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Gbajabiamila’s ‘DISEASED’ INFECTIOUS DISEASES CONTROL BILL

Ordinarily, it would have been thumbs up for Femi Gbajabiamila, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and two others – Pascal Obi, Chairman, House Committee on Health Institutions, and Tanko Sununu, Chairman of the Committee on Health Services – who co-sponsored the now contentious Infectious Diseases Control Bill for their initiative and thoughtfulness. Their intentions could have been noble, but their motives appeared suspect, or so it seemed in the eyes of critics of the bill who believe there is more to it than meets the eyes. What the trio perhaps may not have bargained for is the hullabaloo and outrage that greeted the introduction of a bill that for all intents and purposes, should be embraced and welcome if the circumstances were different. Opponents of the bill, from arguments canvassed, are agreed that amendment to the ancient Quarantine Act was long overdue, and therefore very necessary. Their angst, however, was about the process, contents of the bill, and the seeming arrogant posturing and desperation of the sponsors.

From the onset, the bill had been mired in controversy which has refused to go away even after its champion decided to apply the brakes. Entitled, “Control Of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020: A Bill For An Act To Repeal The Quarantine Act (1926) And Enact The Control Of Infectious Diseases 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In Nigeria Of Dangerous Infectious Diseases, And For Other Related Matters”, the bill seeks to repeal the evidently outdated Quarantine Act of 1926 and replace it with the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill with 82 sections.

Presenting the bill Tuesday April 28, at the resumed sitting of the House, Gbajabiamila said the intention was to strengthen the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, and make it more proactive, rather than “reactive when there is an outbreak.” The manner the sponsors however went about it was to raise eyebrows and set the alarm bell ringing, first amongst their colleagues many of whom objected to the process, and then the larger society when the provisions became public knowledge. Some of the law makers smelt a rat when, contrary to established tradition, members were not availed copies of the bill ahead of its presentation. Their suspicion was further aroused when it hurriedly passed through first and second readings same day.

Following stiff opposition to the process, Gbajabiamila was forced to stand down the bill to allow members study it. But rather than calm frayed nerves, the bill indeed sparked more outrage. Some of the provisions not only set tongues wagging, it threw up a conspiracy theory as allegations began to fly that the sponsors had been compromised. Frantic effort by the Speaker to railroad the House into passing the bill expeditiously without throwing it up for debate at a public hearing met a brick wall. In reaction to some of the objections, Gbajabiamila said “If you look at the language of the bill, the NCDC ‘may’ be empowered. It is also not true to say public hearing is an integral part of every bill, but public hearing gives the people outside the opportunity to contribute.

“What this means is that the House will have to subject every bill to public hearing. I thought we are here to address some very serious and important issues. This bill is to improve on what we have. The essence of the bill is what we should keep our focus on and work out the details and I plead that we pass this bill and send it to the Senate.”

But many of his colleagues disagreed; so also did critical segment of the general public. The grouse of critics of the bill is that the provisions were rather draconian, suspect, and against democratic ethos. One of the law makers who rose to shoot down the bill was Uzoma Nkem Abonta, a member of the PDP from Abia State. Abonta said: “We should not, because of what we are trying to do, make a big error. If we are going to do away with public hearings, then we must seek direction and not speed. The bill has a wrong timing. Please, let’s apply restraint on the speed”.

Ossai Nicholas Ossai, Delta State PDP and Bamidele Salam, of the APC from Osun State, however queued behind Gbajabiamila. But outside the hallowed chambers of the House, voices of opposition were even more strident and indeed deafening; more vociferous than the outcry that heralded any other unpopular Stimulus Bill. Civil society groups were aghast. As critical stakeholders in Nigerian project, they kicked against the bill. In a statement issued on Tuesday, coming under one umbrella as a Coalition of Civil Society Groups numbering about 43, it expressed deep concern about the sweeping powers given to those who would operate the proposed bill.

“The Bill empowers the NCDC to restrict fundamental rights and freedoms at will, and abuse constitutionally established institutions and processes, without any form of accountability. For instance, Section 10 (3) gives the Director-General express powers to use force to enter any premises without a warrant,” it said. They also complained that the bill “leaves room for significant amount of discretion on the part of the implementing authorities and limits the rights of citizens and respective institutions to question decisions taken in the exercise of the powers provided in the Bill”. They therefore demanded a review of all provisions of the Bill “that foster inter-agency conflicts and abuse of power and undermine constitutionally guaranteed rights, and are contrary to the rule of law and Nigeria’s international human rights obligations.”

In the coalition were such notable bodies as Centre for Democracy and Development, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, Amnesty International, and YIAGA Africa. Also included are International Press Centre, Lawyers Alert, Enough is Enough, Centre for Information Technology and Development, the Albino Foundation, among others.

