On Gbajabiamila’s ‘Coronavirus’ Bill
The ‘Control of Infectious Diseases Bill, 2020’ sponsored by the Speaker, Hon Femi Gbajabiamila and two other members (Pascal Obi and Tanko Sununu) was last week rushed through first and second readings in the House of Representatives. Rather curiously, members were not provided copies of the legislation until motives of the sponsors were called into question. When eventually members received copies and observed that it contained several contentious provisions, conspiracy theorists went to town. Now, we hear of millions of dollars from Mr Bill Gates (who else?) allegedly being doled out to lawmakers in a bid to foist on our country a compulsory vaccination law that would kill off many Nigerians and reduce our population.
As an aside, even in the United States, especially among right wing Christians, once Mr Bill Gates is linked to any health-related issue, you hear tales like this. In March, popular conservative Pastor Rick Wiles warned that ‘There Will Be Blood in the Streets’ (of America) if Bill Gates continues to push for vaccinations in his bid to build ‘Lucifer’s Antichrist System’. According to Wiles, “Bill Gates wants to get a microchip in your body, he wants a microchip in your baby’s body.” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The current challenge in our country is the bill by Gbajabiamila which, as he explained in plenary on Tuesday, was meant to “take proactive action to prevent the entry into Nigeria of Infectious diseases and the management of public health emergencies when they occur.”
Whatever may be the merit of the idea, my friend, Dr Laz Ude Eze has described the timing of this bill as akin to an attempt to make new rules of engagement in the middle of a war. At a period when we are dealing with a pandemic and we do not know how it will all end, the pertinent question remains: Is this the right time to enact a bill on infectious diseases? Besides, the bill has many provisions that violate personal liberty and privacy, make nonsense of our federal structure, stigmatise and criminalise infectious diseases and generally confer on the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) Director General (or whoever controls him/her) absolute and extra-constitutional powers, “notwithstanding any restriction imposed by any written law, rule of law, rule of professional conduct or contract.”
But before I deal with the substantive issues, let me state that I have read the 47-page bill and agree with its principle: To replace the outdated Quarantine Act of 1926. So, rather than condemn Gbajabiamila, I will commend him and his colleagues for recognising the gap and trying to fill it, although I disagree with their methods. Against the background that the only infectious diseases currently recognised in the Quarantine Act are typhus, cholera, smallpox, plague and yellow fever, I see nothing wrong in repealing and replacing a colonial law enacted almost a century ago and 34 years before Nigeria became independent. The challenge that I see are in the provisions of this bill and the timing of its proposed enactment.
The Quarantine Act of 1926 makes no allowance for infectious diseases like COVID-19 and was passed at a time before air travel became popular. In fact, the Act makes no provision for the prevention of infectious diseases through air travels nor does it even make mention of airports or aeroplanes. As Gbajabiamila said on Tuesday, there are also contentions about where President Muhammadu Buhari derived the powers he exercised to lock down Lagos and Ogun States for five weeks. And regarding punishment, the Quarantine Act of 1926 puts a maximum fine of the sum of N200.00 (Two Hundred Naira) for any person found to be in violation of provisions. That cannot deter anybody in Nigeria.
From the foregoing, we can infer that the Bill by Gbajabiamila and co is necessary and important. The contention is now about the provisions. Aside the failure to take into account the current federal structure in Nigeria where powers are devolved between and among three constituent units (federal, state and local governments), the bill gives the NCDC Director General absolute powers, including over and above that of security agencies on matters that deal with law and order and over and above the courts in judicial matters.
Despite denials and attempts to obfuscate, the import of Section 30 of the Bill is that it will allow forceful vaccination against a person’s choice. Subsection 2 specifically states, “Notwithstanding subsection (1)(b), a Port Health Officer may require such person to undergo vaccination or other prophylaxis and may subject him to isolation or surveillance for such period as the Port Health Officer thinks fit”. To now add insult to injury, the immunity provided in Section 70 of the Bill effectively ousts court jurisdiction and places the DG and his health officers above the law.
