AKEEM NAFIU writes that lawyers have joined the fray of opposition against the Infectious Disease Bill at the House of Representatives, sought withdrawal of the obnoxious bill
These are not the best of times for the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila and his colleagues as their plans of ensuring legitimacy of the Infectious Disease Bill have continued to be met with stiff resistance.
The latest opposition to the Bill is coming from some senior lawyers who are demanding a halt of all actions.
The lawyers were of the views that the contents of the Bill had failed to offer any significant protection for Nigerians fundamental rights even though it set to protect society in the exceptional case of a pandemic.
The Bill tagged “Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020″ which had already passed first and second readings at the Green Chambers was sponsored by the House Speaker, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila.
According to the Speaker, the Bill which intended to enact the Infectious Diseases Control Act will repeal the Quarantine Act of 1926.
However, criticisms started trailing the Bill after it became public knowledge that it has passed through second reading.
For instance, Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) had accused the lawmakers of receiving $10 million to pass the Bill.
Litigation had also ensued over the Bill with a former senator representing Kogi Central, Dino Melaye, filing a suit at a Federal High Court in Abuja on its propriety.
In the suit marked FHC/ABJ/CS/463/2020, the former Senator said his right to freedom and life will be breached if the Bill became law.
The National Assembly, its Clerk, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Attorney-General of the Federation and the Inspector-General of Police were joined as co-respondents in the suit.
The ex-Senator is seeking to enforce his fundamental rights to the dignity of his person, personal liberty, right to private and family life, right to freedom of movement and right to own immovable property in Nigeria as guaranteed by Sections 34 (1), 35, 37, 38, 40, 41 (1), 44, and 46 (1) of the Constitution as well as Articles 4, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12 and 14 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.
But the lawmakers may have made a detour from their plan to pass the contentious Bill without public hearing by agreeing to throw it open following barrages of criticisms trailing the bill.
Speaking on why the Green Chambers decided to accommodate public opinion, Speaker Gbajabiamila noted that since the introduction of the Bill, it has been trailed by a barrage of criticisms.
He debunked allegations that the Bill was a sinister attempt to turn Nigerians into guinea pigs for medical research.
His words: “Suffice it to say that none of these allegations are true unfortunately, we now live in a time when conspiracy theories have gained such currency that genuine endeavours in the public interest can quickly be characterised and misconstrued to raise the spectre of sinister intent and ominous possibility.
“This House 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 9th House of Representatives will always be in the best interests of the Nigerian people who elected us, and no one else.
“It is a marketplace of ideas where only those proposals that gain currency with the majority should carry the day. However, our disagreements must be grounded in a shared recognition that our present travails demand urgent interventions. And we must not allow ourselves to become victims of the cynical assumption that every policy proposal or response is a result of personal inducement or a grand conspiracy to bring harm to the people on whose behalf we hold political office.
“In the recent uproar, certain fundamental truths have been lost and are worth remembering. Our current framework for the prevention and management of infectious diseases is obsolete and no longer fit for purpose.
“The current law severely constrains the ability of the Federal Government and the NCDC to take proactive actions to prevent the entry into Nigeria of infectious diseases and the management of public health emergencies when they occur.
“Even now, the government remains vulnerable to claims that some directives already being implemented to manage the present crisis do not have the backing of the law and therefore cannot withstand judicial scrutiny.
”Subsequently, the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill will be put forward to a public hearing where stakeholder contributions will be sought to make improvements to the Bill before it is reviewed and debated by the committee of the whole”.
Some senior lawyers have in the meantime been speaking on the legality as well as the neccesity of the Infectious Disease Bill, particularly at a time the nation is being ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawyers while baring their minds on the issue at the weekend faulted claims by the lawmakers that the Infectious Disease Bill came up to amend the Quarantine Act of 1926.
Speaking on the issue, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Femi Falana, said the Bill was unnecessary as the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) Act of 2018 has taken care of infectious diseases in the country.
He said: “Before we begin to talk about the provisions of the Bill, it is important to find out whether the Bill is even necessary at this stage. It is pertinent to inform Nigerians that in November 2018, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) Act was enacted in this country. The law has taken care of infectious diseases in the country.
“So, it is not correct, in fact, it is misleading on the part of the House of Representatives to say that it is amending the 1926 Quarantine Act. Between 1926 and now, we have the 2018 NCDC Act which have taken care of the entire provisions of the Infectious Disease Bill.
“Therefore, the Infectious Disease Bill as far as the law is concerned is superfluous. Its provisions are largely illegal and unconstitutional.
“It is illegal for any government to just say it is acquiring a building for conversion to an isolation center. Negotiation has to be carried out with the owner of the property. The property owner must be ready to leave his property before it can be converted to an isolation center. Section 43 of the Constitution allows Nigerians to acquire property in any part of the country”.
