Despite owing 26-month doctors’ salaries, Abia Governor seeks election to senate

For the past eight years, Abia state doctors have faced many financial difficulties due to the unregulated payment of salary. The medical professionals have seen up to 26-month of their salaries unpaid. Despite this, the Abia state’s Governor, Okezie Victor Ikpeazu seeks election to senate. The ICIR’s Mustapha Usman reports.


Sometimes in 2021, *Nkechi Okoro, a resident doctor at Abia State University Teaching Hospital (ABSUTH) couldn’t bear the embarrassment and pressure of owing children school fees that she resorted to selling her car at a very cheaper price. Okoro has three children in private primary school in Abia state and has to pay a total of about N250,000 to the school every term.

The fee, according to her, is affordable if her salary is paid accordingly, as she did her estimation before sending her children to the school. 

Sending children to public primary school in Abia state could be unproductive because the teachers also face months of unpaid salaries, thereby resorting to incessant strikes to let out their plights.

Okoro, who joined the medical profession in 2007, never thought she would face the demeaning situation of not being financially stable to take care of her family’s needs.

This situation was much better for her between 2007-2014 as she was paid regularly by the then-state governor for the service she delivered.

However, since 2015, Okoro has suffered different implications of not getting a monthly salary from the state government. Her children are often sent out of classes for owing school dues.

“There are times we owe up to three months. Just because I am on the friendly side and keep pleading with them, they give me the chance. That’s why anytime I get money from a relative, gift or something, I try to pay off any of the backlogs,” she stated. 

Okoro, like many other resident doctors in the state, are being owed 25 months’ salary arrears. Even when some had the chance to move out to other states or countries, they remained, hoping the situation would change. 

But now, the hope has faded, and the joy of being a medical professional is now clouded with hunger.

“Initially, I am part of the people that say we can make this happen but suddenly, I am thinking that was just a misconception. Because there is a level of suffering you will get and feel bad for yourself and as I talk to you, I am already sick and tired of the work. I don’t even have joy during work anymore, so if I get a better opportunity elsewhere, I will go to where they will appreciate my work,” she said.

Background 

Document exclusively obtained by The ICIR reveals that the state government led by Governor Okezie Victor Ikpeazu upon resuming office in 2015, met seven months withheld salary by the previous administration but also accumulated another four months, making it 11 months during his first year.

Through the intervention of President Muhammad Buhari, the state government cleared the eleven months owed salary in tranches. However, as the state government cleared the months, it kept accumulating another month of unpaid salaries.

President Buhari made an attempt to clear the arrears by giving a bailout fund to the state government. The ICIR gathered that the payments, 22 of the then outstanding arrears were made on August 21, 2015, September 4 and 23, 2015, October 29, 2015, November 30 and December 30, 2015, March 8, 2016, June 8, 2016 and December 29, 2016.

Not knowing that the accumulated months will continue for years, the state doctors ignored the unpaid salary for a few months after receiving the previously owed salaries till they couldn’t bear the brunt again.

Findings by The ICIR confirmed that the residents’ doctors are being owed 25 months’ salaries, Hospital Management Board (HMB) staff members are owed about 14 months, while other cadres of doctors in the state have their 26-month salary arrears unpaid. 

Findings by The ICIR confirmed that the residents’ doctors are being owed 25 months’ salaries, Hospital Management Board (HMB) staff members are owed about 14 months, while other cadres of doctors in the state have their 26-month salary arrears unpaid. 

Trends of doctors leaving the country

Media reports show that many Nigerian medical practitioners, especially doctors and nurses, have been leaving the country for other developed nations due to neglect and lack of proper attention to the health sector and health practitioners’ welfare.

Many have also blamed the mass exit of medical practitioners on working conditions, adding that Nigeria has failed to address the lingering issue of unpaid salaries.

According to a report, 10.5 per cent of Nigerian-trained doctors are practising in the UK as of July 2020. 

In September 2022, the National Association of Government General Medical and Dental Practitioners (NAGGMDP), said over 2,000 doctors had left Nigeria for Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Canada in six months.

According to him, the doctors left for countries where their services were better appreciated, especially Britain. “But in Nigeria, they are poorly remunerated and at times not paid for months in some states, with salaries up to 25 months unpaid in some instances,” he said.

Similarly, the Nigeria Association of Resident Doctors disclosed that six out of 10 doctors in the country plan to move abroad for greener pastures. This is just as it disclosed that there are only 12,297 resident doctors in both the Federal and state tertiary health institutions in the country.