The power to confiscate and turn property in any state of the federation into an isolation centre is also not only open to abuse, it is in conflict with powers of state governors and runs afoul of the fundamental rights of citizens. The Bill, as was observed by a lawyer, also authorizes the arrest without warrant on almost every issue based on mere suspicion and the private opinion of the DG of NCDC. Meanwhile, Section 8 of the proposed bill, “clearly takes away the duty of confidentiality owed patients by their personal physician. A citizen can be subjected to inhumane treatment of publishing his/her medical history without his/her consent and refusal attracts a conviction without trial in the court of law. Section12 empowers the DG on a mere suspicion to prohibit the burial of a deceased by his/her family. This again violates the citizens right to human dignity.”
With several provisions conditioned on ‘the opinion of the Director General’, I have never seen a law that gives such extraordinary discretionary power to an appointee of the executive arm. From taking actions on the presumption of ‘good faith’ (by the officer’s own judgement) to omnibus immunity, the NCDC Director General (or whoever pulls the strings for him/her) can “prohibit or restrict, subject to such conditions as he may think fit”. In a nation where religion is now about crowds, even a church or mosque service can be cancelled whenever and wherever “it appears to the Director General that the holding of any meeting, gathering or any public entertainment is likely to increase the spread of any infectious disease.” And if you sneeze inside a Molue in Lagos, you can be arrested by the police or ‘health officer’ on suspicion that you harbour an infectious disease!
What stands out in the bill is the powers vested in one person. Once the NCDC Director General is convinced that he/she is ‘acting in good faith and with reasonable care’, he/she can trample on the rights of any Nigerian, living or dead since the donated powers include deciding on what to do with corpses. Interestingly, I understand that the NCDC had no input in this proposed legislation that confers on its Director General such extraordinary powers.
On the whole, as important as this bill may appear, Gbajabiamila will be helping us if he makes it part of a broader legislative agenda for the Nigerian health sector in a post-coronavirus world. Other areas to look at include the need for robust and well-funded research for herbal solutions into a number of these diseases, and a total revamp of the health infrastructure. On Tuesday, a member of the Borno State House of Assembly died in circumstances that can only be described as pathetic. He was initially rejected at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital by health workers who insisted that the available bed space was reserved for childbirth emergency. By the time the usual Nigerian strings were pulled and a space was created for the lawmaker, it was too late. These are some of the issues that should also concern the Speaker of the House of Representatives if the agenda is about healthcare delivery in Nigeria.
In yielding to public opinion and the necessity for a public hearing, Gbajabiamila on Tuesday disagreed with those who question the timing of this bill. “The number of those currently infected by the coronavirus continues to rise alongside the number of those who have died. There is no timeline for when this disease will pass, and nobody can predict when the next public health crisis will occur, just as nobody predicted the present predicament. It bears restating that we do not have in our country, a healthcare system or for that matter, a national economy that is sufficiently robust to withstand the dire consequences of a sustained infectious disease pandemic. We cannot tie our own hands in the fight against this disease,” he said.
Nobody can fault the diagnosis of the problem as eloquently stated by the speaker. But what he conveniently chose to ignore is that there will be more lessons to learn as this pandemic unfolds not only in Nigeria but across the world—lessons that will enrich such legislation. If, as Gbajabiamila claimed, the idea is to proffer a solution to the challenges brought about by COVID-19, why is he proposing rules before the development of a vaccine? With about 108 vaccines in experiment and eight on clinical trial, do we know the extent of the threat posed by COVID-19? And where is the NCDC autocracy coming from? Why such desperation to enact the legislation at this period? While I do not believe in the conspiracy theories being bandied, I can also see the usual laziness that is common with law-making in Nigeria. Most of the provisions in the bill were dubbed from Singapore’s Infectious Diseases Act (Chapter 136) without any effort to adapt them for our local environment.
