Public hearing: Govs, NMA, NLC, others tackle Reps over NCDC bill

Legislation threatens Nigeria’s federalism, a recipe for disaster – NGF

Leke Baiyewu, Abuja

The Nigeria Governors’ Forum, the  Nigeria Labour Congress and the Nigerian Medical Association on Wednesday faulted the Quarantine Act (Repeal and Enactment) Bill 2020, also known as the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020.

The NGF, the NLC and the NMA at the  House of Representatives public hearing on the bill in Abuja, said the proposed law would lead to confusion.

The House organised the hearing following the uproar over the proposals as well as an alleged plan by the lawmakers to block inputs by stakeholders and members of the public.

The House,  a few weeks ago passed the bill for second reading. The proposed law was jointly sponsored by the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila; chairmen of the House committees on Health Institutions and Health Services, Messrs Paschal Obi and Tanko Sununu, respectively.

But protests greeted the proposed law, titled, ‘A Bill for an Act to Repeal the Quarantine Act, Cap. Q2, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004, and Enact the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill, Make Provisions Relating to Quarantine and Make Regulations for Preventing the Introduction into and Spread in Nigeria of Dangerous Infectious Diseases.’

The bill seeks to repeal the Quarantine Act of 1926 and when passed, will also repeal the Nigeria National Health Act, 2004, National Programme on Immunisation Act, Cap N71, LFN 2004; and the Environmental Health Officers (Registration, etc) 2002.

If passed into law,  the minister of health will be empowered by law to declare any premises to be an isolation centre for the purpose of preventing the spread or possible outbreak of infectious diseases.

It also confers on the police, the power to arrest and quarantine violators without warrant.

Section 13 of the bill also seeks to give the NCDC Director-General the power to order the isolation of people having or suspected to have an infectious disease for a period of time subject to the discretion of the DG.

You didn’t consult us, govs tell Reps

At the public hearing, the Chairman of the NGF and Governor of Ekiti State, Kayode Fayemi, criticised several proposals in the bill, saying that they would have frustrated the response to the COVID-19 pandemic if they had been passed into law.

Fayemi said, “The NGF is concerned that the governors were not consulted in putting the bill together, neither was any role created for them, in utter disregard for their constitutional functions.”

He explained that the current  Quarantine Act gave the President responsibility to provide such sanitary stations, buildings and equipment.

According to him,  Section 8 of the Act gives state governors the power to exercise the responsibilities vested in the President under the Quarantine Act, where these responsibilities are not exercised by the President.

Fayemi stated, “The Act gives governors very scant operational space to manoeuvre and regrettably, the proposed bill took away even that. This bill takes away the only authority the governors have to take specific steps and measures in their domains during an outbreak of an infectious disease.

“A situation where state governors do not have any power to make regulations in their states in the event of an outbreak of an infectious disease, or to declare any part of the state an infectious area, is not only inimical to the country’s federalism but a recipe for disaster.”

The NGF chairman stated that the current situation where the COVID-19 regulations made by the President restricted movements in only two states – Lagos and Ogun –including the FCT “would have been chaotic” had the bill been the existing legislation governing infectious diseases and curbing their spread.

The forum also noted that governors, in exercise of the powers vested in them by the Quarantine Act, issued Executive Orders to ensure the control of the spread of COVID-19 in each of their states, since the regulations made by the President did not extend to the other 34 states.

Fayemi said, “Taking away this power of the state governments in the proposed new bill would cause untold hardship and suffering in states and negate the principles of federalism.”

Vesting all powers in President, a recipe for confusion – Govs

The NGF chairman said, “The bill vests all the powers in the President. The absence of de-centralisation of powers to the states is anachronistic and a recipe for confusion.

“Given the diversity of Nigeria and the country’s varying geopolitical and social dimensions, and learning from the current experiences with COVID-19, it is imperative that state governments are actively involved in helping to curb the spread of infectious diseases in each of their states. The dis-similarity in the country’s composition means that were this bill currently before the House to pass in its present form, the NCDC is ill-equipped to adequately address the peculiarities of each state.”

Fayemi faults powers given to NCDC DG

“It is always dangerous to vest uncontrollable powers in any one person. The bill empowers the NCDC to perform certain acts, which are directly in conflict with constitutional guarantees to fundamental rights,” he stated.

