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Nigeria was sparred an avoidable halt of services in the health sector by 90% of workers in the sector, on February 18. The Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) and Assembly of Health Professionals’ Associations (AHPSA) extended the 15-day strike ultimatum earlier issued to the Federal Government by yet another 21 days.

Speaking to the press after the expiration of the first ultimatum and a 2-day series of meetings of JOHESU/AHPSA, Comrade Biobelemoye Joy Josiah, National President of MHWUN and Chairman of JOHESU however called on members of the JOHESU unions to be on “Red Alert”, as there will be no going back in the struggle, if the government fails to heed its promise of addressing the unions’ demands in the coming three weeks of grace.

The issues in contention are not new. Indeed, the looming strike would be a resumption of the national JOHESU strike that was suspended in February last year after appeals by the then President Goodluck Jonathan, to avoid the misconception being pandered at the time that it was a political strike.

But the demands are actually clear, and at the heart of these is the need for the federal government to respect and implement collective agreements as well as court judgments. This is essential in a democracy which should be guided by the rule of law. Most of the issues being raised for the umpteenth time have been ruled on by the National Industrial Court of Nigeria in favour of JOHESU, after they were secured through collective bargaining, which the government then turned around to renege on.

These include:

  • promotion of health professionals on CONHESS 14 to CONHESS 15, in line with the spirit of extant circulars;
  • expedited issuance of an enabling circular authorizing consultancy cadre for health professionals that have adhered to due process, to be vested with consultancy status as a prelude to including this cadre into the schemes of service of these health professionals;
  • payment of arrears of specialist allowances to qualified hospitals based health professionals with effect from January 1, 2010;
  • instituting residency programmes for all health professionals in Nigeria to ensure professional capacity development in the health sector;
  • immediate and unconditional release of the circular on adjustment of salary since January 2014 and immediate payment of at least 2 months arrears, while the balance is accommodated with proven evidence in the 2016 budget;
  • addressing the lopsided composition of boards of management of federal health institutions;
  • re-designating the heads of federal health institutions as Chief Executive Officers as against the current biased designation as Chief Medical Directors and making qualifications in health administration and management the condition precedent to appointment into such positions;
  • ending the injustice inherent in the current design of the National Health Insurance Scheme which appears meant to enrich HMOs than expanding the availability, accessibility and affordability of health services to the teeming millions of Nigerians who.

These issues have been on the front burner of JOHESU’s engagement with the federal government over half a decade. Several times, JOHESU had called off strike actions to push through these positions which have been won through negotiations but have never been respected by government. This is because of the concern of its leadership over the lives that are lost when workers in the health sector down tools.

The government is always quick to blackmail JOHESU the few times it felt pushed to the wall and went on strike. But, it is the government which fails to heed the voice of reason that should bear the sole blame for the debilitating results of health workers’ strikes, when it refuses to implement collective agreements.

JOHESU’s concern for the general public, as Comrade Biobelemoye Josiah stated, remains unshaken. This is precisely why a 21-day extension of the ultimatum has been made. It is a window of opportunity for well-meaning Nigerians to call on the government to respect the demands of JOHESU which have been agreed upon after negotiations with the government and which were upheld four years ago by the National Industrial Court of Nigeria.

In a series of letters to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, JOHESU has pointed out that government is a continuum. The collective agreements hitherto reached with the former administration subsists. The current government should demonstrate its commitment of change to changing from the impunity that defined the former administration to respect for CBAs and court rulings by heeding the demands of JOHESU.

The Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Mr James Ocholi has assured JOHESU leadership that the federal government will address the unions’ demands within the next three weeks. It is hoped that this is done, so as to spare Nigerians the ordeal of an indefinite national strike in the health sector. There will be no turning back by JOHESU, if by March 10, its legitimate and longstanding demands have not been met.