Meanwhile, some of the basic features of a good law include that it should be acceptable to the majority, should not confer discretionary powers on anybody and should not trample on the rights of citizens. This bill violates all these ideals and several others most flagrantly. Another canon of a good law is that it must be enforceable. Given our federal structure, many provisions in this Bill cannot be enforced. We have seen how easy it has been for Governors Ben Ayade and Yahaya Bello to effectively shut out the NCDC from their states so as to maintain ‘zero-death’ records even when we are all aware residents have succumbed to COVID-19 and we may witness a catastrophe if common sense does not prevail in both Cross River and Kogi States very quickly.
My advice to the Speaker is to withdraw this contentious bill, consult more widely with critical stakeholders, including Nigeria Governors Forum officials and health sector professionals, and come up with a draft that will better serve public interest when this pandemic has been dealt with. If he doesn’t do that, and continues his desperation to foist on Nigerians a bill that appears more like a military decree, questions will continue to be asked regarding whose interest he seeks to promote or protect.
The Essential Umaru Musa Yar’Adua
Tuesday, 5th May marked the 10th anniversary of the death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, under whose administration I served as Special Adviser on Media and Publicity. At that period, I paid tribute to him in a piece published in many newspapers on 5th June 2010. To mark a decade of his death, I hereby reproduce the tribute:
There has been a massive outpouring of tributes to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua since his passing a month ago, such that it is becoming increasingly difficult for me to recognize the man I served for almost three years. In typical Nigerian fashion, everybody, including those who ‘cabalised’ his last days, is now eulogizing the late president. It seems one of our major attributes as a nation is that we are ever generous to, and most often hypocritical about, the dead.
However, beyond the familiar graveyard orations, the Yar’Adua Presidency, like all previous governments, deserves a rigorous and more honest interrogation to enable us learn useful lessons about the past and secure a good guide for the future. This is an important task which I am sure many Nigerians will undertake once tears are dried and tempers have simmered. As a front-row witness, I plan to document my own experience and reflections about this period in the next two years when hopefully, I would have the time and presence of mind to put things in proper perspective. For now, let me offer a few words about the late Yar’Adua based on my interactions with him as his official spokesman.
In all the tributes paid to him, a common thread has been that while he had his personal failings like all mortals, President Yar’Adua exhibited certain attributes uncommon with people who hold leadership positions in our clime, and that made a significant difference. These attributes were: humility, integrity and humanity. Though interrelated, these enduring values reinforce one another, and cannot stand alone. As a leader, if you don’t have the first, you definitely cannot have the others.
Humility, which Ezra Taft Benson argues is concerned with what is right as distinct from who is right, is the core of those human virtues which work in tandem with other positive character traits. It is therefore no surprise that Yar’Adua was as honest as he was humble and he had nothing but contempt for the primitive accumulation of the Nigerian political elite who place their personal greed above the collective need. Yar’Adua’s humility was particularly telling because aside his well-heeled family background, he had been the governor of a state for eight years before becoming president. In that office, Yar’Adua chose the road less travelled by. He didn’t allow power to change him. From the outset, he recognized that a leader must place the system above himself and use power cautiously and only for the advancement of human dignity. With the late Yar’Adua, I saw this disposition at play in several instances but will cite only one.
Whatever little credit this administration can take for the Niger Delta amnesty process, President Yar’Adua’s personal humility was a critical catalyst. I recall that the entire agenda could have been scuttled from the outset when some hardliners in government stoutly opposed the idea of releasing Mr. Henry Okah from detention and granting him amnesty. The late Yar’Adua never for once agreed with people who argued that it would be demeaning for the President of Nigeria to hold meetings with those they considered ‘criminals’. In the course of his dealings with the Niger Delta militant leaders, the late President exemplified the enduring lesson of a Hausa proverb (once shared with me by Senator Uba Ahmed) that stooping before a dwarf does not cost you your height. Whenever there was a crisis or a likelihood of one, President Yar’Adua would personally call on phone the leader of whichever group was involved. That explains why Chief Government Ekpomupolo alias Tompolo had easy access to the late president who also brokered meetings between the Governor of Rivers State, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi and Mr Ateke Tom in order for peace to reign in the Niger Delta.
