Following the 50-day old doctors strike which has been on since July 1, the Federal Government, on August 13, issued a circular for the suspension of resident training and the sack of 16,000 resident doctors in teaching hospitals across the country. In this interview with FRANKA OSAKWE, the President, Association of Resident Doctors (ARD) Lagos chapter, Dr. Olubunmi Omojowolo, bares his mind on the issue. Excepts:
JOHESU had in the past accused government of tilting towards doctors’ demands. So the sack of 16,000 resident doctors came as a big shock to many considering the notion that government favours doctors above the other health workers. Why do you think the government took the decision?
The sack is totally uncalled for. It is retrogressive and not in the best interest of Nigerians. Irrespective of whatever issues, I believe that sacking of 16,000 resident doctors is not the solution. The rivalry between health workers is not peculiar to Nigeria, it happens all over the world and a lot of country have undergone this stage in their metamorphoses and solutions have been found, so I believe that the Federal government rather than being draconian should look for an amicable way to solve the issue. As am talking to you, JOHESU has already issued a letter to Federal government that they will start their own strike on the 29th of August, so the issue is not doctors versus JOHESU now; it’s about government taking an action that contravenes the law.
According to the Federal Government, the strike was necessitated because doctors have refused to resume work despite the fact that government had met up to 90 per cent of their demands and considering the national emergency of Ebola crises. Do you agree?
Let me tell you that the government and its agent, they are very good at propaganda. Why can’t the minister of health tell you those 90 percent that was met and let us see and analyze them one after the other. The truth is that doctors are not satisfied with the reaction from Federal government and that is why the strike has been going on up till now. If the government had done enough that is reasonable, this strike would have been suspended. Many of the 24 demands have not been clearly resolved. Yes there are some that have been resolved, like for instance the issue of template on residency training which some of us have been fighting for long, the issue of tenure of residency training has largely been resolved but funding and restructure of resident training has not been resolved. The issue of consultancy status, issue of position of the CMD, the issue of deputy CMAC, the issue of universal health coverage, issue of skipping, IPPIS, none of these have been resolved. So let federal government come and tell us how they resolved these issues. The circular they said they have released are contradictory so I think the only solution is for the federal government to call a stake holders meeting of all the health sectors, let them come with their facts and figures and let them determine, which system we going to follow; is it the British system, Indian or American.
But I thought we already have a committee, the Yayale Ahmed Committee that is addressing this issue?
The Yayale Committee is already politicized. There is low funding for this committee and the man has complained bitterly so many times. I believe strongly that we don’t need any committee, what we need is a stakeholder’s conference involving all the health sectors. They can then get a non health worker to act as umpire in an unbiased manner. Let me also say that regarding the issue of consultancy, the truth is that other health workers are consultants in the UK, US, and other places, but this is just in the private hospitals. They don’t work in the teaching hospitals, and that is where the difference is. Anybody can call himself a consultant, but when it comes to a teaching hospital, the word consultant is sacrosanct and clearly defined, in terms of responsibility.
Back to your question, this strike was declared by NMA, which comprises of house officers, emeritus professors of medicine, consultants, resident doctors and others. Why did the Federal Government single out resident doctors for sack?
Yes, this is rather baffling. Why do you think the Federal Government sacked resident doctors alone?
Now, in a teaching hospital, the resident doctors constitute the major work force, they are the most vital and most important, if you go to any teaching hospital, the doctors that will likely attend to you first are the resident doctors, they work with the consultants. Their work also include training medical students, apart from that, they deliver specialized care so the implication of this sack is very grievous to the health sector in Nigeria. Already we are short of specialist doctors in Nigeria, in a country of 170 million people; we have less than 3,000 specialists. I would refer us back to 1985 when this same move was initiated by the then Buhari administration, it led to massive brain drain and exodus of Nigerian doctors to other countries. As of now, there are 25,000 Nigerian doctors in the United States of America and over 4,000 in Britain. This action, in the next few months will also lead to brain drain, even if government decide to recall doctors, some of us have already made up our mind to leave this country. The federal government and its agent have money to travel out for medical treatment, so they don’t really care about good health care for the masses.
But the resident doctors and their colleagues in public hospitals have already abandoned the masses by going on strike?
Now I understand the fact that resident doctors are on strike and it is understandable that nobody will like the fact that doctors are on strike but NMA has been pushed to the wall. Apart from the 3-day warning strike that was done January this year, the last time NMA went on strike was 20 years ago. So I think the best option for government is to rescind this action on time so as to forestall disaster.
The NMA national chairman, Dr. Obembe once reached an agreement with the Federal Government to call off the strike but the association refused. Do you think the doctors are united in this struggle?
The president of NMA did not unilaterally declare a strike so he cannot unilaterally call off the strike. He first paraded the call off with the minister of health when the strike was not even called off. He came in like a draconian dictator; he did not allow us to deliberate. Now the issue is that no one wants the strike to be prolonged, if the NMA president had handled it well, we probably could have called it off by now. People were infuriated by his approach of dictatorship; however, in terms of division among doctors, there is no division. Dr. Obembe is still the president of NMA, as at last week, they had a rally in Abuja. However, I can say that we have different cadres of doctors with everyone pursuing their own interest but that does not mean we are divided. We all come together under one body (NMA) to take a stand, and we have made our decision.