Only Nigeria could find itself with a government unable to pass vital health protection laws during a deadly worldwide health crisis because people thought that government was too powerful.
But that’s exactly where we find ourselves with the stalling of the Infectious Disease Act.
This is a bill designed to make it easier for organisations like Nigerian Centre for Disease Control to take rapid action to prevent the spread of infectious diseases across Nigeria, and respond effectively to emerging public health emergencies.
And right now this couldn’t be more important.
The number of people around our world to have lost their lives to the Coronavirus has passed 250,000. Enough people have now caught this deadly disease to fill a city the size of Kano. And that number gets bigger every minute.
Public health officials are our frontline soldiers in this battle and it should be obvious to every Nigerian how vital it is that they have weapons they need to fight. The only way to stop COVID-19 is by quarantining and effective public hygiene. The only way to defeat it will be vaccination. So our health protection agencies need right resources to enforce effective quarantining, effectual hygiene and to successfully vaccinate our people as at when a vaccine arrives.
And not just for the fight against COVID-19. For the fight against the next outbreak, whether that’s typhoid, cholera, dengue fever or something as destructive, unknown and terrifying as the current coronavirus.
This should not be controversial. I cannot think of anyone – whatever their politics – who would not agree that the primary purpose of any government is to keep the people safe.
And yet the government stands accused by some of intending to use the law to carry out sinister medical experiments on its people or to bring back military rule through the back door.
As House speaker Femi Gbajabiamila has said:
“Suffice it to say that none of these allegations are true. Unfortunately, we now live in a time when conspiracy theories have gained such currency that genuine endeavours in the public interest can quickly become mischaracterised and misconstrued to raise the spectre of sinister intent and ominous possibility”.
The fact we have found ourselves in this position tells us a lot about Nigerian politics – and what needs to change.
- People get their information from social media. And that information cannot always be trusted.
More and more Nigerians get most of their news from social media. And has we have seen, if your only source of news is social media, you might end up believing that President Buhari died some time ago and was replaced with an alien clone.
Fake news of the kind we’ve seen in Nigeria in recent years necessitates the public having reliable sources of information they can go to online- and where better than going direct to their local representatives?
That was the thought behind Rate Your Leader, a free app that connects registered voters to the elected officials who serve them –giving them the power to get credible information from credible sources at the touch of a button.
- People do not trust the intentions of their leaders
In times like ours, who can blame a government for trying to get public protection bills into law as rapidly as possible?
But the government did itself no favours by trying to force the bill through parliament so quickly.
But with this Bill giving the police the power to detain infectious individuals and officials the power – with a court order – to destroy buildings, it was bound to be controversial.
If you already think that your government has the worst of intentions, such provisions are bound to alarm.
A politician Nigerian’s trust is worth more than an oilfield. That’s why Tobias Chukwuemeka Okwuru was recently appointed to the Federal Character Commission despite having passed away.
Nigerian voters need to know what information they can trust, and also that they can trust their representatives. The Rate Your Leader app is designed to battle this democratic deficit by helping politicians engage with voters they serve, helping them understand what matters most to the people who elect them, and build relationships of trust with the electorate. And in return, voters can even rate their responses, convincing their neighbours that this is a politician who listens.
The people of Nigeria are desperate to get involved in the political process
Speaker Gbajabiamila has announced that public hearings will address public concerns relating to the Infectious Diseases Act.
People are more likely to accept something if they feel like their fears have been listened to and addressed, and even more likely to support something if they been able to help shape it.
But this should not be something which only happens in times of crisis and controversy. This should be built into all our politics.
We designed Rate Your Leader to give the people of Nigeria a direct channel to their leaders. This is something they expect. And it is something our democracy depends on.
Joel Popoola is a digital democracy campaigner, tech entrepreneur, and creator of the free Rate Your Leader app.