By Suyi Ayodele
Barring strikes by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) or the Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities (NASU), medical students spend an average of six years in the university. Upon graduation, they go through one year of Housemanship. Thereafter, they observe the one-year compulsory NYSC programme. So, to become a medical doctor in Nigeria, one must have spent a minimum cumulative eight years! Eight years in the present-day Nigerian environment is closer to hell and its fiery furnace. Now, after the rigours of the eight years, some efulefu in Abuja are saying that an additional five years will be added before the licence to practice will be given. The proposed five years, in labour euphemism, is called labour bond. But the real name is pure Forced Labour or, better still, Modern Slavery. The first time I heard about labour bond was when the GSM came to Nigeria, newly. The telecommunications companies then devised means of retaining their workers, especially the engineers and customer care professionals. What did they do? They asked successful applicants to sign bonds; to wit: that they would remain in the employ of the Telco companies for a specified number of years. And, if they should exit the initial company, the exiting workers would refrain from working with another Telco company or one with related services for another specified period of years. Bullshit!
My late father was 86 years old when I gained admission to the university in 1989. After I left the university and completed my NYSC, I looked for a job for three solid years. When there was no hope, a cousin obtained a postgraduate form for me and paid the initial deposit. I saw hell at the University of Ibadan (UI), undergoing my Masters. I could not go home to ask my parents for money because I knew the condition at home. Thankfully, as I rounded off the programme, I was employed as a reporter by the Nigerian Tribune, which posted me to Benin, as the Edo State correspondent.
I arrived in Benin and nursed the hope that by the time I would be paid my salary, I would take the whole money home for parental blessings as tradition demanded, then. Lo and behold, before the salary was paid, I got a call from the Vicar of our All Saints’ Anglican Church, Oke-Bola, Ikole Ekiti, that my good, old, loving father had died. He died precisely on November 3, 1999. I was not able to give him a dime before he died at the ripe age of 86! Sad! The two of us were victims of the hopeless situation a failed leadership imposed on the country. Pa Solomon Fafunmiloni Obajusigbe Ayodele died without eating the fruits of his labour on me. This is exactly what the Abuja lawmakers are planning for most parents, who toil day and night to train their children and wards in the medical faculties across the country! May God forbid bad thing!
This is the year of the Lord 2023. But our legislators in the National Assembly, particularly the rancorous House of Representatives, are still living like fossils. Pity! Nigeria is a huge amphitheatre. We churn out lots of comedy daily. If anyone has ever wondered why nothing moves in the right direction in this country, such a person should visit the National Assembly and see the jokers there who make laws for the ‘common good’ of the nation. You cannot put anything perfidious past the ‘honourable’ men and women who live in Apo village. There is no grisly legislation they are not capable of decreeing. One of such is last week’s “Bill for an Act to Amend the Medical and Dental Practitioners Act, Cap. M379, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004, to mandate any Nigerian-trained Medical or Dental practitioner to practice in Nigeria for a minimum of five years before being granted a full licence by the council in order to make quality health services available to Nigeria”, sponsored by Ganiyu Johnson. Johnson represents the Oshodi-Isolo II Federal Constituency of Lagos State in the lower legislative chamber. The Bill seeks to arrest the current brain drain in the medical circle, so, Johnson told us. And look at the ‘novel’ way the Rep member from Lagos State put it. Everyone who trained as a medical doctor in Nigeria will mandatorily practice for five years before he/she will be given the full licence to practice medicine in the country before venturing into other lands to practice.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines Forced Labour or Modern Slavery in its “Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (N029) as; “All work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily”. The international body in its The Forced Labour Protocol (Article 1(3) expressly affirms the definition above and goes ahead to expatiate the key elements of the definition to mean: “Work or service refers to all types of work occurring in any activity, industry or sector including in the informal economy. Menace of any penalty refers to a wide range of penalties used to compel someone to work”, adding that “Involuntariness, “The terms “offered voluntarily” refer to the free and informed consent of a worker to take a job and his or her freedom to leave at any time…”. It, again, in its “General Survey on Forced Labour, ILO Committee of Experts, 2007” states what constitutes “Exceptions” to the definition in Article 2(2) of Convention No. 29, and gives five exceptional cases to include: “Compulsory military service, Normal civic obligations; Prison labour (under certain conditions); Work in emergency, situations (such as war, calamity or threatened calamity e.g. fire, flood, famine, earthquake), and, Minor communal services (within the community)”.
Another ILO affiliate group, Anti-Slavery International, using ILO, “General Survey on the fundamental Conventions concerning rights at work in light of the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization , Report of the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, 2012, ILC.101/III/1B”, defines Modern Slavery as: “when an individual is exploited by others, for personal or commercial gain. Whether tricked, coerced, or forced, they lose their freedom. This includes but is not limited to human trafficking, forced labour and debt bondage”. The group added that by the latest Global Estimates of Modern Slavery (2022) from Walk Free Convention held in Geneva in September 2022, ILO and the International Organization for Migration identified that 49. 6 people live in modern slavery (forced labour and forced marriage). “Of the 27.6 million people trapped in forced labour, 17.3 million are in forced labour exploitation in the private economy, 6.3 million are in commercial sexual exploitation, and nearly 4 million are in forced labour imposed by state authorities”, the body stated. It emphasized that “Debt bondage/bonded labour is the world’s most widespread form of slavery… Slavery may be hidden but it exists and it’s controlling the lives of millions of people”, it concluded.
