Minister protecting medical doctors’ interests, discriminating against others – JOHESU vice-chair

In this interview with LARA ADEJORO, the National Vice Chairman of the Joint Health Sector Unions and National President of the Nigerian Union of Allied Healthcare Professionals, Dr Obinna Ogbonna, speaks about the indefinite strike embarked on by members of the unions and other related issues

Why did you embark on an indefinite strike after your ultimatum expired when you could have considered a warning strike, especially now that there is an incoming government?

According to the process of engagements and industrial relations as enshrined in the Labour Act, and the National Health Bill, those of us who are essential service providers are given the latitude to inform our employer whenever we have any form of grievance that may result in industrial disharmony that we should give a mandatory 15-day ultimatum and that ultimatum is to allow our employer to rally round and discuss the issues that are causing the grievances. The law also stipulated that if the 15-day window of opportunity expires, we are entitled to go ahead with our industrial action. We followed the rules and we engaged the government in the past, we gave notices and ultimatums, and we had gone on a warning strike, but we decided to go on an indefinite strike because we have been on these issues for a very long time. Since 2014, up to this moment, the flagship demand which is the adjustment of our Consolidated Health Salary Structure has been in abeyance. The technical committee set up in 2021 submitted its report to the Federal Ministry of Health and it was in the position of the FMoH to take the report to the Federal Executive Council for the President’s approval so that the adjusted CONHESS can be done, and there will be peace in the health sector. But little did we know that the Minister of Health, Dr Osagie Ehanire showed a lot of discriminatory attitude toward those of us who are health professionals but are non-physicians. He kept that document and when we reported back to the Chief Conciliator, Dr Chris Ngige. On his prompting, the Minister of Health later replied to us through a letter dated May 3, 2023, that the reason he refused to take the technical report to the President for assent is that if that is done, it will distort what he called relativity.

Why are you opposed to the minister?

The minister being a physician is invariably protecting the interest of his constituency as against the interest of the general health workers. It was also stated in his letter that the period we are in now is not a good time to talk about the upward review of salary because the economy cannot carry it. When we got the letter, we had to respond appropriately and lay credence to our suspicion, and establish our discriminatory attitude from him towards us. When the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors went on a warning strike, within two days, the government called them for negotiation and reached an agreement that their CONMESS which had been adjusted two or three times before now will also be given an upward review of 25 per cent while ours is still hanging for about nine and half years without any positive response. That infuriated our members and there was a National Executive Council meeting that took place on May 8 and 9 and that was where the decision was taken that the ultimatum should be served and it should start counting from May 10, and if at the end of the ultimatum. Tracing the matter to September 2017, when we had a collective bargaining agreement, it was stated that CONHESS should be adjusted and we should go back to our mother ministry and let it be done. So, because of the discrimination in the sector, our members became agitated and declared that we go for an indefinite strike action. Considering that a new government is just coming up, they decided that we should not wait till the President-elect’s tenure begins because if we serve an ultimatum when he gets into power and start industrial action, people may misconstrue it as if we are antagonistic or as if we are attacking his government. The NEC decided that the strike should begin in President Muhammadu Buhari’s era since he is the one that has not done our bidding, and if he refuses, these few days that remain for him to take action over the matter and receive the glory, let it be that the incoming government will inherit both the liability and the asset.

We are very mindful of the mood of the nation but we were pushed to the wall and we looked at it strategically since the technical report is ready and the President (Buhari) in the last FEC meeting reassured Nigerians that the ministers are still in charge and contracts should be approved until May 29, when they will hand over. With that spirit, we believe that if they can borrow money and award contracts at the wee hour of leaving, then the willpower should be there to meet the needs of the masses.

Have you had any meetings with the government to ensure that your demands are met?

On Thursday, the Federal Government fixed a meeting when the declaration of the strike was pronounced, we had an urgent meeting with the FMoH at about 1 pm. We honoured the invitation and when we got to the meeting, we discovered that all the people, except the people from the National Salaries Incomes And Wages Commission, were from the FMoH. The Minister who had already taken a position that it is impossible for us to be given the adjusted CONHESS, was the one who presided over the meeting. We had to tell him that he is an interested party in this matter and for the ministry to have allowed us to declare a strike; that according to Labour Law, there is a trade dispute already. If a trade dispute is declared, an interested party should not be the one to preside over the matter anymore, because you cannot be a judge in your own matter. He agreed with us and said the matter would be taken over by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment, who will be the conciliator so that the matter will go unfiltered and dispassionately.

The meeting was adjourned till this week but no date has been fixed yet due to the mood of the nation and the inaugural process. We have also written that the FMoH should not bring any physicians to join us in the meeting because they are already biased.

Why has the issue of the withheld salaries of your members in FMC, Owerri, JUTH, and LUTH lingered for long?

It is also the ploy of the government to continue to discredit those who want to be truthful and sincere. When the government of President Buhari came into power, he advocated a corrupt-free environment and a whistle-blowing agenda. So, at the FMC Owerri in 2015-2016, there was a corrupt allegation that was later confirmed, and our members blew the whistle, and because they went on strike as a result of that, the FMoH wrote that they should not be paid. Instead of punishing the Chief Medical Director there, they only transferred her. Meanwhile, our people lost their promotions, and their four months’ salaries were withheld. That is why we are recasting it because an injustice to one is an injustice to all. They should pay them their salaries, it is their right.

What happens if the government does nothing concrete to meet your demands?

It is our prayer that the government should be sensitive to the plights of the citizens, withdrawing healthcare services is not a welcome development at all. No sensitive government should allow her health workforce to down tool for any reason. We believe the government will call us for negotiations and meet us, at least, midway. If we are met midway, we will take whatever we get back to the expanded NEC, and whatever the council determines is what we are going to carry out.

As I speak with you, the compliance rate of the strike is tickling up by the day. We are getting feelers that many federal health institutions in Nigeria are complying totally. This means that an average poor Nigerian who may not have the financial capacity to go for treatment in private health facilities or go for medical tourism will be at our mercy and that is not the best for anybody. We want to plead with Nigerians to prevail on the President to resolve this matter.

Your request for an increase in retirement age has been trailed with mixed reactions because they say there are young ones who can handle the jobs. What do you say to this?

In the last five years, 75,000 nurses have left the country. 7,000 pharmacists have left Nigeria in the last five years. Between last year and now, 3,450 medical lab scientists have left, and about 300 dietitians have left. Physiotherapists are few in Nigeria, yet about 1,200 of them have left. There are only 5,000 radiographers in this nation, yet 1,350 of them have left the country. The danger is that it is those experienced, skilful professionals that are leaving. When the most experienced leave, who will train the young ones? That is why we are projecting that at age 60, nobody will want to travel out of the country among the experienced people. If they can add five more years, they will be able to serve as mentors to the young ones. Though, It is not compulsory if you know that your strength cannot carry you.

What is your assessment of the health sector under the outgoing President?

The good part is that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government got some of the infrastructure and equipment. Another good thing is they have increased our hazard allowance and it is manageable now. The bad part is that the health sector in Nigeria is underfunded against the 2001 Abuja declaration that 15 per cent of the budgetary allocation should be committed to health, but Nigeria is in the range of 4.5 per cent to at most six per cent. The ugly aspect is that we do not value healthcare professionals. The Bola Ahmed government should look at the structural and infrastructural decay in the health sector. There should be an overhauling of the health ministry.

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