The perennial industrial disagreement between the Federal Government and the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) has continued to be both a national and an international embarrassment to Nigeria, a nation blessed with innumerable human and material resources. While the demands of NARD are germane and legitimate, one wonders why the government seems to be playing the ostrich. It is a shame that in an age when more serious nations are placing very high premium on healthcare, Nigerian doctors are still bemoaning their fate, in terms of salary, insurance benefits and facilities.
Coming at a time when the country is facing the threat of a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is very unfortunate that government has allowed the situation to get out of hand, as many patients are now stranded in government hospitals. The threat is fatal owing to the fact that those with terminal illnesses may not survive the imbroglio. Government needs to urgently do the needful and deploy persuasive rather than coercive tones in discussing with the aggrieved doctors.
The Minister of Labour, Dr Chris Ngige has not stopped pitching tent with his employers, the federal government of Nigeria, in terms of reasoning and attitude to the very important matter. He has always supported the government, making it look as if NARD is making outrageous demands whereas what they are asking for are things that are automatically granted in more organised climes of the world. His utterances concerning the matter suggest that he either does not understand the plight of resident doctors or he is just trying to massage government’s ego.
During a recent event, Ngige had chided the striking doctors for misusing the power given to them by God while lamenting the dangerous situation that the health sector is currently experiencing. He said: “At no time in the history of NMA and the medical association was I seeing our association and our profession ever being in danger as I am seeing them now. Many people will not see it, but from where I am sitting and standing, I can see danger ahead. We are one of the oldest professions on earth, metamorphosing from natural and traditional healers to take away pain from people and consequentially save lives. We don’t create lives, God creates. We only preserve people’s lives through the act of God. In doing so, God has given us some powers.”
He added that “…there is something God does not want. God does not want when He gives you powers and you use it to try to say that you are like Him or you are competing with Him. God loves you to do that which He has asked you to do; to use that power with humility.”
Interestingly, in a recent television interview, Ngige claimed that the conditions of service of Nigerian doctors were among the best in the world – a claim that got even the presenter rattled. If Ngige’s claim was true, why then was President Buhari receiving medical attention in London, as of the time of that interview he had with a leading national television? Many argued that it is embarrassing for Buhari to be flying overseas for treatment, when he had told Nigerians he was going to transform the health sector. Six years after, doctors are still crying for basic necessities.
The prevailing circumstances in the country, in respect of the demands of resident doctors, have since become a recurring trend. Each time there is an industrial action by any aggrieved sector, government, rather than being sincere and facing the core issues, always adopts a defensive approach. The Minister of Health who is also a medical doctor should have known better and would have been the champion of the cause of the striking doctors but he has chosen not to “offend” his employers.
Issues such as good conditions of service are universally sacrosanct privileges enjoyed by doctors who are saddled with the arduous task of safe-guarding the health of the public. Unfortunately, for reasons known to successive governments in Nigeria, investing adequately in the health sector has been a problem. It is a sad paradox that a country blessed with oil wealth cannot attend to the professional needs of its doctors.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, NARD has lost many of its members who were on the frontline of duty. It is sickening that most of the bereaved families have not received any benefits in terms of insurance. According to the National President of NARD, Dr Okhuaihesuyi Uyilawa, the federal government has not been forthright in its approach to the crisis on ground. While apologising to Nigerians for not being there to attend to their medical needs, he blamed government’s failure to honour reached agreements as the main cause of the industrial crisis.
The body of resident doctors had embarked on industrial action in April – a development that led to the scarcity of expert medical care across many government hospitals in the country. Even though they suspended the action 10 days later, after a virtual meeting with members which lasted about 15 hours on April 10, the damage their action caused cannot be quantified in monetary terms. But were they to be blamed?
Bone of contention
Some of the issues raised by the medical practitioners included the immediate payment of all salaries owed to all house officers, including March salaries (regardless of quota system) before the end of business on 31 March. They also demanded an upward review of the hazard allowance to 50 per cent of consolidated basic salaries of all health workers and payment of the outstanding COVID-19 inducement allowance, especially in state-owned-tertiary Institutions.
The doctors also clamoured for the abolishment of the exorbitant bench fees being paid by their members on outside postings in all training institutions across the country. Appearing to be sympathetic to their cause, government made promises that facilitated the suspension of the April strike, only for it to renege on them, leaving the doctors with no other option but embarking on another strike.
On why the on-going strike became inevitable, Uyilawa said: “You can recall we had a memorandum of action on 31 March, 2021, and had an addendum to it on 9 April, and since then, we still have had irregularities in the payment of salaries to the house officers. We had issues with them being non-regular payment and as part of the memorandum of action, it was said that they should be captured back into the IPPS platform.
“You are aware that we lost 19 members to COVID-19 and death in service insurance was supposed to be paid to their next of kin. The last time we met the Minister of Labour and the Minister of Health, we were told that our members were part of those to be given the insurance benefit, but we found out that their names were not even there.”
As of the time of writing this piece, the federal government had dragged NARD to an industrial court, seeking arbitration on the matter. Senator Chris Ngige, through a document sent to the court, said: “Whereas, trade dispute has arisen and now exists between the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors and the Federal Ministry of Health/Federal Government and whereas, efforts to promote settlement through conciliation were on-going but had now failed.
“And considering the facts that members of NARD, who are classified as essential services workers/employees had embarked on strike on Monday, August 2, 2021, over the issues under conciliation, contrary to the provisions of section 18 of the Trade Disputes Act CAP T8, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (LFN) 2004, after attending a Conciliation and Agreement Review meeting on July 22, 2021, and further considering that the Federal Ministry of Health claims to have and produced evidence to have met most of their demands based on the various Memorandum of Action reached during past conciliations especially that of July 22, 2021.
Now, therefore, I, Senator Dr Chris Nwabueze Ngige, the Minister of Labour and Employment, in the exercise of the powers conferred on me by section 17 of the Trades Disputes Act, CAP T8 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, hereby refer the matter for consideration, and the issues in dispute to the National Industrial Court of Nigeria for adjudication.”
While awaiting the decision of the court, come 15 September – as adjourned – the federal government must unconditionally grant the demands of the doctors, especially bearing in mind the fact that COVID-19 is still firing on all cylinders. Without the doctors, Nigerians would be in unimaginable peril!