COVID-19: Concerns over controversial health laws, excessive official powers | Dailytrust

COVID-19: Concerns over controversial health laws, excessive official powers

The Federal Ministry of Health on 27 February 2020 confirmed the index COVID-19 case in Lagos State, since the beginning of the outbreak in China in January 2020.

The case is an Italian citizen who works in Nigeria and returned from Milan, Italy to Lagos, Nigeria on 25 February 2020, before he was confirmed by the Virology Laboratory of the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH).

Since then, the Federal Government has been taken multi-sectoral approaches to manage the pandemic and mitigate its impact in citizenry.

Part of the measures was legislation by the National Assembly, especially the House of Representatives, which introduced a bill for a new law and amendment to two existing laws.

Some provisions in the laws Reps bill generated heated debates among Nigerians and the lawmakers, leading to the suspension of legislative deliberations on the bills by the Speaker of the House of Representatives Femi Gbajabiamila in May.

However, the Director of Programmes, Yiaga Africa, Cynthia Mbamalu, said that the bills are to be reintroduced, without recourse to the observation and concern of Nigerians.

Part of the fear was that Nigerians believe their human rights violation that would be violated if the bills are passed the way they are, apart from the excessive power given to DG of Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in the current bill.

The bills are Public Health Emergency Bill (SB 413), Control of Infectious Diseases Bill (HB 836) and Cross-Country Study of Health Emergencies (Pandemics and Epidemics of Infectious Diseases) Law.

The Yiaga Africa Centre for Legislative Engagement (Yiaga Africa-CLE) having parts of its mandates to facilitate citizens engagement with the Legislature, carried out a research on the matter.

In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s obsolete legal framework for the management of pandemics was brought to bear leading to many questions around the legality otherwise of measures taken by the government in attempt to tame the coronavirus including the lock-down imposed across the country.

Owing to the limitations and anachronistic nature of the Quarantine Act upon which some measures relied on, the House of Representatives introduced the ‘Control of Infectious Diseases Bill (HB 836)’ on the 28th April, 2020.

The Bill sponsored by Speaker of the House, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila seeks to provide a framework for the management of Infectious Diseases in Nigeria and repeal the Quarantine Act of 1926. The Bill was largely condemned by citizens who felt that it contained draconian provisions which if allowed would derogate from constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedom of citizens and ascribes excessive powers to the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre of Disease Control (NCDC) just as it takes away powers from states and local governments.

It was reported that the bill was adapted from a similar law in Singapore, thus some Nigerians labelled it as draconian and unfit for a democratic Nigeria.

Civil society groups also questioned the powers it vests in the NCDC Director-General and the Minister of Health to make regulations on quarantining, vaccination and prevention of infectious diseases in Nigeria.

Mr Gbajabiamila defending the bill, said it was required as the Quarantine Act, a military-era law, is outdated.

The speaker also pledged that there would be a public hearing as part of the legislative process on the bill.

Among the early protests against the bill, especially the proposed Control of Infectious Diseases Bill, 2020, were the state governors who asked that the controversial bill be ‘stepped down’.

The 36 state governors under the aegis of the Nigeria Governors Forum (NGF) who spoke through their Chairman, Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, said the bill lacks proper “consultation” of governors.

Mr Fayemi said the bill should be stepped down pending an appropriate public hearing to gather public opinion and concerns.

Fayemi said, “Following an update from the Governor of Sokoto State and Vice Chairman of the NGF, H.E Aminu Waziri Tambuwal, on the proposed Control of Infectious Diseases Bill, 2020 introduced by the House of Representatives,

“Governors raised concern with the lack of consultation with State governments who are at the forefront of the epidemic. The Forum 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.”

Apart from peaceful protests in parts of the country, a coalition of 11 CSOs in Lagos State, rejecting the bill, said it is a violation of the fundamental human rights of Nigerians as enshrined in Nigeria’s Constitution.

Mr. Achike Chude, the Director of Foundation for African Cultural Heritage who spoke during the conference said that part of the shortcomings of the bill is its conflict with existing acts, including the Environmental Health Officers Act (2002) and the constitution of Nigeria.

Also, Sonnie Ekwowusi, a legal practitioner, said the proposed bill is draconian in nature and should be dropped.

He said, “The provisions and sections of this bill are out to infringe on the fundamental human rights of Nigerians; Sections 4, 5, 15, 20, 35, 46, 48 and 51.”

In Abuja, a coalition of 40 CSOs led by Yiaga Africa, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Say No Campaign (SNC) and Amnesty International among others noted that the bill, co-sponsored by Speaker Gbajabiamila, Pascal Obi and Tanko Sununu, passed second reading at plenary without consultation with stakeholders.

They said the bill was slated for a record third reading same day it passed second reading before it was resisted by some vigilant members.

“We are alarmed by the House of Representatives’ attempt to give accelerated passage to such a critical legislation like the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill without consultation and inputs from relevant stakeholders and the public,” they said.

The Yiaga Africa-CLE in the research findings on the National Health Emergency Bill 2020 listed what it called ‘Mischiefs Inherent in the Quarantine Act’ as the Act provides unchecked delegation of legislative powers, with the eight-section having only six substantive provisions.

“Surprisingly, there is no provision of the Act directly providing for prevention or control of infectious diseases. Instead, the Act (in section 4) empowers the President to make regulations for such prevention and control.

“The implication is that the legislature has no input in the prevention and control of

dangerous infectious diseases but delegates powers to the President to make laws to that

effect through regulations. The Quarantine Act can best be described as “Dangerous

Infectious Diseases (Regulation Making Powers) Act 1926”.

“There is nothing in the Quarantine Act subjecting Regulations made by the President to legislative scrutiny. It is strange that a legislation that delegates almost all legislative

powers under it to the executive does not make provision for any report by the executive

to the legislature for approval,” the report said.

It said that the Act that has no provision for its administration other than the powers of making

regulations vested in the President, but puts the NCDC DG in charge of its administration.

It said, “The administration of the bill under clause 1 gives priority to the DG over the NCDC; the powers of the DG under clause 2(1) of the bill are enormous and dangerous.

“The clause does not provide any qualification for appointments under the clause but leaves it at the discretion of the DG.”

The report also said that the Bill has not appeared to be as comprehensive as it is anticipated since it has not accommodated some aspects of the National Policy on Integrated Disease Surveillance and Response (IDSR) as well as the National Health Information System Policy.

It said that this gap will both affect the effectiveness of the proposed legal framework and the working relations between Nigeria and the World Health Organization (WHO) where the first policy originates.

The report said that the bill to be soon presented should be amended to reduce the discretionary power given to the Director-General of the NCDC; the right to arrest and detain anyone on the basis of infection should be removed and replaced with a medically recommended option.

It said, “The ability to destroy buildings or anything as contained in the bill should be re-examined and be made to conform to existing laws. This is because the destruction of a building cannot be fixed if it is realized that it was done in error. Importantly, the bill should be subjected to further consultation with broad stakeholders to serve the national interest.”

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