Nigeria’s beleaguered health sector seems set for another indeterminate period of forced and painful paralysis as the Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) directed its members in all federal health institutions across the country to commence an indefinite strike as from midnight on Tuesday. The negative implications of this strike for large numbers of Nigerians seeking medical attention will certainly be severe given the range of health professionals involved. Member unions of JOHESU include the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN), National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNMW), Senior Staff Association of Universities, Teaching Hospitals, Research Institutes and Associated Institutions (SSAUTHRIAI), Nigeria Union of Allied Health Professionals (NUAHP) as well as Non Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutes (NASU).
That the contentious issues were not resolved and the strike ultimatum given by the workers averted does not suggest to us sufficient seriousness, diligence and commitment particularly on the part of government. JOHESU had called off a nationwide strike on September 30, 2017, following the signing of a memorandum of terms of settlement between the union and the Federal Government.
Details of the pact mutually entered into by the parties included upward adjustment of the Consolidated Health Employees Salary Structure (CONHESS), payment of agreed CONHESS promotion arrears, employment of additional health professionals, implementation of specified court judgments as well as upward review of retirement age from 60 to 65 years. The agreements were reportedly to be implemented within five weeks.
It is difficult to blame JOHESU if its members became restive when the government was yet to act on the agreement six months after the suspension of its strike. The union thus understandably gave a 21-day notice of the intention to resume its strike if the memorandum of terms of settlement remained comatose. On the expiration of this deadline, JOHESU, on March 5, 2018, alerted the Federal Government of its intention to commence another nationwide strike if its demands remained unmet after an additional 30 working days. There was thus sufficient time for action to have been taken by the relevant authorities to render the strike unnecessary.
We cannot discount the possibility that government genuinely does not have the resources to implement the agreement reached with JOHESU. In that case, it should simply have transparently put all its cards on the table while giving the general public adequate information on the issues involved. Being truthful with the unions as regards its capacity or otherwise to meet their demands enhances the credibility of government far better than hastily signing agreements that it is fiscally incapacitated to actualise. But then, given the well-known scandalous level of waste and looting of public resources by those in positions of authority, it is virtually impossible for government to convince aggrieved labour unions that it does not have the resources to meet their demands.
Dissociating doctors and dentists from the strike that it perceives as being targeted at its members, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), described JOHESU as an illegal body and warned government against acceding to the body’s demands. This disharmony among critical health professionals is indicative of the utter disarray in the country’s health sector and the need for holistic and far reaching measures to address its challenges, particularly those of staff welfare and adequate facilities.
Unfortunately, our complacent elite who have the means to access the best medical care across the world cannot be expected to give a damn about the pathetic state of healthcare in the country. It is the millions of ordinary Nigerians that bear the brunt. And it is for the sake of these helpless citizens who cannot hop on the next flight for medical care abroad, that we urge the health authorities to put on their thinking caps and resolve this dispute expeditiously.