Coronavirus: Nigeria’s proposed COVID-19 law tears the country apart

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 10 May – 15 May

By Ruth Olurounbi

Posted on Friday, 15 May 2020 09:15
Virus Nigeria Outbreak
Pedestrian walk past a sign telling resident to call phone numbers if the have coronavirus symptoms in Lagos Nigeria, Tuesday May 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

A bill seeking to replace the Quarantine Act with a Control of Infectious Disease Act that quickly passed first and second readings at the House of Representatives in April, is causing outrage in Nigeria.

The bill, ‘Control of Infectious Disease, 2020’, sponsored by the Speaker of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, seeks a penalty of between N200,000 and N5m as well as jail terms for violators, rather than the N500 fine from the previous Quarantine Act.

The measures are seen as a means to further contain the coronavirus pandemic in a country of nearly 200 million.

COVID-19 infection rates are accelerating in the continent’s most populous country, recording nearly 1500% increase in coronavirus cases and deaths within a month, according to data from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

READ MORE Coronavirus: Nigeria’s varied responses to controlling COVID-19

As at 14 May 2020, Nigeria reported 4,971 confirmed cases and 164 deaths, from 323 infections and 10 deaths in April 2020, with two of Nigeria’s biggest cities of Lagos and Kano, well as the nation’s capital recording the highest number of cases at 3,043, according to the NCDC data.

“Build on what is already in existence”

The proposed bill, seeks to “build on what is already in existence to achieve a particular objective of strengthening our health work and the management of our public health.” But according to House of Representatives Speaker Gbajabiamila, it is already generating concerns for human rights in a country known for its history of human rights abuses.

Many human rights advocates, as well as a member of the Federal House of Representative, have since called the bill “draconian” and if passed, could further stifle human rights freedom in Nigeria.

According to Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), and 39 other non-profit organisations operating in Nigeria including Amnesty International, the bill: “violates key principles of simple, clear, and unambiguous legislative drafting, leaving significant amount of discretion on the implementing authorities and limiting the rights of citizens and relevant institutions.”

Kingsley Chinda, a member of the Nigerian National Assembly recently said: “The Bill is draconian in a multi-party federal system democracy as practiced in Nigeria,” and asked that the bill be adapted locally.

The Singapore Infectious Disease Act 1977

“We cannot domesticate the law of another nation. The Singapore Infectious Disease Act 1977 is not an international protocol that we should adopt wholesomely without any changes. While we can borrow the idea of the law from Singapore, we must adapt it to our local circumstances and bring it in line with existing local Statutes,” said Chinda.

While many Nigerians have alleged that the ‘Control of Infectious Disease Bill, 2020’ was heavily plagiarised from the Singapore Infectious Diseases Act 1977, Gbajabiamila, says the “language of plagiarism that has been used in relation to this bill is simply incendiary, and it is intended only to arise certain passion,” as “plagiarism is not known in legislative drafting.”

According to him, the nation is only “taking what was done in Singapore as foundation for our work and improve and amend it to an extent that it will more suites to our local context. It is important to know that there is nothing we have done in this bill that is not based on existing law in Nigeria.”

Call for public review of bill

In a statement issued by a group of 40 non-government organizations, they are calling for a public review of the bill that is seen to be largely copied from the  Singapore Infectious Diseases Act.

They add that policies based on streamlining public health response and preparedness, along with  the involvement of all tiers of government in managing infectious diseases would be a more positive development.

READ MORE Nigeria Lagos states healthcare ‘mission impossible’

“But this bill in its proposed form fails to meet this standard, as it is not reasonably justifiable in a democratic society,” says the group. They are thus calling for a review of the bill before it passes the third reading and is sent to President Muhammadu Buhari.

Following public outrage over the controversial bill, the House of Representatives last week reversed its decision to pass the bill without subjecting it to a public hearing, just as the Senate introduced its own version of  the bill titled ‘National Health Emergency Bill’.

According to Speaker Gbajabiamila, a public hearing has now been slated for the review of the bill and is the expected to take place in the next few weeks.

Alleged plagarism

This is not the first time Nigerian lawmakers would be embroidered in an alleged plagiarism of Singaporean laws.

In November 2019, Nigerian Senator Mohammed Musa of Niger State was thought to have plagiarised significant portions of the  Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act 2019 of the Republic of Singapore in his then proposed bill, ‘Protection from Internet falsehood and manipulations bill 2019’.

Curiously, many legal analysts and human rights advocates didn’t see the need for what they called a draconian ‘Protection from Internet falsehood and manipulations bill 2019’ as the law already existed under a cybercrime law passed during the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan in May 2015.

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