done.

 

 

How do you, for example, arrest hordes of people, and then, without testing detain them all together in a police cell overnight? How does anyone rationalize that kind of decision or practice at a time like this?

It’s turned public safety measures on their head, and in trying to solve a problem, we’ve created too many more! Nigeria has not built a law enforcement institution that has the capacity to help her win a public health campaign like the present one, or achieve overreaching safety public objectives. 

 

 

On the actions taken by Governor Wike, it’s a little flustering and I’ve talked a bit about it earlier. Under Nigeria’s Constitution, he cannot be accuser, judge and executioner at once, but that’s just about what he is right now and that’s quite wrong. And at a time like this, it is so desperately insensitive!

 

 

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