A recent crackdown on doctors in Nigeria is symptomatic of a wider state attack on the working class.
The recent mass sacking of over 788 medical doctors by the Raji Fashola/ACN-led Lagos state government clearly underlines the high level of contempt which pro-free market ruling elites in Nigeria of all shades hold for the poor and working masses. In order to break the fighting spirit of the doctors, the government went ahead, in an action reminiscent of military jackboot absolutism, in ejecting the doctors from their quarters – an action that runs contrary to government’s own tenancy law. This action of the Fashola government is a direct affront to the working and poor people, who have borne all the anti-poor, pro-rich policies of the Fashola government and its big brother, the Federal/PDP government.
Consequently, all genuinely progressive forces, including the labour movement, pro-labour organizations, civil society groups and other professional groups must intervene in the current struggle of doctors in Lagos State. This is not the struggle of the doctors alone, but indeed that of the soul of social service. If the Lagos state government is allowed to have its way, aside from this opening of the floodgate for a massive onslaught on the working and poor people, it will definitely lead to collapse of the health service, which is already in a precarious state in Lagos State, while engendering brain drain and further destruction of social service across the country.
Merely looking at health statistics in Lagos State alone will reveal the shameful character of Nigeria’s ruling elite, in particular the Fashola/ACN government. The total population of public sector medical doctors is around 800. If we add an extra 700 private practitioners and those on federal government employment, then there are around 1,500 medical doctors in the state. Given the average population of 15 million, this will mean a doctor to more than 10,000 persons. This is ten times the WHO average. We should not even mention other comparative statistics like the number of medical beds. Thus, when a supposedly progressive government embarks on mass sacking of doctors, not because they committed murder, but for seeking a modest improvement in their circumstances; then we should start to examine many things about governance in Nigeria.
The government and its town criers in the media have premised this ignoble action on the so-called flouting of the Hippocratic Oath of the medical profession. But for a government that claims to be ‘guided’ by rule of law (please read rule of pocket), one expects it to refer such to the appropriate professional regulatory bodies to decide on or go to court; and not to turn itself into the accuser and the judge at the same time. In the real sense, this is just a pretense, the reality is that the Fashola/ACN administration aims to divert public funds away from public use for the pecuniary interests of the ruling cabal in power. It is the hypocritical government officials and politicians, who continue to line their pockets with public resources, who are making the provision of safe public health a mirage in the country. It is on record that the doctors have used all known administrative, friendly, and even conciliatory means to resolve the issue for the past two years, but the Fashola/ACN government has always met these initiatives with threats and brutal repression. One of this is the sacking of the leader of the Medical Guild two years ago and physical repression of other members of the guild. Thus, it is highly hypocritical for anybody to claim that workers have no right to use all democratic and civil means at their disposal to protect their welfare and interests against the recalcitrant and irresponsible ruling elite.
According to the Medical Guild, what they were simply asking for was the reversal of the obnoxious and undemocratic demotion of its members under the guise of paying salaries. This means that the majority of the doctors will see as much as a four-year demotion, with the government’s contemptuous and treacherous implementation of the wage scale for medical doctors. Correcting this will only cost the state around N10 million a month, a tiny fraction of what the state spend on frivolities such as salaries and emoluments of political officers, shows, festivals and wasteful spending on shindigs of party bigwigs.
The other demand is the payment of teaching allowances for medical personnel on house jobs. These are graduates, who undertake work in hospitals, but are paid like casuals. While it is true that they are learning through such processes, the reality is that based on the collapse of the health infrastructures and the huge deficit in medical personnel as highlighted above, these young minds have become the casualty of the irresponsibility of the political class in uplifting health infrastructures. This has made the working environment frustrating for upcoming doctors. It is only just for a responsible government to remunerate these young professionals adequately, at least if only to mitigate the huge brain drain in the system. It is a known fact that past governments, despite earning lesser revenue than current governments, utilized incentives like bursaries, scholarships and improved allowances to attract more people to professions that are vital to society.
The excuse that state government cannot be stampeded to pay a wage policy of the federal government is most cynical. Why has the same principle not applied to the salaries of public and political office holders in Lagos State, who are consuming the same obnoxious and fraudulent emoluments as their federal colleagues? How can this set of people claim that workers who do most of the work for which they get the credit should not demand a minimal improvement in their conditions? The excuse that there will not be enough resources for development if workers are adequately remunerated is blatant falsehood. In the real sense, the so-called development is elite oriented. For instance, the so-called road construction projects of the Fashola government have been at best one-sided.
While some roads are constructed, the fact is that, on the basis of the fraudulent contract system that ensures multiple inflation of contracts, such projects do not correspond with the huge wealth at the disposal of the state for the past five years (over N3 trillion). In addition, the projects are lopsided, with most of the community and local roads abandoned by the state and local governments.
Aside from this is the bankrupt concession/public-private partnership policy which hands over public properties and infrastructures procured with public funds to private big business to make huge profits. The Lekki-Epe toll road and the BRT projects are immediate examples. Take the housing policy; it is the same fraud: building public housing that an average worker cannot dream of purchasing in years, which are then handed over to middlemen and bankers, at public expense.