From the foregoing, what Johnson introduced to the House of Representatives last week falls under the ILO’s definition of Forced Labour or Modern Slavery. Hear his incomprehensible verbiage emitted on the floor of the house: “Government has invested so much money in training these medical doctors, on average. Recently, the United Kingdom opened healthcare visas to people, they were all going to the UK, USA, Canada so should we fold our hands? So, to give back to our society after training you, the least we can get from you after your Housemanship. Before you are given full license you practice for five years before you can go”. Even when Nkem Abonta, Ukwa East/West Federal Constituency of Abi State, countered the Lagos legislator, pointing out that such a legislation is “offensive” and “not obtainable in any clime”, the stone-age Lagosian would not have any of that. Expectedly, the Bill was put to a voice vote and most of the lawmakers supported it. That was the Second Reading stage.
There are two issues that Johnson and his co-travellers threw up. One is the issue of brain drain of medical personnel in Nigeria. That is worrisome, no doubt. Recently, a top government official in one of the South-South- states told me that the state government advertised vacant positions for medical doctors and nurses. After another two-week extension of the advertisement, only 27 doctors and 35 nurses applied. The official vowed that had that advertisement been placed some two years ago, he would have to leave town to ward off the number of people calling up on him to “help”.
However, it is rather funny, and even more unfortunate, that the very people that would turn up to legislate our children into modern slavery are the very set of individuals who created the problem of brain drain in the first instance. Can Nigerians ask Johnson and his gang how many of their children, wards and dependents are in our Medical Colleges in Nigeria? How many of their children, who they sent abroad to go and study medicine are back in Nigeria to practice? Again, can we ask them how many of our legislators, executive council members from General Muhammadu Buhari to the least Supervisory Councillors in the various local government areas, patronize Nigerian hospitals for their health issues? Where for instance, is the president-elect, Bola Ahmed Tinubu? Where has he been receiving medical attention for the list of ailments that trouble his frail frame? Will he end medical tourism after his swearing-in? Who, for instance, is his Nigerian personal physician and from which government hospital does he receive medical care in Lagos, where he governed for eight years and, we are told, he ‘transformed’?
What do the Abuja legislators think we are? Were they not the same legislators that killed the “Bill for an Act to Amend the National Health Act 2014 to Regulate International Trips for Medical Treatment by Public Officers to Strengthen the Health Institutions for Efficient Service Delivery”, which sought to amend Section 46 of the National Health Act, 2014 to regulate international trips for medical treatment by public officers and to strengthen the health institutions for efficient service delivery? When the Bill came up for debate then, hear what Lasun Yusuf, the then deputy speaker of the House of Representatives said: “This bill is against my fundamental human right. There are two fundamental wrongs in this bill, it is against human right, and it is discriminatory. Do not let us debate this bill”. End of story! Where is that Bill today? If stopping our leaders from seeking medical attention abroad is against their fundamental human rights, how has compelling medical doctors to work for five years before being fully licensed enhanced their own fundamental human rights?
The second issue is Johnson’s sickening claim that “the Government has invested so much money in training these medical doctors”. Where and how much? How many of the medical students are on government scholarship? What about those children in the medical colleges of the various private universities? Is Johnson by any means saying that they are on “subsidized training” too? The body who should know, the Medical and Dental Consultants Association of Nigeria (MDCAN), described the Bill as “discriminatory, harsh and not in the interest of the people” and, “an excellent example of modern-day slavery”. MDCAN, in a press statement endorsed by its President, Dr Victor Makanjuola, and Secretary-General, Dr Yemi Raji, said: “In fact, this bill has the possible effect of doing the exact opposite: aggravating the exodus which we have been working with the Executive arm of Government to mitigate. It is pertinent to state that none of the suggestions of the inter-ministerial committee on brain drain and bonding of health workers has been implemented to date. Perhaps, a simple consultation with the primary constituency to be affected by the bill would have afforded the honourable member a clearer understanding of the hydra-headed nature of the problem he is trying to solve”.
Indeed, Johnson must have been very ignorant of the nuances of brain drain in the country. “The question now is, are we going to have another Bill to mandate the senior doctors to stay in the system for 10 years? Curiously, the bill violates the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as Section 34 (1) b states that “no person shall be held in slavery or servitude” while Section 34 (1) c states that “no one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour… For this Bill to therefore consider bonding medical doctors who never benefited from any public sponsorship is, therefore, an anomaly, and a clear attempt to reap from where one has not sowed”. MDCAN added that the notion that Nigerian-trained medical doctors received heavily subsidized education is gravely fallacious! “The irony is that the generation that had federal and state governments’ scholarships and meal subsidies on campus are the ones suggesting bonding of self-sponsored students”, the body added. Shame!
Our leaders are indeed far from the reality of our deplorable situation. I know of a family friend, whose son, after completing his six-year training as a medical doctor, stayed over a year at home before he could secure a place for his Housemanship. I know nursing graduates, who for over six months now have been looking for where to do their internship. How long then will a civil servant or a simple struggling trader who obtained loan upon loan from ubiquitous loan sharks in the country to train a child in a Nigerian medical school have to wait to eat the fruits of his/her labour from such a child? Yet in Abuja, we have absent legislators tinkering with slavery in the 21st century Nigeria! These are people whose children are in the best universities abroad.
The same set of people, who will corner scholarship slots meant for public competitions and award the same to their children are now telling us about “subsidized training” for medical students. I asked a friend to send me the preachings of Sheik Muyideen Hussein, the Chief Imam Agba of Offa to me. The ‘rascal’ that he is sent one titled: “Oselu Ika” (Wicked Politics), delivered at the Fidau prayers for a deceased APC chieftain, Alhaji Hassan Eleyingold in Offa. I listened to the one hour, two minutes and forty-three seconds message uninterrupted. I would like to close today’s piece by paraphrasing one of the prayers by the Chief Imam Agba of Offa for all wicked politicians: May all those in authority seeking for the common man to labour but not reap the fruits of their labour, also work and not be available to reap the fruits! God bless Nigeria!