Apart from the civil society groups, prominent lawyers, opinion leaders and discerning Nigerians were also ill at ease with the bill. For Femi Falana, senior advocate of Nigeria, SAN, and human rights crusader, the real issue, rather than its provisions, was whether the bill was necessary at this stage. He accused the House Representatives of misleading Nigerians by saying it was amending the 1926 Quarantine Act. According to Falana “it is pertinent to inform Nigerians that in November 2018, a law was passed; a law was enacted in this country, ‘The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC Act’ which 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 because there is another development”. He noted that between 1926 and now, there was the 2018 Act which he said has taken care of the entire provisions of the new Bill.

His conclusion therefore was that “So, the new Bill, as far as the law is concerned, is superfluous. Its provisions are largely illegal and unconstitutional. You can’t for instance, say you want to acquire any place and convert it to an isolation centre; you must negotiate with the owner of the building. I must be ready to sell my house to you before you can convert it to an isolation centre because under Section 43 of the constitution, I have a right to acquire property in any part of Nigeria.

“Secondly, you are saying that you are taking over the power vested in the president and the governors under the Quarantine Act, and you want to concentrate those powers on an appointed official; that is the Director-General of the NCDC. Again, this is a subversion of the Federal system of government whereby state governors are in charge of their states while the president is in charge of the entire Federation. So, powers conferred on them, political leaders, cannot be transferred to an individual who has not been elected by the Nigerian people”.

Ebun Adegboruwa, fellow silk, agreed with Falana. Adegboruwa said “It’s a Bill that is going to lead to dictatorship. I checked the Bill, 44 pages. 134 times, was the director-general made reference to. The director-general was mentioned 134 times, given such enormous powers to become like a dictator. So, I believe that looking at the bill generally, it runs totally in violation of the constitution because for instance, the minister has the power to declare a place as isolated area. And if he has done that declaration, the director-general has the power to restrict your movement. And if you are dissatisfied, you can make an appeal within seven days to the minister. And when the minister gets the appeal, his decision on it is final. So, the minister has become the Supreme Court; you cannot challenge him. You cannot even go to court to challenge the determination of an isolated area”.

There were some other sinister provisions in the bill that seem to put Nigerians on the panic mode, like the ones that had to do with forceful vaccination. One read: “In an outbreak or a suspected outbreak of any infectious disease in any area in Nigeria, the Director-General may by order direct any person or class of persons not protected or vaccinated against the disease to undergo vaccination or other prophylaxis within such period as may be specified in the order.

“In addition to the power conferred by subsection (1), where it appears to the Director that an outbreak of an infectious disease in any area in Nigeria is imminent; and it is necessary or expedient to do so for the securing of public safety, the Director may by order direct any person or class of persons not protected or vaccinated against that infectious disease to undergo vaccination or other prophylaxis within such period as may be specified in the order.”

This was a serious concern to Sergius Ogun, a member of the PDP from Edo State who called for caution. Ogun advised the House to think twice and avoid giving so much power to the NCDC. “We must be careful with vaccines and avoid any conspiracy”. This also formed a major plank of the suit filed at a Federal High Court in Abuja May 4 against the House by Dino Melaye, former senator who represented Kogi West in the Senate. Melaye specifically sought the intervention of the court to strike out certain sections of the proposed bill which he claimed if passed would breach his fundamental human rights as enshrined in the 1999 Constitution. He complained in particular, amongst others, about the provisions of Sections 30 and 47 which were also of utmost concerns to many Nigerians. These are sections that have to do with compulsory vaccination of persons.

Curiously, amidst the cacophony of voices raised against the bill, and the heat it had been generating, the Senate, in a manner suggestive of brazen disdain for the sensibilities of Nigerians, came up with its own version of the bill which from every material detail could at best be described as Siamese twins of that of the lower chamber. Titled the “National Health Emergency Bill 2020”, the bill was sponsored by the Chairman, Senate Committee on Primary Healthcare and Communicable Diseases, Chukwuka Utazi (PDP, Enugu State). Like what happened at the lower chamber, members did not have the privilege of seeing the bill before it was introduced.

But no sooner it was read for the first time that the Ike Ekweremadu, former Deputy Senate President, DSP, opened the flood gate of opposition against it. Ekweremadu, citing Order 14(1) of the Senate Standing Orders as Amended, demanded for a draft copy of the Bill or in gazette form, insisting that the content of the bill must be made open before subjecting it to any consideration otherwise his privileges and those of other senators would be breached if details of the contents were not made available to them. The former DSP emphasised that “this is very important because it would not augur well for the Senate to follow the same route with the House of Representatives where a controversial Bill on Control of Infectious Diseases was passed for first and second reading last week”.