Another member of the inner Bar, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, also called for immediate withdrawal of the Bill, saying its provisions were largely unconstitutional.
“Looking at the Bill generally, it runs totally in violation of the Constitution. For instance, one of its provisions talks about the Minister of Health having the power to declare a place as an isolated area and if he had done such declaration, the Director-General of the NCDC has the power to restrict movements.
“Anyone dissatisfied with the decisions can make an appeal to the Minister within seven days and the Minister’s decision on the issue is final. So, the Minister has become the Supreme Court, to the extent that he cannot be challenged over any decision taken by him.
“So, I think that generally from the look of the Bill, the contentious areas overweighed the advantages. For instance, Sections 7 and 12 of the Bill which allows post-mortem of anyone that died of infectious disease is laudable. But, when you look at the Sections of the Bill generally, for instance, Section 24 which allows a policeman or an health official to apprehend someone without warrant, you can imagine what this amounts to.
“Therefore, I am thinking that when what you will do to amend a process is more than what you will do to re-enact it, you have to make your choice. In essence, I am saying that the process and energy involved in amending the obnoxious sections of the Bill outweighed the advantages of retaining the Bill itself.
“Therefore, I think the Bill should be withdrawn while the House of Representatives harmonize with the Senate to come up with a new Bill that conforms with the Constitution”, the silk said.
Dr. Biodun Layonu (SAN) also demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Bill by the lawmakers as its passage would occasion an infringement on people’s fundamental rights.
He said: “I am yet to read the Senate’s version but the House’s version must never be passed the way it is. It should be withdrawn. It’s too wide. Indeed, it fails to offer any significant protection for individual fundamental rights even though it sets to protect society in the exceptional case of a pandemic.”
A former Secretary of the North East Task Force of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Mr. Kunle Adegoke, expressed his displeasure over the approach adopted by the lawmakers on the Bill
“While not wanting to pander to the conspiracy theories in the public domain alleging lots of motives from the sublime to the ridiculous, it is important to say that the Nigerian House of Representatives leaves so much to be disagreed with in its approach to the process by which the Bill is being considered in the House.
“In the first place, one wonders where exactly is the genuineness of intention behind the hurry in which the Bill was brought into the House without the majority of the House members having the opportunity of sighting it in the first place.
“No Bill is supposed to be passed into law without a thorough consideration by members of the House or what is the purpose for which they were elected? If not for the insistence of some vigilant members, probably the Bill would have gone through all legislative processes without members seeing it. This is abhorrent to say the least.
“Secondly, such an important Bill ought not to be passed without adequate consideration by stakeholders via a responsible public presentation process. It should be noted that a lot of the provisions contained in the Bill are huge threats to human rights of citizens and this ought not to be allowed.
“The Bill seeks to empower the NCDC to violate fundamental rights and freedoms without control. For instance, Section 8(4) is meant to be in defiance of rule of law in the process of the Director General obtaining information.
“Section 10 (3) seeks to empower the Director General to forcefully enter any premises without warrant; Whatever decision is taken by the Minister under Section 18(7) and Section 21(5) is contrary to Section 36(2)(b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999.
“Section 19 confers the Director General with powers to prohibit or restrict meetings, gatherings and public entertainments; Section 15(3)(e) also gives powers to the Director General to authorize the destruction and disposal of any structure, goods, water supply, drainage etc.
“Section 31(1) is autocratic as the Director General of NCDC, on mere suspicion of someone being a carrier of an infectious disease, may order the detention of the person at his pleasure. It goes on and on.
“It is important for the National Assembly to slow down on this Act being passed for all relevant steps to be taken to ensure that the bill is not rushed only for it to be axed down in court”, he said.
A former National President of the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Malachy Ugwummadu, also noted that the provisions of the Bill were largely at variance with that of the Constitution.
He said: “A Bill that is set on a collision course with the express provision of the Constitution is bound to succumb to the superiority of the Constitution when it is passed pursuant to Section 1(3) of the 1999 Constitution.
“The Constitution under Section 43 grants a fundamental right to every Nigerian to own movable and interest in immoveable property anywhere in the country. Such right or interest can only be acquired compulsorily for public purposes upon payment of adequate compensation jointly assessed by the Government ie the acquiring authority.
“The only relevant exception to this is provided for under Section 44 (2) (K) which provides thus…”nothing in subsection 1 of this section shall be construed as affecting any general law.
“But how much of those powers vested in individual members (Minister/DG) of the Executive without a corresponding power of the judiciary to review or check before the acquisition are susceptible to abuse is the fundamental concerns of the public.
“Thus, if the acquisition is for temporary purposes to deal with examination, investigation or inquiry of COVID-19 cases pursuant to the provision of the proposed bill when passed, then, it will be legally permissible by virtue of Section 44 (2) (K) of the 1999 Constitution.”