Who Needs the Infectious Disease Bill 2020? – Sam Omotoso

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Introduction
I once copied a classwork from my seat mate in Junior Secondary School (J.S.S1), and I failed woefully. My class teacher flogged me ruthlessly, not because I copied, but because I was foolish enough to copy from someone who was repeating that class, someone who I was perceived to be intellectually better than. It might be fine to learn and walk through the steps of someone who is making progress and headway, someone worth “looking up to”, but it will be considered unwise to follow the steps of someone who should be striving to attain your height. This is the bitter true story facing the Control of Infectious Diseases Bill 2020; a Bill put forward by many to be copied from a 1977 Singapore law.

The Bill, ‘Control of Infectious Diseases, 2020’, was sponsored by the Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, The long Title of the Bill is “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, AND FOR RELATED MATTERS (HB.836)”. While the short title is, “Infectious Diseases Act 2020” (hereinafter referred to as the Bill)
The stains on the white linen of the Bill, have given rise to so many questions. We will ask a few, which I consider paramount.

Why is the Bill Similar in Nature, Content and Spirit to the Singapore Infectious Disease Act 1977?
The Bill having gone through the plagiarism test, shows that it is 97% copied from the Singapore Infectious Disease Act, 1977. While it is true that “plagiarism is not known in legislative drafting”, I wonder why the Singapore Infectious Disease Act 1977 will be the best possible “go to enactment” of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. While dynamism, innovation and democracy is the new world order, I wonder why the National Assembly of Nigeria is even contemplating a Bill that could take Nigeria 43 years backward, from the days of freedom back to the days of slavery, as the Singapore Infectious Disease Act 1977 was enacted under the dispensation of a maximum ruler, Lee Kuan Yew, who operated a one-party socialist State whose watch word was, “to be feared is better than to be respected”. It is therefore, of little surprise that the Bill oozes of human right abuses.

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Why does the Bill give so much power to the Director-General of NCDC?
The powers vested in these political appointees, are humongous and bound to be abused. In an interview which I conducted on Instagram Live on the 16th of May, 2020, under the auspices of Law_Television, my guest, Mr Samuel Chukwu, mentioned that “the Bill has made the position of the Director-General of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (hereinafter referred to as DG) more attractive than that of the President”, due to the magnitude of power the Bill intends to throw at his feet.

For instance, Section 14 of the Bill gives the DG power to place a citizen under surveillance, on mere suspicion. Section 15 of the Bill empowers the DG to issue a notice to take over a citizen’s property, and declare it an isolation centre without the consent and permission of the owner. Section 17 of the Bill is a very potent instrument, against religious and social organisations. Thus, if in the opinion of the DG any building is deemed overcrowded, the DG can make an order dispersing the crowd, and anybody who goes in commits an offence. Section 28 of the Bill also allows the DG to exempt a vessel coming from an infected area, from being deemed to be infected. There are no grounds, for the DG to arrive at that conclusion; it is left to his discretion. Section 31of the Bill also gives the DG the discretion to determine any vaccine that will be compulsory for citizens to take, before they can travel out of Nigeria. Sections 47 and 48 of the Bill provide for compulsory vaccination of children and adults, with some specified vaccines.

Why does the Bill not recognise the Fundamental Human Rights of the Citizen’s of Nigeria?
Almost every section of the Bill is a flagrant disregard of the Nigerian Constitution, especially as it relates to Fundamental Human Rights. Let us examine some sections.
Section 6 of the Bill provides for compulsory testing based on mere suspicion by the DG, failure to test at one’s own cost, attracts legal sanctions, including a conviction. This provision can, and might be abused by power drunk officers without an option of legal challenge to such abuses, which is the scariest part. There are people whose religion does not permit injections, or blood test or transfusion.

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This could thus, be a breach to the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in Section 38 of the 1999 Constitution. Section 7 of the Bill empowers the DG to order a post-mortem test, based on suspicion. No exception was considered, and it is entirely at the discretion of the DG. This could breach the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in Section 38, 1999 Constitution.
Section 12 of the Bill empowers the DG on mere suspicion, to stop a wake keep and prohibit the burial of a deceased by his/her family. This again violates Sections 34 and 38 of the Constitution on the Citizens’ Right to Human Dignity and Right to Thought, Conscience and Religion. Although this would be reasonable, only if it is confirmed that the corpse is infected.

Section 13 of the bill empowers the DG on mere suspicion, to detain a citizen for as long as he wishes without an order of a competent court of law, and he/she, of course, cannot be sued even where his suspicion turns out afterwards to be false or wrong.
More interesting is the fact that, Section 70 of the Bill protects the DG and his agents from personal liability. This runs foul of the victim’s fundamental Right to Liberty as contained in Section 35, and movement as contained in Section 41 of the Constitution.

Section 14 of the Bill gives the DG power to place a citizen under surveillance, on mere suspicion. The worry is that these encroachments on rights of citizens are done on mere suspicion, and since no personal liability is incurred for any default, the DG or his representative could be careless or even reckless. Once a decision is taken, it becomes effective, regardless of any protest or appeal. The appeal is to the Minister whose decision is final, and he is an interested party. Thus, he is a final arbiter in his own matter. This, again violates the Citizens’ right to fair hearing in Section 36(2)(a) and (b) of the Constitution, as embedded in the phrase nemo judex in causa sua, meaning you cannot be a judge in your own case.

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This Bill apparently left in abeyance the ever-green words of John Emrich Edwards where he said: “power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

Resolution
Credit goes to the sponsor of the Bill, because in all sincerity, the Quarantine Act needs a better replacement. A Law that would meet up, with the current exigencies. This Bill having passed the 1st and 2nd readings, should be referred to the relevant Committees of the House and subjected to rigorous public scrutiny (Public Hearing) for all stakeholders to make inputs, with the objective of coming out with a more comprehensive draft Bill that takes the concerns of all into account. If this is not done, we will end up with a bad law that cannot stand judicial scrutiny, and invariably, the test of time.

Conclusion
This Bill fails to meet any standard reasonably justifiable in a democratic society, for lack of better words; this Bill describes over- concentration of power, and opens the gate to human right abuses, that can only be seen in an authoritarian system of government. In my candid opinion, it should be revisited in its entirety, or better still, be disposed into the basket of never conceived thoughts, till we find something better.

Sam Omotoso

Thisday

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