CSOs Demand Public Consultation on Infectious Disease Bill

CSOs Demand Public Consultation on Infectious Disease Bill

…Say it’s Alarming, the House Seeks to Pass Such Critical Legislation Without Inputs …Insist on Review of Provisions that Undermine Democratic Rights   …Want Lawmakers to Resist Temptation of Vesting Absolute Powers in Public Officials A group of civil society organisations have asked the House of Representatives to subject the raging Control of Infectious Disease

…Say it’s Alarming, the House Seeks to Pass Such Critical Legislation Without Inputs

…Insist on Review of Provisions that Undermine Democratic Rights  

Want Lawmakers to Resist Temptation of Vesting Absolute Powers in Public Officials

A group of civil society organisations have asked the House of Representatives to subject the raging Control of Infectious Disease Bill to public scrutiny by embarking on stakeholder consultations and a public hearing to harness public inputs into the legislation. It also advised the House to utilize the opportunity provided by the reviewed lockdown policy to consult with relevant stakeholders and the people before its final passage.

The group comprising 41 CSOs, want the House to “Review 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.

“It is important to note that while we understand the importance of a legislative framework that guarantees effective response to pandemic/public health crises, we must do so within the rule of law and in conformity with the Constitution and Nigeria’s International human rights obligations and democratic principles.

It urged the National Assembly to refrain from vesting powers beyond the remit of institutions. “We must avoid the temptation of vesting absolute powers in public officials as this could be abused and misused to undermine constitutionally guaranteed rights. Laws must be made for the people and any law that fails to protect the human rights of the people as guaranteed in the constitution must be rejected in its entirety.

The group recalls that, “On Tuesday, April 28, 2020, the National Assembly resumed legislative activities after one month of recess, following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Upon resumption, the House of Representatives considered a Bill titled ‘Control of Infectious Diseases Bill’ co-sponsored by Rep. Femi Gbajabiamila, Speaker, House of Reps; Rep. Pascal Obi; and Rep. Tanko Sununu.

It posits that “the legislative and policy measures currently being implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are inadequate to respond to and manage the challenge of infectious diseases with grave implications on the country.

“Therefore, any intervention seeking to provide a comprehensive legal and policy framework that ensures the effective management of circumstances involving infectious diseases; streamlining of public health response and preparedness; involvement of all tiers of government; and transparency in the management of infectious diseases would be a positive development.

“However, 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. We understand that the House is resolute to pass the bill and it has fixed Tuesday, May 5, 2020 for presentation of the report of the Committee of the Whole and clause by clause voting on the bill without public hearing or consultation with relevant stakeholders.

“This runs contrary to the principles of effective and inclusive lawmaking. As a community, CSOs note the following issues, amongst others, on the proposed Bill and the process of its passage. The group frowns on the Bill on four major grounds.

  • Threats to Human Rights and Abuse of Power

“The Control of Infectious Diseases Bill vests overbearing discretionary powers on the Director General of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), while making no provision for reviewing and controlling the exercise of such powers. 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 warrant; Section 19 confers the Director General with powers to prohibit or restrict meetings, gatherings and public entertainments; Section 15(3e) also gives powers to the Director General to authorize the destruction and disposal of any structure, goods, water supply, drainage etc.

“In addition, Section 47(1) confers discretionary powers on the Director General to order any person to undergo vaccination or other prophylaxis. All these powers can be abused for political and economic reasons if not properly checked. Section 71 of the Bill absolves the Director General, any Health Officer, any Port Health Officer, any police officer or any authorised person of any liability when ‘acting in good faith and with reasonable care.’

“The use of ‘good faith and reasonable care’ is ambiguous and subject to misuse, manipulation, and misinterpretation for personal gain. While the threat of infectious diseases may be apparent, measures deployed for their prevention must be within the ambits of the law and must protect citizens from willful abuse of rights.

“It is important to note that the spirit of section 45 of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) validating laws that may restrict the exercise of certain human rights requires that such laws must be reasonably justifiable in a democratic society and also, must be subjected to judicial review. This Bill, in its proposed form, fails to meet this standard, as it is not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society.

  • Ambiguity and Lack of Clarity

The group say “the Bill violates key principles of legislative drafting rules mandating laws to be simple, clear and unambiguous. This 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. There is therefore the need to clearly define terms used, extent of powers granted, and penalties for breach.

