When two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. So goes the received wisdom.

Note:  grass “suffers” not “dies”. But when two Honorable Ministers of Health (both which almost by design are Doctors!) disagree (as they often do!) with some 16,000 Resident Trainee Doctors, the Nation agonizes, counting dead bodies.

According to the Honorable Health Minister, Nigeria has lost more lives to the ongoing round of strikes by the doctors than the ruthless ubiquitous deadly opportunistic Covid: 19 with its new notorious Delta variant. As strike by Resident Doctors enters second week, it’s time for immediate talk by all parties to address all issues in dispute. In doing so, some time tested principles of industrial relations must be reaffirmed for all stakeholders in the health sector. First is the realization that industrial or work relations is relations between humans (in this case, doctors and relevant health authority chieftains) to advance the welfare of striking Doctors and invariably the wellbeing of Nigerians through good health service delivery by motivated Doctors.  

Mohammed bin Rashidi Al Maktoum, the Vice President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and constitutional monarch of Dubai observed (and I agree with him) that; “Human beings are the most precious assets of all nations and the most important factors in the progress of countries.” The point cannot be overstated about the primacy of human resources for national development. Between 2015 and 2020, oil prices plunged into all time low. Followed by  two successive economic recessions. Buoyed by Covid lock downs, the pressure on the Naira fell the rate from  N196.5 in 2015 to  N411.25 in 2021.  The concerns and outcry about falling Naira value had been strident necessitating CBN’s serial creative interventions for rate stability.

Conversely. Resident doctors across the country are on strike for the fourth time since the start of the pandemic.. “We are having a strike for the third time this year” disclosed the Minister of Health Dr Osagie Ehanire. The pains, man hour losses and above all, loss of lives are well documented. Sadly the frenzy, national outrage that trailed fall of Naira value or rise in inflation figure, eludes the avoidable serial loss of lives at the teaching hospitals. Which shows where our heart is:  with Naira value, not necessary human value. Nigeria must urgently overcome the scandalous crisis of wage compensation for the valued workforce. Return on money investment is almost calculated instantaneously. Why then should “return” (read: Salaries!) of doctors paid monthly be delayed? Delayed payment of salaries of medical personnel such as doctors and nurses and teachers amounted to wage theft, manifesting both corporate and public poor governance. Pay agreements must be sacrosanct on those who freely signed them.

In 2019, President Muhammedu Buhari rightly expressed  Presidential  outrage against non- payment of salaries by some states’ governors. “I wonder how these Governors are able to sleep knowing that they have refused to pay workers their wages. These workers have families to cater for, they pay rent, pay school fees, Hospital bills and food for their families.” he said. The President then thought and acted outside the Federal box,  offered serial bait outs for the states to meet their salary obligations. I support the President to demand that state Governors, ministers and MDAs must purse Decent Work Agenda (DWA).  Prompt and adequate compensation for working men and women is a critical  success factor  for labour motivation, productivity,  labour discipline, growth and national development.  I agree with the Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, that the current ongoing civil service reform should be “bold and big that will make a difference” with respect to the welfare of public servants. It is also gratifying that the Head of Service Mrs  Yemi-Esan had identified staff welfare, particularly remuneration and housing, as areas that require better focus and urgent intervention in the Federal Civil Service Strategy and Implementation Plan 2021-2025. Pope John Paul II once sermonized: “ “Ask  not whether a man is useful in his work but whether the work is useful to him”. The same Pope John Paul II also  questioned the validity of economic orthodoxy that elevates economic fundamentals (external reserves, GDP, inflation rates etc) above human welfare.

According to him ‘A just wage for the worker is the ultimate test of whether any economic system is performing justly’. But with the best of efforts the world of work is inherently vulnerable to occasional disputes. Happily Nigeria again parades robust labour market institutions for collective bargaining, representation, mediation and adjudication to manage and curtain inevitable crises. There are National Arbitration Panels ( IAP), National Industrial Court,( NIC ),  tripartite  National Labour Advisory Council ( NLAC). There are bargaining councils in both private and public sectors. There are also hundreds of vibrant trade unions and associations  affiliated to the NLC and TUC. Of course there is the oldest supervising  Ministry: Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment established in 1939 with rich documented records of mediation and reconciliation. President Muhammadu Buhari is the first President to appoint two Ministers of labour in appreciation of vastness and importance of labour market issues of productivity, training and capacity building, social security for all stakeholders.

Both Ministers Senator Chris Igige and Mr Festus Kyamo SAN, had been commendably apprehending the crises arising from other relevant ministries in this case health sector. Both the  National Association of Resident Doctors of Nigeria (NARD) and the health authorities should take advantage of the existing labour dispute structures and stop the current avoidable hemorrhage in man hours and lives in the sector.  There is an urgent need for reform of the industrial relations system in the country’s health sector for sustainable peace and service delivery. I agree with Samuel Gompers when he said “ Show me the country that has no strikes and I’II show you the country in which there is no liberty”. Nigeria practices robust industrial democracy. Our labour Laws allow for freedom of associations and unions as well as  rights to collective bargaining and right to strike as sanctioned by the 1999 constitution and relevant ILO conventions Nos 87 and 98. But this progressive labour regulatory framework puts enormous responsibility on the stakeholders, namely employers (private and public)  and workers alike . 

A strike is NOT  a war certainly not a nuclear mutually destructive war as we are witnessing in Nigeria. Strike is ‘a temporary stoppage of work by a group of employees in order to express a grievance or enforce a demand’. “A strike is a temporary stoppage: the workers intend that at its conclusion they should to the same jobs with the same terms”. It’s time all parties suspended  the existing unhelpful actions and returned to negotiations. All stakeholders in the health sector must play by the knowledge based rules of collective bargaining, social dialogue, mediation and conciliation to prevent incessant work stoppages in hospitals with attendant costs to lives.  

The bitter lessons of the recent days point to the attractiveness of accommodative strategy for both the doctors and health authorities. Micheal Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies (MINILS) is set to bridge the existing abysmal knowledge gap about labour market issues with respect to trade  unionism, conflict resolution, strikes and strike management in critical sectors like education and health sectors. 

Comrade Issa Aremu mni

Director General, Micheal Imoudu National Institute for Labour Studies ( MINILS) Ilorin.