We have also seen the bankruptcy of the Fashola government in the education sector. The story of Lagos State University (LASU), the only state owned university, where fees were hiked by over 750 per cent is still fresh. For several months, the academic staff in the institution had to take on the state government for a minimal increase in their wages, leading to closure of the campus. The recently displayed media picture showing the Lagos state governor, Raji Fashola, casting a vote at a dilapidated public primary school depicts clearly the manner of ‘education reform’ the government is undertaking.
Therefore, the current attack on medical doctors for demanding proper implementation of the agreement is part of the holistic policy of the Fashola/ACN government to undercut funding for social and public services with a view to handing the resources to a handful of big businesses and party bigwigs. One of the ways of achieving this is by attacking strong sections of the organized working class.
While leaderships of most of the workers’ unions have been cowed or bought over, the Lagos State government feels that it can isolate leaderships of some unions that stand up to it in order to prevent others from waking up. If this attack is successful, it will embolden the Fashola/ACN government to launch a full-scale onslaught on workers and poor people. This will not be limited to Lagos state but will cut across all the states of the federation, as governors are competing vigorously in setting the pace for anti-poor, anti-worker policies. Indeed, there is no fundamental difference among the ruling pro-big business political parties (PDP, ACN, CPC, LP, APGA, etc). They are all anti-poor and corrupt.
The Medical Guild in Lagos State, while it must be commended for its steadfastness, must take the struggle beyond the realm of a mere administrative strike; they must engage the state government in direct social struggle. This will mean a mass campaign amongst the masses of Lagos through educative materials and mass rallies (in conjunction with genuine pro-labour and labour activists). This should also link the struggle with a call for massive improvement in health facilities in the state. For instance, from a conservative estimate, committing two billion naira to the health sector in the state will employ and pay annual salaries of over 200 new medical doctors and over 400 medical staff. An extra one billion naira, if judiciously utilized, will expand health infrastructures (more hospital beds, functional hospitals, etc). This is merely three billion naira, which is less than 15 per cent of Lagos monthly revenue. If the Fashola government had done this in the past five years, the health system in Lagos would not be in its current mess.
Moreover, the Medical Guild and NMA must also reach out to other unions in the state, especially in-house unions in the health sector. A newspaper recently reported a plan by other medical workers in the employment of the state government to embark on strike over non-implementation of CONHESS – the health workers’ salary scale. Also, federal government health workers in the state are currently on strike. These struggles need to be coordinated, especially among state employed health workers and medical doctors. This is vital in order to avoid the divide-and-rule policy of the Lagos state government. Quoting one the leaders of the Medical and Health Workers’ Union (MHWUN), Mr. Rashid Bamishe in an interview:
‘Nobody should see our action as sympathy to doctors’ strike. We have issues that are known to the world, and which even the doctors are aware of. But they (doctors) have not included our issue in their strike. How will anybody think of sympathy?’ (Guardian, May 12, 2012).
This is unfortunate. Agreed that the leaders of the Medical Guild did not include other health workers’ demands; that is not enough reason to try to isolate the medical doctors. The proper thing for the health workers’ union leaders is to, while fighting for their own demands, show solidarity with the medical doctors. More than this, they should have called for joint action of the unions to win collectively.
The Medical Guild and the NMA should also raise the demands of other health workers. While the doctors were correct to have issued educative materials on May Day, they need to take this forward by openly calling on the generality of workers and the poor in the state to intervene in order to save public health, which the Fashola/ACN government does not care a hoot about. It is unfortunate that the labour unions, especially the leaders of labour centres, have kept their lips sealed. Working class activists and ordinary workers must compel them to act in the long term interests of workers and the poor in the state, who have been at the receiving end of the Fashola government’s irresponsibility.
Ultimately, what the Fashola government has displayed is a reflection of the cynical attitude of Nigeria’s retrogressive, pro-rich and anti-poor capitalist political class, to the welfare of working and poor people. What the Fashola/ACN government is doing is no different from the anti-poor policies of the PDP and other ruling parties in Nigeria. It is thus no accident that most of the bourgeois political parties at best kept their lips sealed. The ranting of the PDP has nothing to do with the party being pro-poor, but is a mere opportunistic attempt to gain from the political backlash against the Fashola government, as the PDP, wherever it holds the reins of power implements the same, if not, worse policies. The basic reason why all these parties undertake these anti-poor policies is that they represent the class of the rich and the exploiters. The more they spend on working and poor people, the lesser the wealth they have to loot. Yet, the working and poor people continue to vote for them every four years, as if there is no alternative.
This underlines the fundamental task before the working and poor people in Nigeria – the building of an alternative political platform, run and controlled by the working and poor people, with the sole aim of committing public resources to public services and infrastructure. This will mean putting the huge natural, mineral and monetary resources of the country under the democratic control and management of the working people -organized from the factories, workplaces, grassroots and communities to the national level. This will mean public officers will earn the salaries of average skilled workers and their family members will utilize public facilities like every other citizen. This is the only way to end the regime of gangsters in power. The working people at all levels must put pressure on their union leaders to take this road.