“For instance, the proposed Bill makes an attempt to define ‘surveillance’ in its interpretation section but fails to provide a clear definition on the reach and extent of the power to demand public health surveillance program and regulating framework. Throughout, the Bill is referred to as an “Act” implying that the proposed document is already an enacted legislation (Act).

“In addition, the Bill does not define who constitutes a health worker, which, as defined in the Bill, as anyone appointed by the Director General. In addition, we have concerns with Clause 74(1) and (2), which deal with the collection of fees, charges and moneys, and some payments to be made to the Consolidated Fund or the agency. This creates a discrepancy in the coordination and management of public funds. It also raises the question of why some payments are collected by Directors and the Director General, but with different destinations.

  • Inter-Agency Conflicts and Jurisdictional Rivalries 

The Bill, it argues, “under Section 55 and 57, confers the power of investigation and arrest on any health officer authorized in writing by the Director-General or a police officer. We fear these provisions will create jurisdictional disagreements between the Nigerian Police and the NCDC.

“Arrest and investigation are statutory functions of security agencies; therefore, foisting similar powers to the Director-General of the NCDC or a health worker amounts to duplication and poses threats to national security and human safety.

  • Lack of Public Scrutiny, Stakeholder Review and Engagement

“A Bill as sensitive and crucial as the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill must be subjected to public scrutiny on the contents of the Bill, and to proper debates on the legality, constitutionality, and other aspects of the Bill. This includes providing citizens and relevant stakeholders with the opportunity to make inputs on the Bill. Considering the sensitivity of the Bill, the National Assembly must ensure careful consideration and aggregation of diverse voices.

The group therefore demand as a matter of urgency that:

“The House of Representatives subject the Bill to public scrutiny by embarking on stakeholder consultations and a public hearing to harness public inputs into the legislation. The House should utilize the opportunity provided by the reviewed lockdown policy to consult with relevant stakeholders and the people; and

“Review 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. It is important to note that while we understand the importance of a legislative framework that guarantee effective response to pandemic/public health crises, we must do so within the rule of law and in conformity with the Constitution and Nigeria’s International human rights obligations. Democratic principles.

It implores the National Assembly to “refrain from vesting powers beyond the remit of institutions.” “We must avoid the temptation of vesting absolute powers in public officials as this could be abused and misused to undermine constitutionally guaranteed rights. Laws must be made for the people and any law that fails to protect the human rights of the people as guaranteed in the constitution must be rejected in its entirety,” the group contends..

Prominent amongst the organisations that endorse the statement include Amnesty International, Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Yiaga Africa, Human and Environmental Development Agenda, the International Press Centre, IPC, Lagos, Nigeria and Global Rights

Others are African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), Lawyers Alert, Women Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Enough is Enough, Community Life Project (CLP), Albino Foundation, the Community of People Living with Disabilities (PWDs) in Nigeria, Community Action for Popular Participation (CAPP) and Resource Centre for Human Rights & Civic Education (CHRICED)

A leading Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO), the Center for Peacebuilding and Socio-Economic Resources Development (CePSERD) has also raised alarm on the “unintended consequences” that would be triggered should the House of Representatives proceed with and enactment of the Infectious Diseases Bill 2020 presented on Tuesday, April 28, 2020.

Noting the haste and novelty in designing the Bill, the body said that the bill, if enacted into law, would breach national interests and security, continue the abuse and breach of legal and policy frameworks (bordering on seeming impunity and disregard for statutes) and abrogate governance services systems and administrative procedures in the health sector.

In addition, CePSERD said in the letter dated 2 May 2020 and sent to Speaker of House of Representatives, Mr Femi Gbajabiamila, who is also the sponsor of the bill, that “the enactment would grossly undermine principles of fundamental human rights, participatory democracy and multiple stakeholders’ engagement; counterproductive legislation that may further jeopardise national cohesion, productivity, negate our quest towards Integrated National Development and Growth.”

The letter, signed by CePSERD Executive Director, Dr Ayokunle Fagbemi, lamented that the Bill would deliberately erode some fundamental human rights of citizens of the Nigerian-State.

“If signed into law, the Minister of Health will have the right to convert any building into an isolation area while the Police will be able to arrest anybody suffering from an infectious disease, without a warrant. It also gives the NCDC Director General the power to close down premises deemed to be overcrowded while officials authorized by him will be able to detain individuals without any warrant.

