Nigeria's labour and employment minister, Chris Ngige, has been in the eye of the storm after claiming the country has 'enough' medical doctors to attend to the needs of Nigerians.
While Nigerians on social media questioned the minister's understanding of the health sector, experts said the minister spoke from a position of ignorance and a "politician that doesn't understand what is going on."
The minister made the claim on Wednesday during Channels Television's Sunrise Daily but did not provide any evidence to back his claim.
He was responding to a question regarding Nigerian doctors who wished to relocate their practice abroad.
"No, I am not worried about doctors leaving the country, we have a surplus", Mr Ngige responded. "If you have a surplus, you export... "
"... Who said we don't have enough doctors? We have more than enough. You can quote me. There is nothing wrong in them travelling out", the minister said, claiming that doctors leaving the country would grow the economy through remittances.
"When they go abroad, they earn money and send them back home here. Yes, we have foreign exchange earnings from them and not just oil... ."
Coming weeks after Saudi officials stormed Nigeria to recruit medical doctors, the minister's comment has been heavily criticised by Nigerians. It was perceived by many as the height of insensitivity especially because the minister himself is a medical doctor by profession.
The comment also ran contrary to the position of the minister of health, Isaac Adewole, who had alluded to the brain drain challenge in Nigeria.
Mr Adewole said the government is worried about the trend.
"This is why President Muhammadu Buhari asked the National Security Adviser to chair an inter-ministerial panel on how to check brain drain and turn it into brain grain," the health minister explained in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES last year.
Some health experts described the minister's comment as not just "ignorant to actual realities" but worrisome. They said the remark is a sharp contrast of recommendations made by the World Health Organisation on doctor-patient ratio.
Nigeria had over 39,000 registered medical doctors in 2017 according to official data from the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MDCN). This implies that with an estimated population of 193 million as of 2016, Nigeria had one medical doctor to about 4,845 citizens, less than 20 per cent of the WHO recommendation.
"What the minister said is really unfortunate and I am not surprised because he spoke as a politician," said Segun Olaopa, the president, National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD)
"The minister needs to be reminded that WHO has a recommendation. The doctors-patients' ratio in Nigeria is about 1 to 5,000.
"It is worrisome if this is satisfactory to a minister of labour," the health official told PREMIUM TIMES Thursday in a phone interview.
Mr Olaopa also took shots at Mr Ngige for saying brain drain would only be inimical "when, for instance, neurosurgeons travel and we don't have neurosurgeons here".
The NARD president said the minister spoke from a position of ignorance, "like a politician that doesn't understand what is going on."
He explained that there has been an increase in 'brain drain' in Nigeria because of the working condition and the entire total lack of motivation for medical practice. "New doctors are taking foreign exams to get incorporated into foreign systems."
"From our findings, we realize that up to 80 per cent of our fresh graduates are seeking greener pastures outside and 50 per cent are successful in their immigration plans.
"If a minister, who is supposed to be looking for solutions can say such a thing about a critical sector like health, the question that comes to mind is "does he know the number of doctors that are registered in the country?"
The president of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Francis Faduyile could not be reached for comments Thursday but Punch Newspaper reported earlier that he joined a host of stakeholders in the health sector and human rights groups who countered the position of the minister.
Mr Faduyile reaffirmed that Nigeria is far below WHO's doctor/patient benchmark. He questioned the minister's understanding of the health sector challenges.
Nigerians react on Social Media
The minister is also receiving a backlash on the social media over Wednesday's controversial comment. His understanding of the country's health sector was questioned by many commentators.
"What type of arrogance is this? We have enough doctors? Is that why your boss, President @Mbuhari, spent 39 days abroad, including over 6 months in a UK clinic? This government is a punishment on the Nigerian people," Reno Omokri, an erstwhile aide to former President Goodluck Jonathan wrote on Twitter.
"Ngige does not seem to have a clue of the push factors/working/living conditions/govt lapses that cause so many doctors to leave He claims there is a "surplus". Does he know the "Doctor:Citizen" ratio in Nigeria? The real conditions of public health facilities in Nigeria??," said a twitter user.
"Our country currently has a deficit of about 248,572 Doctors, but Ngige said we have surplus, that is why we are exporting. A medical Doctor recently slumped and died at UBTH cos he overworked himself. Our teaching hospitals are crying for Doctors and Nurses," Ogbeni Lawrence said.
'Brain Drain' - Back Story
The movement of skilled workers internationally represents 'brain gain' for the countries that reap their skills and experience and 'brain drain' for their countries of origin.
PREMIUM TIMES reported last year that there has been a massive brain drain in the Nigeria health sector as doctors leave the country in droves.
It is estimated that at least 12 Nigerian doctors leave the shores of this country to practice overseas, weekly.
Statistics from General Medical Council (GMC) UK, as at July 2017 revealed that over 4,765 Nigerian doctors are working in the UK. This is 1.7 per cent of the total of the UK's medical workforce.
While brain gain represents migration of intellectuals from other countries, health experts say the return of Nigerian doctors practicing abroad should be considered a brain gain for the country.
During the scientific conference of the Association of Resident Doctors in 2018 on ending 'brain drain', Edward Ogundaye, a health entrepreneur and activist, said more attention should rather be paid on curbing the trend of health experts leaving the country.
A poll conducted in August 2017 by the Nigerian Polling Organisation, (NOI) in partnership with Nigeria Health Watch found that for over 90 per cent of medical doctors intend to seek employment opportunities abroad because of low job satisfaction, poor remuneration and high deductibles from their salaries.