The decision by Governor Babatunde Raji Fashola to accept responsibility for the face-off between the Lagos State Government and the state Medical Guild represents a rare lesson in good leadership values. Both the state government and the striking doctors said they had reached a “considerable agreement” over a number of issues that led to the strike. Apart from the assurance that none of the doctors that participated in the strike action, especially the Guild leaders, will be victimised on account of the industrial dispute, the government has also promised to implement the approved welfare package for health workers in the state in the shortest possible time-latest by June 2009.
The two parties reached the agreement after the intervention of some respected Nigerians. For more than a week, the strike action paralysed activities in Lagos hospitals, disrupting the provision of health services. While the strike lasted, patients in critical conditions, including those awaiting urgent surgical operations, were left to their fate. The medical union’s resolution to suspend its seven-day- long strike action is therefore a welcome development.
The doctors had initially embarked on the strike action in January to demand the full implementation of the consolidated salary structure for the medical practitioners in the state, which they claimed their counterparts in other parts of the country were already enjoying. The Guild also wanted the various state-owned hospitals and maternities to be better equipped.
But, the union had similarly suspended the industrial dispute after some notable individuals had stepped in. It had then given the state government a 90-day ultimatum to implement their demands.
For the latest strike, the union alleged that its Chairman, Dr. Ibrahim Olaifa, was sacked by the Health Service Commission for granting a press interview in January, while the Guild’s Secretary General, Dr. M. Olaiwola Agara, was also issued a query for speaking to the press. Agara was alleged to have been seriously brutalised and subsequently hospitalised while trying to mobilise Guild members for the strike.
The state Commissioner for Health, Dr. Jide Idris, however, complained that some of the Guild’s leaders were fuelling disunity among doctors. Idris said that there was a split among members of the Guild, as well as the members of the Nigerian Medical Association, which he said was a clear indication that not all the members of both groups were interested in the strike. Those who were ready to work, the government reasoned, should not have been prevented from doing so by a few angry protesters.
Unfortunately, the state government mismanaged the dispute by resorting to high-handedness in treating the doctors’ demands. Admittedly, health services are too essential to be politicised, or subjected to the whim of a group of perpetual protesters. Medicine is a calling whose practitioners should be sober and be ready to make sacrifices in the service of humanity. No remuneration package is big enough to compensate the doctors. Though everybody, including the doctors, is entitled to peaceful protests, medical practitioners must at all times respect and observe their Hippocratic Oath. A life lost during a strike can never be brought back.
The government on its own part should refrain from pushing the doctors to the wall. The fact that they are highly trained and responsible people who always want to exercise restraint during conflicts with their employers should not be exploited to deny them good pay and conducive work environment. At a time when brain drain has depleted the nation’s medical workforce, the Lagos State Government must note that highly skilled and experienced people such as doctors are not easy to replace.
In view of medical doctors’ strategic role in the society, it is imperative that all the stakeholders within the health care delivery system should ensure that the dispute is permanently resolved.
The government of Mr. Raji Fashola should, therefore, set the pace again by providing a condition of service that is capable of attracting and retaining doctors. Considering the high cost of living in Lagos, doctors in the state should even earn more than their counterparts in other parts of the country. A well-motivated workforce is crucial to the implementation of the government’s laudable health programme.