“In the proposed bill, officials with a court order will be able to destroy any building where infectious disease like cholera, typhoid and dengue fever occurred.

“Under the new bill, the “omnibus NCDC Director-General” has exclusive rights to cause any person to provide any book, document, correspondence or information requested and it also gives the unrestricted power to enter and search any premises without the need for small matters like court orders.

Dr Fagbemi in his letter to Honourable Gbajabiamila titled ‘EXPRESSION OF RESERVATIONS AND CAUTIONARY NOTE ON YOUR SPONSORED CONTROL OF INFECTIOUS DISEASES BILL 2020,’regretted that in sponsoring the Bill, the Speaker has been “misled and wrongly advised,’ as the Bill “is neither citizen nor Nigerian friendly.”

He asked the Speaker to “kindly withdraw the Bill,” and concentrates the nation’s energy in “optimal utilization of the existing legal and policy frameworks with the view of ensuring that the concerned MDAs concentrate on concerted services delivery while we avoid the unfortunate occurrences of human rights abuses by security and law enforcement agents.

“The legal and judicial challenges that may emanate from this bill may adversely affect cordial relations between the three arms of government apart from generating security breaches and recourse to self-help and anarchy. We are pleading with you for the prevention of breakdown in law and order that may further threaten Nigeria’s existence, National Interest and Security because of probable agitations that may arise should the Bill pass, please.”

According to Dr Fagbemi, “we most humbly request that the Bill be withdrawn forthwith, Sir. This is owing to the fact that the entire sections of the Bill are offensive and contradicts the provisions of the 1999 Constitution, which includes particularly sections 1 (3), 6, 17, 22 and the entire Chapter IV of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), and other extant laws mentioned in this document.

“We humbly request that the National Assembly allow for the optimal utilization, compliance with and enforcement of the existing extant legislations on disease control in Nigeria. These include the Quarantine Act and the NCDC Act in conjunction with other legal and policy frameworks, which must fully drive the interventions and management of prevailing COVID-19 challenges.

“We implore you to setup a Study Team for taking notes and drawing lessons learned during the management of the crises before considering amendments and probable consolidated into a single document.

“We respectfully request that the National Assembly should prevail on The Presidency to activate and constitute the Governing Board of NCDC. Thus allowing the NCDC to carry out the statutory duties and obligations enshrined in the enabling law. In the circumstance, should you decide against withdrawing the Bill as we have thus pleaded, we humbly request that you slow down the legislative process to allow for wider consultations and the holding of the mandatory legislative public hearing, for the purposes of resolving all contending issues, to reflect the aspirations of citizens. This is so because the Bill itself has attracted a nation-wide disapproval,” the group said.

Reclaim Naija Want Bill Step Down

Some members of the Oshodi/Isolo 11 Federal Constituency in Lagos state under the platform of Reclaim Naija, have also written their representative, Hon. Ganiyu Abiodun asking him and his colleagues in the House of Representatives to step down the Bill. The letter reads:

“Dear Hon. Abiodun,

Re: Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020

“We, the undersigned, on behalf of organisations in your constituency, urged you and your colleagues to step down the above bill in the interest of the country.

“We are aware that the COV1D-19 pandemic has greatly exposed the limitations of countries across the world, Nigeria inclusive. Since the virus got into Nigeria, the country has been working tirelessly to curtail its spread and have largely succeeded in doing that, especially when compared to countries with some of the best health care systems.

“We acknowledge the speed with which Executive motions aimed at cushioning the adverse effect of the pandemic was approved.

“We also acknowledge the need to strengthen our healthcare response, even as the pandemic ranges on.

“However, we do not see the urgency in quickly passing the above bill on Infectious diseases. We expected the House to thoroughly debate the Bill and subject it to a public hearing (as you have always done with other Bills). The uproar expressed by Nigerians over the speed with which the Bill passed its 1st and 2nd Readings is already an indication of where Nigerians stand.

“Your Honourable. Sir, we join our voices with those of other Nigerians to appeal to you to VOTE AGAINST the Bill. We equally urge you to prevail on your colleagues to let the Bill follow due process, which would allow for vigorous debates on the floor of the house as well as input into the Bill by different stakeholders.

“We count on you as one of the elected Representatives who will demonstrate sensitivity to the aspirations of their constituencies by VOTING DOWN this highly contentious Bill,

“We thank you, Sir, for your kind consideration.

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