An Infectious Disease act Bill, was quietly transmitted to members of the House of Representatives for consideration on April 28, 2020.
One would think the bill is somewhat innocuous and maybe praiseworthy and necessary. However, a closer examination of this bill reveals that it potentially creates a lot more problems than it purports to solve.
The Infectious Diseases Act is supposed to create a legal framework for the federal government to manage the special circumstances surrounding infectious disease outbreaks like the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which had claimed Atleast 44 lives across Nigeria.
The bill which is sponsored by Femi Gbajabiamila, House Speaker is supposed to provide an updated legislative basis for the government’s anti-pandemic efforts, replacing the National Quarantine Act of 2004, which many have identified as the cause of least some of the FG’s initial flat-footed response to COVID-19.
In reality, it potentially opens the door to a new set of legal and constitutional conflicts.
Also, it is almost entirely – word for word – plagiarised from the Singapore Infectious Diseases Act 1977.
The bill is clearly not one about helping to save Nigerian lives from disease outbreaks but helping the Director General of the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Minister of Health become disproportionately and unjustifiably powerful.
Throughout the 44-page document, the term “Director General” appears 134 times 10 more times than the word “disease.”
At first the repeated emphasis on granting powers to the person of the NCDC DG appear justified by Sections 7 and 12, which give the DG the power to require that corpses of those who die of suspicious symptoms without confirmation must be properly autopsied, and that infected corpses must be disposed of in such a way as not to endanger public safety. Such clauses would – at least on paper – provide a resolution to scenarios such as that currently happening in Kano State, where for religious reasons, corpses of people who died of symptoms similar to COVID-19 victims are being hurriedly buried without autopsies and under unsafe circumstances.
As with any other piece of legislation in Nigeria of course, whether it will be interpreted as superior to the Sharia penal code system of 12 Northern states and enforced accordingly, is anyone’s guess.
The real problems with this bill start becoming clear from Section 15, which states in part,
“The Minister 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.”
“A Health Officer or a police officer may take any action that is necessary to give effect to an order under subsection 3.” What does “action that is necessary” mean exactly? Does it mean indiscriminate stop-and-search actions? Does it mean shooting people “accidentally” as the lower ranks of the police are in the habit of doing? What are the real world Nigerian implications of giving sweeping, ambiguously-worded powers to poorly trained, power-drunk law enforcement officials with military grade firearms?
Section 20 ends the right to free association through the DG it empowers to prevent any kind of meeting whatsoever as long as he determines in his subjective judgment that it somehow “increases the spread of an infectious disease.”
In practice, what this means is that the day a non-scientist or politically-motivated individual becomes DG, an unelected bureaucrat will then have the power to crack down on anything from political opposition meetings to anti-government protests whether there is a disease outbreak or not.
The only condition is that the DG must find the gathering to be dangerous in his opinion. Since when was a right that appears on Page 1 of the 1999 constitution subject to the personal whims of an unelected public office holder?
One of the most controversial provisions of the now-iced Social Media Bill has found its way into a bill about managing infectious diseases.
In that bill, an unelected bureaucrat was given the sole power to hear legal appeals that must be submitted within a specific time period. Complainants were not entitled to hearing in a court, and the bureaucrat’s decision was final. What is that abominable clause doing in a bill that is supposed to help Nigerians survive infectious disease outbreaks? What is this really about?
According to Section 24, police officers now have the power to “apprehend and take” anyone in any public location who is “suffering from an infectious disease.” which ranges from a sore throat, common cold, the list goes on.
Does this clause mean that anyone who coughs in the general vicinity of a police officer stands to be arrested on suspicion of “having an infectious disease?”
Why do police officers who are not trained medical personnel get to make the judgment about who has an “infectious disease” or not?
Point (e) under Section 55 lays out the framework for what is blatantly an assault on journalists and whistleblowers. The clause requires any person to provide any book, document, correspondence or information requested by the DG and it also gives the DG unrestricted power to enter and search any premises without the need for small matters like court orders. In other words, if the DG, his boss or any of his colleagues in office suspect that a journalist or whistleblower is about to go public with embarrassing information, there is now a legal basis for state-sanctioned thuggery to ensure that they are silenced.
Section 58 contains possibly the worst clause in the entire document.
Here, it is expressly stated that any police officer is empowered to arrest anyone without a warrant as long as “he has reason to believe…” In other words, the burden of proof is now on Nigerian citizens. We will all become guilty until proven innocent, which is yet another direct contravention of the 1999 constitution.
The final coup-de-grace appears in Section 71 where it is stated that the DG and his enforcers in the police and paramilitary forces can never be held accountable for what they use these powers to do. The section 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.”
As mentioned at the outset, this bill is ripped off almost word for word from the Singapore Infectious Diseases Act of 1977.
This could go some way to explaining why it is worded in such a combative and aggressive manner that takes almost zero notice of the assumed rights of citizens. Singapore at the time, was a fiercely authoritarian single party dictatorship led by Lee Kuan Yew.
Replicating an Infectious Diseases Act from a notoriously dictatorial country indicates that the goal behind this proposed legislation is specifically to expand the spectre of unaccountable, unelected dictatorship in Nigeria, and in the process, remake the country as we know it in the authoritarian image of Singapore.
Hiding under the cloak of yet another piece of plagiarised legislation, there is a concerted and unmistakable effort to turn the clock back on Nigeria’s democracy.
A few months ago, two pieces of legislation (the so-called ‘Hate Speech’ and ‘Social media’ bills) created an uproar when it emerged that if passed, their clauses would effectively end Nigerian civil rights as we know them. Due to the sustained public pushback, the bills were put on ice until such a time as their sponsors could attempt once again to bypass public outrage and sneak them into law. This bill is that attempt.
Not only will this bill effectively end the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of movement and freedom of association under the fraudulent guise of “public health,” this bill also goes after property rights, giving an unelected DG and his unelected boss at the Health Ministry power to commandeer and expropriate private property with brazen audacity and on a scale that has not been seen in Nigeria since the days of military dictatorship.
If this bill is passed, journalists and whistleblowers will also be endangered, as it empowers the NCDC DG and health minister to use law enforcements to seize whatever information is deemed important in fighting an infectious disease which would inturn, end whatever remains of objective public interest journalism in Nigeria.
Under the guise of fighting infectious diseases, this bill will reintroduce mass surveillance to Nigeria and effectively end the rights to assumed innocence, fair hearing before a competent court of law and habeas corpus – the trifecta of legal principles that prevent Executive overreach and provide a framework for the freedoms inherent in democratic countries.
Instead, Nigeria will become a stop-and-search police state with subjective, warrantless arrests, zero recourse to fair hearing in court, indefinite detention and legal appeals being heard by unelected civil dictators instead of qualified judges.
Human rights activist and Executive Director, Adopt A Goal for Development Initiative, Ariyo-Dare Atoye also spoke heavily concerning the act. His speech can be read here.