The Public Hearing for the Bill to repeal the Quarantine Act and enact the Control of Infectious Disease Act did not get the expected complimentary support during its public hearing, which held on Wednesday.
It was mainly knocks for the controversial bill from most of the stakeholders present at the hearing.
The Nigeria Governor’s Forum, Nigeria Labour Congress and Nigeria Medical Association were amongst those that spoke against the bill which passed second reading on the floor of the House on April 28, 2020 and was reluctantly referred for public hearing.
The Nigeria Labour Congress, represented by its President, Ayuwa Wabba, highlighted 17 grey areas in the bill.
The NGF was unsparing to the Infectious Diseases Act.
The Chairman of the NGF, Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, who represented the Forum, was unsparing in his presentation.
Fayemi said: “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.”
As far as the NGF is concerned, the bill is undemocratic as its in conflict with some aspects of the constitution and negates the provision of human rights.
Though Fayemi agreed that the House may have presented the bill in the interest of the people due to the exigency of the times, he however doubted that the piece of legislation can be held up to the light of standard legislative analysis.
As far as Fayemi is concerned, it is evident that too much powers have been given to the Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and taken away from states and Local Governments.
He further said: “The House of Representatives in the exercise of powers vested in it by the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is in the process of enacting the Control of Infectious Disease Act 2020 (The Bill).
“The Bill in section 77 seeks to repeal the Quarantine Act of 1926 (The Act), which has become obsolete.
“The Bill, when passed, would also repeal the Nigeria National Health Act, 2004, National Programme on Immunisation Act, Cap N71, LFN 2004, Environmental Health Officers (Registration ETC) 2002.
“The NGF posits that any disease with significant threat to public health that would require authorising measures that may potentially infringe on otherwise reserved human liberties, the proposed measures must take into account some key ethical considerations which include:
“Public Health necessity: the measures must be exercised on the basis of a confirmed or suspected threat to public health of the country through reasonable and effective means: the means by which these measures would be implemented must be effective to prevent or reduce spread.”
Fayemi then went on to highlight some qualities such a bill should possess: “Least restrictive intervention: the measures proposed must be the least restrictive intervention required among the number of measures considered to reduce or prevent spread.
“Distributive justice: the risks, benefits and burdens of any restrictive measures must be shared fairly between all classes of peoples.
“Trust and Transparency: the public should have an opportunity to participate in formulation of policies and laws and implementation should be open and clear to promote public trust, which is crucial for preventing infection spread.
“Procedural rights: rights of individuals to contest an order or proceeding should be protected as much as possible.
“Fair Compensation: In cases of considerable economic losses as a result of imposition of such measures, international recommendations proffer that fair compensation be provided to those individuals.
“Any intervention seeking to provide a comprehensive legal and policy framework to ensure the effective management of cases involving infectious diseases; streamlining of public health response and preparedness; involvement and coordination of all tiers of government; and transparency in the management of infectious diseases is a positive development, but must be conducted within the context of the Federation carrying every stakeholder along and holding extensive consultations.
“The Nigeria Governors’ Forum 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.
“Section 6 of the Quarantine Act states that the President and within each State the Governor thereof may provide such sanitary stations, buildings and equipment, and appoint such sanitary anchorages as he may think necessary for the purposes of this Act.
“Similarly, 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 were not exercised by the President.”
Fayemi said the Act gives Governors very scant operational space to manoeuvre and regrettably, the proposed Bill took away even that.
He said: “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.
“This situation will pose a challenge if States need to urgently make regulations to control the further spread of an infectious disease where the President is yet to do so.
“The current situation where the COVID19 Regulations made by the President restricted movements in only two States, Lagos and Ogun, including the FCT would have been chaotic had this Bill been the existing legislation governing infectious diseases and curbing the spread thereof.”
Fayemi said State Governors in exercise of the powers vested in them by the Quarantine Act issued Executive Orders to ensure the control of the spread of the virus in each of their States since the regulations made by the President did not extend to the other 34 States.