The seeming collusion by some members of the two chambers of the National Assembly to pass the bill at all cost further strengthened the conspiracy theory that had gained traction. First to raise the red flag was the Coalition of United Political Parties, CUPP which accused the law makers of receiving a $10 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to foist the bill on Nigerians, especially the aspect that had to do with compulsory vaccination. Claiming to have had intelligence that the leadership of the House was being sponsored by vested international interests to pass the bill, spokesman of the CUPP, Ikenga Imo Ugochinyere said “Opposition Coalition (CUPP) has intercepted very credible intelligence and hereby alerts Nigerians of plans by the leadership of the House of Representatives led by Femi Gbajabiamila to forcefully and without adherence to the rules of lawmaking to pass the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020 otherwise known as the Compulsory Vaccination Bill which is proposing a compulsory vaccination of all Nigerians even when the vaccines have not been discovered”.

Ugochinyere said “This intelligence is coupled with the information of the alleged receipt, from sources outside the country but very interested in the bill, of the sum of $10m by the sponsors and promoters of the bill to distribute among lawmakers to ensure a smooth passage of the bill”.

Unsettled by the allegation, the leadership of the House on May 5, 2020, swiftly debunked it and also resolved to constitute an ad-hoc committee to get to the root of the scandal and identify those responsible with the aim of instituting legal action against them. A 15-man ad hoc committee to probe the allegation, as suggested by the Deputy Speaker, Ahmed Wase was consequently set up by the Speaker.

But when the committee sat on Monday, Ugochinyere was conspicuously absent. A representative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, BMGF, was however present to defend Bill Gates. The Director, Nigeria Country Office, BMGF, Paulin Basinga, said “The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has recently been made aware of an allegation circulating in certain elements of the Nigerian media that the Foundation was involved in a payment purportedly made to the Nigeria House of Representatives. Any such allegations are entirely false and without merit.”

Bisanga stated that “To be clear, the Foundation has not offered any financial incentives to any member of Nigeria’s legislative branch for the passage of legislation nor has it offered any grants to organisations in Nigeria in connection with the same.” According to him, the Foundation adheres to strict ethical and legal guidelines across all areas of its operations.

CUPP’s allegation against the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was however not strange. It came on the heels of a similar one barely one month ago when a nephew of former American President, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. reportedly exposed the billionaire’s agenda in India and his alleged “obsession with vaccines”. Not long after, Sara Cunial, a Member of Parliament for Rome, Italy, slammed Bill Gates as a “vaccine criminal” and called on the Italian President to hand him over to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. Cunial also reportedly exposed Bill Gates’ alleged agenda in India and Africa, along with the reported plans to chip the human race through the digital identification program ID2020.

Lawyers to Ugochinyere who represented him, and led by Tochukwu Ohazuruike, claimed their client was not invited to the committee’s hearing. Between the House and the CUPP spokesman however, there appeared to be a game of muscle- flexing. Ohazuruike told the panel that the House had been dragged to a Federal High Court to discontinue the probe. The visibly angry lawmakers, however, insisted on receiving his defence within 72 hours or appearance on Thursday, failing which they would conclude the probe and make recommendations to the House.

Chairman of the committee, Henry Nwawuba, said, “We have a mandate to investigate an allegation (made) by your client. Any attempt in whatever manner to derail this committee from operating with its own guide will not work. What I will advise is that you let your principal (Ugochinyere) know if he has any process that he wants to adopt, this is a parliament, we make laws, we do not break laws; you cannot bring a letter on the day of sitting to try to stop the sitting, when for the past one week, we have made several attempts to engage. We think that it is out of order, based on the submissions that you have heard and our rules”.

The counsel would however not be intimidated. Speaking to journalists after the proceeding, they dismissed the ultimatum. Ohazuruike, said “We heard in the news, Ikenga was never invited by this committee. He has not denied that he made a statement on the 4th of May, 2020, on the issues being discussed here but he was never invited. We only heard it in the news that there was going to be a hearing on this issue and that the Speaker had set up a committee to investigate it, which makes the Speaker a judge in his own case.

“He approached a Federal High Court and filed a suit to challenge that breach of the rule of natural justice, that a man should not be a judge in his own case. The Clerk to the National Assembly has been served; the Clerk to the House has been served and attempts have been made by the bailiff to serve the chairman of the panel but he refused to acknowledge service”. Apparently boxed into a corner, Gbajabiamila came down from his high horse, succumbing to pressure to subject the bill to public hearing. He however did not surrender without responding to some of the objections to the bill. He disagreed with the argument that the proposed reform was ill-timed. He also denied the allegation that the Bill was a sinister attempt to turn Nigerians into guinea pigs for medical research, adding that the allegation of an attempt to take away the fundamental human rights off Nigerians was far from the truth.

