Why are Nigerians protesting the NCDC bill? Take a look for yourself

If no-holds-barred criticism is what makes a great government, the Federal Republic of Nigeria may very well lead in global best leadership. Unfortunately it is not, and far from leading in good governance, Nigeria has been plagued by leadership with varying degrees of failure year after year since the beginning of the current democratic dispensation.

This reality has not made Nigerians relent, quite the opposite. The country’s citizens are infamous for using every opportunity to lambast the government, and have been especially vocal in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and the manner in which the federal government has responded to it. The newly introduced and now almost passed NCDC bill is under scrutiny by many concerned Nigerians. With good reason too, one can argue.

The Control for Infectious Diseases Bill passed first and second readings in the span over about 2 hours, despite concerns raised by a good percentage of lawmakers at the readings.

 

Rep. Nkem Abonta (PDP-Abia) echoed the concern of everyone when he said that he had only seen the title of the bill but had not seen the bill itself. For a bill on which the house is willing to do away with Public Hearing, which is an integral part of lawmaking he pointed out, there is a need for time so members can critically look at it before it is passed.

“We need to see all the details and make sure we do not create another problem when the bill is passed into law,’’ Abonta said.

The sponsor of the bill, Speaker Femi Gbajabiamila,  came back with a response in the form of an apology for the hasty process, which he claimed is due to the emergency the country has found itself in. He urged the house to pass the bill for second and third reading and transmit it to the Senate for concurrence, as if in admission that it is too cumbersome a task to expect the lawmakers to be able to do their primary duty of assessing and establishing before passage that any law is in the interest of their constituents in all ramifications.

As Twitter users have shown, parsing the finer details of the bill is not as hard as the lawmakers appear to be making it. Far from it. As matter of fact, a quick but careful look through the bill will show not only that it is an almost exact copy of Singapore’s Infectious Diseases Act of 1977, but that it is a nightmare of sweeping powers in the hands of police officers, port health officers, and especially the office of the Director-General of the National Center for Disease Control.

A whole section on the prohibition of meetings, gatherings and public entertainment gave powers to the DG to, where it appears to her/him these are likely to increase the spread of infectious diseases, prohibit or restrict such gatherings. That is not nearly as worrying as the subsection under this, which empowers any health officer or police officer to ‘take any action that is necessary to give effect’ to such an order of prohibition.

One would think, as many Nigerians have rightly pointed out, that any piece of legislation brought to the floor of the Senate that has to do with Nigeria’s infamous Federal Police force, will be carefully put together with the most stringent checks and balances to ensure a limited room for abuse of power. The Force has come under scrutiny for years over indiscriminate arrests and harassment of very often innocent and law-abiding citizens, especially in the South-Western region where the Speaker hails from.

What does ‘any action that is necessary’ mean, and who oversees the determination of it? Would a shot in the knee with a live bullet for instance, pass for a fair interpretation of ‘necessary?’ After all, who can say what possible circumstances might arise from attempts to enforce this strange piece of legislation?

These are some of the many concerns raised by Nigerians, on Twitter alone. Concerns one will think should be obvious to one of the highest-paid set of legislators in the world. And perhaps it was obvious enough to them to give them a hesitant stop. While the bill passed both first and second readings, when it was time for consideration of the bill at the Committee of the Whole before it was passed for third reading, Gbajabiamila said that it should be stepped down to Tuesday, June 4, to enable members go through the bill.

It may be too much to hope for,  expecting that this time given will allow for the house members to review and tie the loose ends and close the holes in the bill that are so big they threaten to swallow whatever hope Nigerians have for enjoying the rights the 1999 constitution as reviewed promised all law-abiding citizens, rights that have been shrunken by Bills and Acts over the years, most conspicuous of which remains the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill, which remains an affront to the constitutional right to freedom of association.

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