The governors cited the instance of Section 6 of the bill, which mandates the compulsory testing of a person on the mere suspicion of the DG, and Section 10 (3) which gives him powers to use force to enter any premises without warrant, while the test in Section 6 would be at the expense of the person, failing which he would be liable to stiff penalties.

Fayemi said governors  should be given  the “power to declare a place to be an infectious area and to make regulations and directives towards prevention and further spread of an infectious disease within the state, where the president is yet to do so.”

Bill violates people’s rights – Labour

The President of the NLC, Ayuba Wabba, who  recalled that the legislation had generated “a lot of interests across Nigeria”, stated that any opposition to the bill was not an opposition to the House.

While he noted that the Quarantine Act of 1926 was due for review, the NLC boss said stakeholders were only asking that the right thing be done.

Wabba said, “The first issue I want to posit is that rights are important and inseparable. Some are so fundamental that they have to attain the status of being the hallmark of constitutional democracy. So, in making laws we must also safeguard laws and rights that are already fundamental. Therefore, our presentation will be premised on some of those provisions that we think fundamentally they are going to infringe on existing rights which the governors’ forum has tried to highlight.”

…Bill’ll create draconian laws, lead to abuse – Falana-led group

Also, the Alliance on Surviving COVID-19 and Beyond, a coalition of civil society groups led by a human rights lawyer, Mr Femi Falana, faulted most of the proposals in the bill, saying they were in  conflict with the constitution.

The ASCAB, in the memorandum presented to the House and signed by Falana, a copy of which our correspondent obtained, stated that the bill “poses  danger to the human rights of the Nigerian people.”

The group partly said, “We acknowledge that all rights are important and inseparable, but some are so fundamental that they have attained the stature of being the hallmark of constitutional democracy. State actors and fellow citizens ought not to put fundamental rights in jeopardy but must duly observe, uphold and respect them. Concerning fundamental rights, all actors must maintain utmost self restraint.

“We observe that the powers conferred on the DG of the NCDC are so pervasive as to touch on every aspect of the life of a citizen, and that no objective standards have been created for preventing arbitrariness in the claimed exercise of these powers; further that there is generally no room allowed for judicial scrutiny which makes the bill in our view a recipe for tyranny.”

According to him, “in the hands of a power-drunk autocrat, the bill, if passed into law as it is, would pose a clear and present danger to the realisation of an ordered society.

He stated,  “Our first position is to ask that the bill as a whole be jettisoned and proceed to make specific proposals in view of existing pieces of legislation.”

Falana said, “With due respect to the leadership of the House, the bill is superfluous, potentially illegal and unconstitutional.” He referred the parliament to the provisions of the NCDC Act 2018.

He stated, “However, having carefully perused the provisions of the bill, we can confidently say that we consider it a potentially dangerous piece of legislation that we recommend should be completely rejected.”

ASCAB also criticised the bill’s definition of infectious diseases as including Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, cholera, leprosy, malaria, measles, polio, typhoid, tuberculosis, yellow fever, gonorrhoea and syphilis, while in another part it listed plague, yellow fever (again) and coronavirus disease as “dangerous infectious diseases.”

Falana said, “ASCAB rejects the wholesale categorisation of common ailment such as malaria as an infectious disease, for which any person may be arrested, detained and isolated. We question the propriety of the listing of all the named diseases as infectious diseases.

Some comments on bill ill-informed, outright malicious –  Gbajabiamila

But  Gbajabiamila, while declaring the event open, said many comments on the bill were “ill-informed and outright malicious.

“There are those in our society who benefit from promoting the falsehood that every government action is cynical, and every policy proposal must be the product of malignant influence.”

The Director-General of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, Prof Mojisola Adeyeye,  in her presentation, said some sections of the bill should be amended.

Laws must recognise Nigeria’s federal structure – NMA

Also, the Secretary-General of the NMA, Dr Phillips Ekpe, asked, “The following questions ought to be asked: ‘Why the bill? Why the urgency to pass it into law? Why the public outcry? What are the remedies to assuage the outcry?

He stated, “Such laws ought to recognise the federal structure of the nation, and should not lead to a conflict between the national and sub-national governments in executing their statutory functions.”

PUNCH

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