One of the reasons Okah bought into the amnesty process was principally due to the disposition of President Yar’Adua during their first encounter. Perhaps only few leaders would have the temperament to absorb what Okah told the president that night about what he described as the ‘crazy arrangement’ in Nigeria vis-a-vis the Niger Delta people. Rather than express anger, President Yar’Adua assured Okah that he could understand his rage while pledging to redress wrongs. That parley, brokered by my former boss and mentor, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, was particularly instructive. When the late President (with me and Mr. David Edevbie by his side) eventually met with the ‘Aaron Team’ of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND), comprising Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, Admiral Mike Akhigbe and Major General Luke Aprezi (rtd), they can all attest to the fact that by the time he laid his cards on the table, there was little to argue about as it became quite clear he had a roadmap towards resolving the Niger Delta problem.
Apart from the desire to do what was right, President Yar’Adua held resolution of the Niger Delta issue very dear. He could see in it enormous potentials for the nation at large. It is within this context that the current argument about whether or not the ‘seven-point agenda’ should be reviewed not only begs the question but shows little understanding of what the agenda is all about. The ‘seven-point agenda’ is not an economic blueprint but rather a conceptual framework of the critical areas of our national life that the administration considered of utmost priority. Even at that, President Yar’Adua himself had realised before he died that there was need to focus principally on a few items which would unlock the door to the others. Three were identified: Land Reform, Niger Delta and Power. On Land Reform, Professor Akin Mabogunje has done extensive work and the Bill is now before the National Assembly. President Yar’Adua said several times with respect to Niger Delta that the amnesty deal was just the easy bit: the foundation for resolving the crisis in an enduring manner. The solution, he believed, would be in empowering the oil producing communities and this informed his decision to direct that ministerial committees be set up to work out modalities for implementing the report of the Special Adviser on Petroleum Matters, Dr. Emmanuel Egbogah.
Titled ‘Equity Distribution in Petroleum Administration: Proposal for the Involvement of Host Communities in the Ownership of Petroleum Assets in Nigeria’, the Egbogah report, which seeks to give oil producing Niger Delta communities a stake similar to land owner royalty, was very detailed. Unfortunately, that turned out to be President Yar’Adua’s last official engagement as he fell ill only a few days later and travelled to Saudi Arabia. The rest, as they say, is history. As for the power sector, President Yar’Adua felt it would be delusional to think that electricity could be generated and transmitted on a sustainable basis in Nigeria if resolution of the Niger Delta question remained literally or figuratively in the pipelines.
Another area where President Yar’Adua’s distinction shone through was his abiding faith in the rule of law. For President Yar’Adua, the good society is one where impunity is a taboo, and where the rights of the rich and poor are equally protected. On reflection, I believe President Yar’Adua actually understood the seeming intangibles which have held us back as a nation with a clear idea of what needs to be done. He was ready to chart the course. Today, I can recall several discussions I had with him on the primacy of rule of law to the development of any society. For him it was not mere rhetoric. It is indeed to the eternal credit of the respect the late President had for institutions and constituted authority that he never for once dabbled in the affairs of the National Assembly. Not even when there was media pressure on him to do so during the Mercy Etteh crisis in the House of Representatives, which members eventually resolved on their terms. He also stayed away from the internal politics of his party, the PDP. And he gave unfettered freedom to the judiciary as the last arbiter. But for President Yar’Adua’s unwavering commitment to the rule of law, it is most unlikely that Comrade Adams Oshiomhole would be Edo State Governor today. The same goes for Governor Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo State. And in Anambra State, the recent election would most certainly not have been conducted given the fact that there were people within his party who held on to the belief that they already had a ‘Governor-in-waiting’!
