With the coronavirus pandemic keeping nations on their toes, governments are seeking ways to control spread. On its part, the Nigerian legislature is in a human rights war with the citizens over the Infectious Diseases Bill.
Typically, the Infectious Diseases Act is supposed to create a legal framework for the government to manage the special circumstances surrounding infectious disease outbreaks like the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the stipulations in various sections of the proposed bill before the National Assembly have received several public criticisms for what activists term, “aggressive human rights infringements”.
Sponsored by the Speaker of the House Of Representatives, Mr Femi Gbajabiamila, the bill is supposed to provide an updated legislative basis for the government’s anti-pandemic efforts.
It is expected to replace the National Quarantine Act of 2004. Yet, apart from being almost completely plagiarised from Singapore’s Infectious Diseases Act 1977, it has raised some rights concerns.
Among other provisions, the bill empowers security officials to arrest citizens without warrants and based on intuition; it also prescribes jail terms for quarantine violators.
Section 15 states in part, “The Minister (of Health) may, for the purpose of preventing the spread or possible outbreak of an infectious disease, by notification in the Gazette declare any premises to be an isolation area.
“A person who leaves or attempts to leave or is suspected of having left an isolation area in contravention of an order under subsection (3) may be arrested without warrant by any police officer, or by any Health Officer authorised in writing in that behalf by the Director General.”
It further states that, “A Health Officer or a police officer may take any action that is necessary to give effect to an order under subsection 3.”
By implication, the law aims to empower security officials and health officers to rely on their judgment to detain citizens on the basis of their belief of someone having committed an offence.”
HumAngle recalls that as at April 15, when Nigeria had recorded 407 cases and 12 deaths from the novel coronavirus, security officers had killed 18 people as they enforced the lockdown by President Muhammadu Buhari.
The National Human Rights Commission also reported that it received more than 100 complaints of human rights violations perpetrated by security officials across 24 of Nigeria’s 36 states, including Lagos, Ogun and Abuja.
According to Section 24 of the bill, police officers now have the power to “apprehend and take” anyone in any public location who is “suffering from an infectious disease”.
Section 71 reads: “No liability shall lie personally against the Director-General, any Health Officer, any Port Health Officer, any police officer or any authorised person who, acting in good faith and with reasonable care, does or omits to do anything in the execution or purported execution of this Act.”
The human rights outcry
Reacting to the bill, Abdul Aminu Mahmud, a lawyer and human rights activist, described it as unsuitable for a democratic country, “considering that the Singapore law to which it is tailored is a product of an undemocratic and draconian era”.
Mahmud said it was not wise to hasten the enactment of a law in the middle of a crisis and the bill did not address circumstances peculiar to Nigeria.
“Your Bill which seeks to repeal the Quarantine Act 2004 will create legal brouhaha as it seeks to strip powers granted to the president under the Quarantine Act and hand the same powers over to the DG of NCDC who’s an appointee of the president,” he added.
He also said the bill conflicted with the fundamental human rights provisions in the country’s constitution, adding that the National Assembly erred by bypassing the public hearing component of legislative processes, which is “central to law-making, transparency and accountability”.
“The House is accountable to the public, so for a bill to pass the test of scrutiny, the bill must be subjected to a public hearing,” he explained.
Chidi Odinkalu, a professor of law and author, said that the bill appeared to be a “cut and paste” job from Singapore that ignored the provisions of the NCDC Establishment Act passed in 2018.
“Whoever drafted this #InfectiousDiseaseBill# passed posthaste by the House of Representatives must be very lazy.
“It’s not just about the plagiarism from Singapore. If the person had cared to read, they’d have found that it’s already covered by NCDC Act, 2018,” he tweeted.
Oluniyi Gates, a social commentator, said that the bill was “in fact, worse than the controversial Social Media and Hate Speech bills put together.
“It gives you all the adverse effects of living under a dictatorial regime but none of its economic development.
“It makes the DG of NCDC an unelected dictator. And that might not sound as bad now that we have scientists in that position, what happens when that position becomes politicised is the problem.
“This bill is not limited to only when there’s a pandemic. It becomes the new order pandemic or not. You will be subjected to forced injection pandemic or not. We should pay attention to this and raise our voices against it before it goes through while we still can,” Gates said.
He further observed that other countries even more affected by the pandemic had not come up with similar “unconscionable laws”.
Meanwhile, NCDC Director-General, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, said on Thursday during a press briefing that he was not pre-informed about the bill.
“To be honest, I saw the bill just like you did, yesterday, circulating on social media,” he said.
He added that he believed the bill was introduced out of concern by lawmakers who were only trying to come up with solutions.
“Of course, the bill requires more consultation. I am personally not in favour of drafting a bill in the middle of a crisis.
“Whatever new legislation we come up with for public health and infectious diseases in Nigeria will be so important because there has never been a time that the importance of this has been more in the consciousness of Nigerians.
“So we must think through each step carefully and come up with a bill that is really fit for purpose, serves us now but also serves us well into the future,” Ihekweazu said.
(Additional reporting by Kunle Adebajo)