According to him, “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 become mischaracterised and misconstrued to raise the spectre of sinister intent and ominous possibility. 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”.

Like a wounded Lion, Gbajabiamila decided to fight back. At Tuesday’s plenary, he mandated the clerk of the House, Patrick Giwa to liaise with the majority leader and the legal adviser to the National Assembly to commence legal action against the online media outfit that made the allegation. The House had unanimously adopted a motion of Personal Explanation by the Deputy Speaker of the House, Ahmed Wase.

With recent developments on the matter, the question is what next? Though the Coalition of Civil Society Organisations was upbeat about the decision to subject the bill to public hearing, it however in its statement recommended that the House should provide information on the committee that would be responsible for its coordination and communicate a practical schedule for public engagement on the Bill.

But for Adegboruwa, the proposed bill is irredeemable. His position is that it should be withdrawn. He said “From opinion that one has been able to assess so far, it’s clear that that Bill should not be considered; it should be withdrawn. There is no need for public hearing. And you can imagine what goes on in Nigeria about abusing power. You can just go and declare the secretariat of the opposition party as an isolation area without giving any reason and there is no appeal. The minister has the power to declare a gathering illegal and ask a meeting to disperse without giving any reason. So, I think that generally, from the look of this Bill, the contentious areas outweigh the advantages”.

Mike Ozekhome, senior advocate of Nigeria aligned with Adegboruwa’s views. Ozekhome described the Bill as “monstrous and maniacal” that is “laden with satanic verses” and urged the National Assembly to kill it “before it kills us all”. The fiery lawyer posited that the Bill “is evil in intention, malformed, malignant and timorous and seeks to give the Minister of Health and DG of NCDC untrammeled powers, in a supposed democracy, to trample on the rights of Nigerians with impunity”. According to him, the bill was a ready recipe of “disorganized disenchantment and dangerous ammunition in the hands of a non-performing, rudderless and intolerant government to go after the jugular of the opposition, social critics, rights activists, the civil society and perceived enemies of the government”.

A Benin-based legal practitioner, Douglas Ogbankwa similarly canvassed that the bill be suspended “until when we have enough time and enough freedom based on the disappearance or reduction of COVID-19 for Nigerians to interact on the issue”.

Like other critics, he expressed concern over its potential for abuse, noting that the power conferred on the minister and DG NCDC was arbitrary “and does not conform to established protocol on the control of infectious diseases anywhere in the world”. Ogbankwa feared that “It could be used for political purpose. For example, where your opponent lives in an area, the minister can declare the area as an infectious disease area and quarantine everybody even if there is nobody that has infectious disease in that area”.

He also questioned the originality of the bill, asserting that “The Bill is not an autochthonous bill; that is, it is not indigenous to Nigeria. It’s a copy and paste version of the Singaporean Bill which conforms to the cultural nuances of Singapore. A bill that relates to Nigeria should consider the cultural peculiarities of Nigerians, their ways and their mores and not to import a bill that you don’t really understand why they are having such provisions”.

Perhaps quite instructive is the position of key stakeholders in the proposed reforms. The Nigeria Governors’ Forum, NGF, and the NCDC DG, complained that they were not carried along in the process of putting the bill together. In a communiqué signed by Kayode Fayemi, chairman of NGF, the governors raised concern over the lack of consultation with state governments who are at the forefront of the present COVID-19 pandemic. The NGF therefore resolved that “the Bill should be stepped down until an appropriate consultative process is held, including a public hearing, to gather public opinion and concerns”. Fayemi announced the establishment of a Committee comprising the governors of Katsina, Sokoto, and Plateau to lead a consultative meeting with the leadership of the National Assembly on the proposed bill while its secretariat was also mandated to comprehensively review the Bill and its implication for States.

The NCDC Director-General, Chikwe Ihekweazu on his part, suggested that the bill be put on hold until after the COVID-19 debacle. According to him, “we haven’t had the opportunity yet to review the Bill. We weren’t part of the consultation process in bringing up the bill. I saw it for the first time two days ago. So, my reaction is that yes, I do think there is a need to consider our public health law altogether. The Quarantine Act is from pre-independence time; so, there is definitely a need to consider a new public health law and a new legal landscape for public health. But I do think, to be honest, my personal view is that the middle of a crisis is not the best time to do this”.

Ihekweazu advised that “We need to get out of this, consult widely, and then come up with decisions that we can all really adhere to both at the Federal and state levels”. Nigerians are however keeping their fingers crossed as they await the public hearing and how it would be able to cure the present chronically diseased Infectious Diseases Control Bill 2020.

Femi Gbajabiamila Photo
Femi Gbajabiamila, Speaker of the House of Representatives,
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