“Taking away this power of the State Government in the proposed new Bill would cause untold hardship and suffering in States and negates the principles of federalism,” he said.
While reviewing some provisions of the Bill, he said: “The Bill vests all the powers in the President.
“The absence of decentralisation 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 dissimilarity 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.
“Again, the Bill appears to vest overbearing discretionary powers on the Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and the Central authorities, while making no provision for reviewing and controlling the exercise of such powers.
“It is always dangerous to vest uncontrollable powers on any one person.
“The Bill empowers the NCDC to perform certain acts which are directly in conflict with Constitutional guarantees to fundamental rights.”
Fayemi faulted Section 6, which mandates the compulsory testing of a person on the mere suspicion of the Director General, adding: “Section 10 (3) gives him express powers to use force to enter any premises without warrant.
“What is worse, the test in Section 6 would be at the expense of the person, failing which he would be liable to stiff penalties.
“Section 15(3e) confers on him the powers to authorise the destruction and disposal of any structure, goods, water supply, drainage, etc.
“Also Section 47(1) confers discretionary powers on the Director General to order any person to undergo vaccination or other prophylaxis.”
Equally Section 70 and 71 came under attack.
The NGF Chairman said the tendency to shower immense discretionary powers on the part of the implementing authorities limits the rights and freedoms of the individual as enshrined and guaranteed under the Constitution.
He further faulted Clause (15) (1), which provides that “the Honourable Minister may… declare any premises to be an isolation area.”
He added that the clause contravenes section (44) (1) of the constitution.
Similarly, S. (21) (5) directly contravenes section 36 (5) of the Nigerian constitution that provides that every person who commits an offence shall be presumed innocent until proven guilty, Fayemi said.
He also said criminalising people with infections is null and void because it is inconsistent with the Nigerian Constitution, which provides in S. 1 (3) that any law that is inconsistent with the Constitution is null and void to the extent of the inconsistency.
The NGF also mentioned S. 74(1) and S. 74 on fees and sought clarity on if it should go to the agency or the Consolidated Fund
The NGF recommended that provisions along the lines of section 8 of the Quarantine Act should be inserted in the new Bill to allow State Governors 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.
Fayemi said: “It is the position of the NGF that powers beyond those granted by S. 8 of the Act should be conferred on the Governors so as to strengthen their ability to act in this regard.
He said: “Governors should be conferred the power to declare any place within their State an infected area within the contemplation of the Act.
“The discretionary powers of the President and the Director General of the NCDC should be reviewed with the aim of spreading same among the authorities of the three tiers of Government.”
Also, the Nigeria Medical Association disagreed with many aspects of the bill, especially the areas of compulsory invasive medical examination.
In a presentation by its President, Prof. Innocent Ujah, it disagree with the provision of compulsory treatment or vaccination, saying it is against the ethics of the profession.
Wabba, who said he was presenting on behalf of three organizations: NLC, Trade Union Congress and ASCAB, said: “Having read through the Bill, the only reinforcing and overwhelming voice is that of dictatorship.
“In presenting this memorandum, we choose to uphold our concern that the claim of commitment to protection of public health and safety does not turn out to be an excuse for the provision of a tool in the hand of an autocrat, empowered to ride roughshod over the fundamental rights of the Nigerian People.”
The Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, however declined to speak, saying he would do so on Thursday.
The Speaker of the House, Rep. Femi Gbajabiamila, in his opening speech said in the one month since the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill was first brought forward for consideration by the House of Representatives, the Green Chamber has “witnessed an unprecedented amount of engagement by a cross-section of the Nigerian public”.
Gbajabiamila, however, said: “It is necessary to note that a lot of the engagement on this proposed legislation has been ill-informed and outrightly malicious.”
Gbajabiamila, who was represented by the House Leader, Ado Doguwa, said: “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.
“We must never succumb to the impulses that these elements represent and we must reject them always as doing so is an act of excellent service to a nation we love and are beholden to.”