13 September 2017

Nigeria: The Doctors' Strike

opinion

As the nation grapples with the strike action by medical doctors, this time, under the aegis of the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) after failed attempts by the Federal Government to avert it, the pain is that the strikers' demands are very familiar.

The issues in contention are salary shortfall of 2016 and January to May 2017, failure to rectify the salary shortage, failure to circularise house officers entry point, failure to correct the stagnation of promotion of members and properly place them on their appropriate grade level. Other issues are failure to enroll and capture members on the Integrated Personnel Payment Information System (IPPIS) as well as failure to budget, deduct and remit both the employer and employees' contributions and NARD members' pension to retirement savings account. Weighty grievances but, once again, not new.

On its part, the Federal Government's delegation had promised the doctors that it would implement their joint decisions, asking the doctors to go back to work. But the doctors have been adamant. Their position is that the Federal Government has not been known to fulfill its promises to unions. As a result, the strike has continued and it has been very effective across the country. Nigeria's already parlous health care system is, therefore, receiving yet another bashing and the poor citizens who cannot afford the expensive services of private hospitals are dying in their hundreds. Once again, the ineptitude of government in rudimentary matters is in full display. Why on earth, should such mundane matters be allowed to fester until a strike is called? What does it take for a government which rode to power on the crest of popular opinion, promising to bring change to the polity, fail in such simple matters?

The current Minister of Health, Professor Isaac Adewole was once an active member of the doctors' association. Indeed in 1984 he was elected National President of National Association of Resident Doctors, the association which is now up in arms against the government. He led a strike against the junta of General Muhammadu Leko Buhari and was fired for his role in the strike. How come that as head of the Health Ministry, he is unable to guarantee or meet the needs of his primary constituency? Why has he not been able to meet the demands of NARD? Is there something, a mystique in government, that turns erstwhile active professionals into docile office holders? Or, are the demands of NARD unreasonable?

Medical doctors play a crucial role in the health sector. Whereas they have been known to perform creditably in the United States, the United Kingdom and other developed countries, here at home, Nigerians invariably pass a vote of no-confidence in them. These same doctors who had been trained in Nigeria's teaching hospitals discharge themselves creditably in foreign lands. The problem therefore must be with the environment and at the core of this is the government. Governments at the Federal and State levels have not met their obligations to the health sector. The nation's hospitals have long been identified as lacking in equipment. Remuneration or incentives which are expected to make the profession attractive are not provided. It is against this background that all must appreciate the strike by the doctors.

Governments which are insensitive to the aspirations of the people are often negligent of their social obligations. As earlier observed, the demands of the doctors are nothing new. Some of them have been on the table since 2013, raising the question: what kind of government keeps issues in abeyance for upwards of three years without any action? If anything, the doctors have been too patient with the government. They are justified now to believe that government cannot keep its word. For example, the issue of entry point for resident doctors had been on the front burner for three years. Indeed, the Minister of Health and the Federal government need to explain to the Nigerian people why the doctors were forced into the latest strike.

Too many people have died because of poor facilities in our hospitals and no less a person than President Muhammadu Buhari has shown he has no confidence in Nigeria's health-care facilities by spending some three odd months in a medical facility in the United Kingdom recently. This is a tragedy.

The government should use this opportunity to put things right. It is possible to assert that there should be no strike in the health sector for the next two years. This can be done by taking the right steps and ensuring that all the facilities and personnel in the sector are properly taken care of. Millions of dollars are spent annually by government and individuals in foreign hospitals when indeed with the right policy in place all such ailments can be dealt with here.

It is instructive that the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the NARD have both accused the government of failing to honour agreements freely entered unto with both parties. This is irresponsible of government, an indication of gross ineptitude and insensitivity. A government that cannot honour its agreements with organised labour cannot be trusted by the people.

The government should act immediately and the strike should not be allowed to go on. Representatives of government should urgently meet with the unions and resolve the dispute. If government had at any time signed an agreement with unions, it is simply honourable to fulfill its own side of the agreement. In a country where public officials are accused of routinely stealing millions and where national legislators earn millions of naira monthly, no excuse can be given for not meeting the demands of health care professionals whose services are fundamental to the survival of citizens.

Nigeria

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