The federal government has been criticized, in some quarters, for the recent sacking of 16,ooo doctors on its employ who have been on a nationwide strike since July 1, this year. Their dismissal, personally ordered by President Goodluck Jonathan, came after talks to agree terms with the striking doctors under the aegis of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) collapsed). Besides, the government announced it was ending the residency training of doctors. Much of the criticism, surprisingly, has come from the striking doctors themselves who had vowed to risk the sack if it came to that.
The doctors advanced over 20 reasons for embarking on the strike which, tragically, came at the same time as Nigeria recorded its first fatalities from the deadly Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), necessitating the government to declare an Ebola Emergency and a N1.9bn contingency budget towards its containment. The reasons for the strike, as given by the NMA in a June 11 open letter to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), were 24 in number. Entitled “Facing the Challenges in the Health Sector”, the reasons centred on mainly self- interest. These included the implementation of a January 3, 2014 circular on pay increase and the payment of 22-month pay arrears as well as an increase in doctors’ salaries.
Others were: “correction of entry point of a health officer to CONMESS 1 Step 4 as originally contained in MSS/ MSSS while the Registrar/ Medical officer is moved to CONMESS 3 Step 3; call duty allowance for Honorary Consultants should be increased by 90 per cent; an adjustment in the specialist allowance as contained in the 2009 collective bargaining agreement; all doctors on CONMESS 3 and above must be paid specialist allowance or its equivalent, not less than 50 per cent higher than what is paid to other health workers.
“Hazard allowance for medical doctors must be at least N100, 000 per month. The hazard allowance for medical doctors is said to be at N5, 000 per month presently; immediate release of the circular on rural posting, teaching and other allowances which must include house officers; and an immediate withdrawal of a circular by the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN authorizing Medical Laboratory Science Council of Nigeria, MLSCN to approve licenses for importation of In-Vitro Diagnostics, IVDs.”
It is, therefore, understandable why the strike received little public support. It is all about the doctors’ welfare improvement and little said about the “challenges in the health sector”. Not that the government is faultless. Indeed, its funding of the health sector has been dwindling over the years. Over 20 years after late Head of State, Gen. Sani Abacha, in a coup broadcast described public hospitals as no more than “consulting clinics”, the situation has not improved at all. Poor funding led to another problem: the burgeoning of private practice. This, in turn, led to theft of public hospital drugs, equipment and other supplies by government-employed senior doctors.
But the point at which the doctors finally lost the battle of wits against the government was in July when the “importation” of Ebola into this country was announced by the government which appealed passionately to the striking doctors to suspend the industrial action and enlist in the national campaign to contain the epidemic. The doctors’ adamancy so embarrassed the NMApresident, Dr. Kayode Obembe, that, on August 9, he tendered his resignation. He described a continuation of the strike as a “deception” that did not sit well with “my integrity and honour”.
This said, we do believe the federal government, having won the battle for the minds of most Nigerians, should have stopped there. Dismissing the doctors, stopping their pay and terminating residency training was wrong. Two wrongs do not make a right, they say. Dialogue with the doctors should be restarted to bring them all on board in the fight against Ebola which, the WHO has warned, might take another six months to contain.