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Coronavirus: Nigerian Medical Association and government still feuding

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 13 April – 17 April

By 'Tofe Ayeni, in Lagos
Posted on Wednesday, 15 April 2020 16:59

Virus Outbreak Nigeria
Women sell face masks and gloves, to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, to passengers at a public minibus station in Lagos, Nigeria Friday, March 27, 2020. T (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), founded in 1951, is the professional association of Nigerian doctors and dentists. It has over 40,000 members from the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, and just under 20,000 from the diaspora, making it the largest medical association in West Africa. It also has a history of conflict with the federal government.

The NMA is involved in influencing health policy formulation, but it is only consulted by the federal government on an ad-hoc basis. The association aims to become more a part of the Ministry of Health, to ensure that it is as involved as possible in the planning stages of health policy formulation.

But such an aim has yet to be realised, as has been seen in the early stages of the arrival of  COVID-19 in Nigeria.

READ MORE:  How Nigeria is faring nearly two weeks into COVID-19 lockdown

Tensions over coronavirus

The most recent clash between the NMA and the federal government came as a result of an apparent miscommunication about help coming from China to fight COVID-19.

The China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC), responsible for building various railways in Nigeria, including Lagos to Ibadan and Abuja to Kaduna, had offered to help Nigeria during this time. With business averages  in millions of USD in Nigeria, many saw this as the responsibility of the CCECC.

The offer was to import about 1.3 million medical masks, over 100,000 personal protective equipment (PPE), and 50 medical ventilators. The federal government also announced that it would be welcoming Chinese doctors to help in the fight.

The NMA responded with a press release on 5 April, titled “The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) vehemently rejects the invitation of Chinese doctors into the country in the guise of offering assistance”.

The press release, signed by the current president Dr Francis A Faduyile, included the following points:

  • Distaste at being “subjected to the ignominy of not being carried along in arriving at such a decision.”
  • A spike “in cases and death toll from COVID-19 in Italy coincided with the arrival of the Chinese in the guise of offering assistance.”
  • The existence of “a large pool of General Medical and Specialist Practitioners who are either unemployed or underemployed that can be engaged…”.

However during the press briefing of the Presidential Task Force on Coronavirus the following day on 6 April, the task force said that Chinese public health experts, not doctors, were being sent to help Nigeria. Their purpose was to to strengthen the public health capacity and advise on processes and procedure.

The experts would be in isolation for 14 days, and would, even after the 14 days, have no contact with the patients, as they are not coming as medical doctors.

The task force also warned against unnecessary controversy, urging everyone to focus on the coronavirus, which seemed to be an indirect dismissal of the concerns brought up by the NMA.

The force also said the door was always open to the NMA to discuss any matter, but the Association believes it should be kept abreast of health-related matters without having to open that door.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Nigeria seeks $6.9bn loan from international lenders

History of clashes

The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic is not the first time major clashes have erupted between the NMA and the federal government.

In 1984, medical doctor and human rights activist, Dr Bekolari Ransome-Kuti, then Secretary-General of the NMA, was jailed by the government of General Muhammadu Buhari, and the association banned. 

Beko Ransome-Kuti was the chairman of the Lagos branch of the NMA, and later the national vice-president and secretary-general.

In the same year, his brother, the legendary musician and political activist, Fela, had been arrested via a new decree that allowed for indefinite detention of political opponents. Fela was sentenced by Buhari’s government to 10 years in prison.

Using his NMA platform, Beko Ransome-Kuti began a campaign to free Fela and all other political prisoners.

The NMA declared a strike in February 1985 and criticised various government decisions. Ransome-Kuti was only released later that year after Buhari was overthrown by General Ibrahim Babaginda.

But that rocky relationship with the government hasn’t changed, despite a democratic government and a growing economy.

Just prior to the arrival of COVID-19, the NMA continuously supported doctors going on strike with the Association of Resident Doctors (ARD), usually in protest over unpaid salaries. The federal government is renowned for not paying staff, doctors included.

In addition to the poor health facilities, and disregard for the necessary work of doctors, it is believed that the government has not prioritised the medical sector, given many members of the political elite usually travel overseas for healthcare, unlike the rest of the population.

Bottom line: Now is not the time for a band-aid solution and it is unlikely that any other country will have the space to care for a swarm of Nigerian elite looking for health support as more and more borders are shut down. During such a global pandemic – unprecedented in modern history – this is the time for synergy between the NMA and the federal government, and for open discussion between the two.

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