On a personal level, I can also attest that President Yar’Adua was an open-minded leader and a loyal boss. Between 22nd April, 2007 (when I was first contacted for the job) and 29th May, 2007, I turned down the offer to be his (presidential) spokesman several times and only accepted on 30th May after the decision had been taken out of my hands. Notwithstanding, President Yar’Adua was faithful to me, especially at a period when I was considered ‘disloyal’ by some people very close to him! By the warped logic of these political do-gooders, the loyal media aide is one who makes a nuisance of himself by attacking critics of his principal. For not doing that, there were several reports against me by those who rubbed it in that it was not an accident that President Olusegun Obasanjo picked three kinsmen of his as spokespersons in succession. There were also other people in government with their power mongering collaborators outside who hated my guts and put pressure on President Yar’Adua to replace me with their own media men. Some did not stop at mere attempts to replace me; I was also considered expendable. Such was the desperation. It is not on record that any of my predecessors was ever invited for interrogation by the security agencies for just doing their job. In my own case, I endured that humiliation over the controversial Ekiti State re-run gubernatorial election.
In each of these situations, President Yar’Adua stood solidly by me, the same way he resisted pressure to replace his ADC, Col. Mustapha Dennis Onoyiveta, who got the job purely on merit after a competitive interview conducted by the former Chief-of-Staff, Major General Abdullahi Mohammed (rtd) from a shortlist sent by the Defence Headquarters. That became an issue for those who wanted Mustapha out with the whispering campaign that former President Obasanjo planted him on Yar’Adua. Yet it was clear that Mustapha’s only sin was the fact that he is an Urhobo man from Delta State and not a Northerner!
As a boss, Yar’Adua was easy to work with and approachable. He was also sensitive to the welfare of his staff. Such was his attention that one day he noticed that his personal secretary and speechwriter, Mr. Matt Aikhionbare, was walking with a slight limp and asked what was wrong with him. When Matt complained about pains in his leg for which he was seeking local medical care, the president immediately called his personal doctor and asked that he arrange for Matt to travel abroad. He personally paid all the bills.
Another aspect of the man Yar’Adua which Nigerians did not get to see was his down-to-earth, brutally frank disposition to issues. One morning, as we were leaving the residence for his office, the ADC noticed that the President did not have his Nigeria-lapel pin on. As he attempted to place one on his ‘babariga’, the President turned to us (myself, Steve Oronsaye, Matt Aikhionbare, Habu Habib and Yusuf Tilde) and asked cynically: ‘What does this thing really mean? It is not whether we carry the national flag on our head or chest that matters. I wonder why we place too much premium on symbolism in this country when what should inspire us as public officials is that our actions are dictated by public good’. In characteristic style, he challenged us to convince him as to why he must wear the pin and was prepared for a debate. In the end, we managed to convince him to allow the pin to be put in place if only to humour us.
I have fond memories of President Yar’Adua. I interacted so closely with him that even colleagues who initially felt uncomfortable with me could not but notice he enjoyed my company. It got to a point that sometimes when he sat alone, they would send for me to go and keep him company. I am one of the few people who could bring out his earthy, humourous nature which he tried to suppress. With me, he would laugh because I recognised the fact that while he might have been the president, he was first and foremost a human being and I related to him on that score.
While it is true that Nigerians hardly speak ill of the dead, I have received numerous testimonials from people I encountered on the streets in the last few weeks that lead me to conclude that beyond the crocodile tears and political tributes, there must have been a genuine affection for President Yar’Adua by most Nigerians and deep sympathy for his personal travails. If only these people had known him up close and if only illness and death had not conspired to rob Nigeria of the freshness and vigour of his humble, honest and humane leadership!
The late president definitely was not the saint some people are trying to make of him. He was a mere mortal who had his faults and weaknesses. But he was also far from being the desperate power-monger that the ‘cabals’ on both sides tried to turn him into in his last days. He was essentially a good man who had lofty dreams for his country; a man of ideas who, though hampered by ill-health, gave the thankless job of building a good society his very best; a simple human being who refused to let position and power deprive him and others of their humanity.
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