“As of the last time we issued the questionnaire, we found that out of 10 resident doctors, six of them are planning to leave or have the intention to leave. The statistics we had then was in December 2021. So, it’s either they are planning to leave, or they have thought of leaving.”

“Of course, you will agree with me that we are having inflation in the country, and the rate at which our naira is being devalued is alarming. If you compare our pay with the pay where most of these health workers go, you will discover that what we earn here is not up to one-tenth of what they get practising there,” he stressed.

The ICIR gathered that out of the 55 African countries, Nigerian Doctors only earn more (in dollars) than their counterparts in nine countries. This means that Doctors in 45 African countries are better paid than Nigerian doctors. 

Meanwhile, despite earning less compared to other African and developed countries, some of these doctors still faced many periods of unpaid salaries amidst the high inflation of things in the country.

Although there are no official stats to back up the actual numbers of doctors who had exited, it should be noted that many doctors have been leaving since at least 2018

Bank loans restriction complicates situations of Abia state doctors 

When a doctor, *Ifeoma Okoye visited one commercial bank in 2022 and was told she wouldn’t get a loan, she thought the bank had reached its limit. It was later she realised that medical professionals, especially staff of ABSUTH, have been delisted from receiving loans because of their irregular salaries.

She, “I went to a bank one day, and to my greatest surprise I found out that they had a list of those they don’t give loans. They don’t give loans to them because their salaries are not coming regularly. That was the reason they gave. They don’t give loans to people that work at ABSUTH.”

Okoye, who’s also a resident doctor, stressed that the development makes everything more complicated for her as she now has to resort to getting ‘little change’ from selling second-hand clothes or ask relatives to take care of her needs.

She said, “In August last year, I lost my dad. But I shifted the burial to January this year because I don’t have money. Sincerely speaking, they have to contribute money for me. Doctors had to form a WhatsApp forum where they contributed money. A lot is on me because I am the breadwinner.”

On how she survives the heat, she added, “Here they bring a lot of second-hand cloth, some of these materials that they use to make bedsheets, and I would make it for one or two people that need them. Though the money I earn from that is nothing but that’s what I feed on.”

She’s not alone in this predicament as a couple of ABSUTH doctors interviewed by The ICIR also explained their ordeals and have to forgo any hope of getting a loan from a commercial bank.

*Uju Chukwu, a consultant doctor, also explained that her attempt to process a loan from a bank was rejected three years ago when she needed to sort things out with money.

According to her, the “Abia state government has killed the civil service.”

“The problem in Abia state is not about doctors alone. I know an institution whereby the government has actually wiped off about 15 months’ salary. As far as they are concerned, the 15 months’ salary has been forgotten. The kind of atrocities and things they are during is inhumane. It’s wickedness,” she added.

ABSUTH loses medical course accreditation 

The Abia state university teaching hospital has lost its accreditation to admit new students to study medicine and surgery due to the interrupted sessions of the teaching hospital.

The interrupted session could be traced to the agitation and industrial actions over the irregular payment of salaries of its workers. 

In April 2021, the Association of Resident Doctors (ARD) in the state embarked on a long and comprehensive strike that lasted till September 2022. The strike, according to the ARD president Nnamdi Erondu, pushed the FG to pay seven of the 27-month salary arrears. 

However, their happiness didn’t last long, as September marked the last time the residents’ doctors were paid. The Government has accumulated another four months to the existing ones, translating to another 25 months of salaries arrears. 

Although the university is allowed to graduate the already admitted medical students, post-graduate medical students are, however, not allowed to be trained. Similarly, the only accreditation left with the hospital, the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria (MCDN) is currently being threatened due to the perennial non-payment of salaries.

The state government similarly confirmed that the loss of accreditation is a result of the closure of the university.

“The loss of accreditation was solely as a result of the closure of the Abia State University Teaching Hospital where student doctors are trained and have nothing to do with the technical and professional competence of the University nor the Teaching Hospital.

“The Hospital was closed as a result of issues around arrears of salaries of workers.” the Chief Press Secretary to the governor, Onyebuchi Ememanka said.

Students groan over interrupted session

Some students of the Abia state university who spoke to The ICIR expressed their dissatisfaction over their affected academics, noting that they have added one year to spend in school due to the strike.

A 500-level medical student Onwuneme Loveth U, said ever since she came into the clinical class, the hospital has been on and off.

According to her, the medical students of ABSU haven’t had a steady hospital function for like six months at a stretch.

Nwosu Alexander, a 5th-year medicine student, told The ICIR that clinical classes are a thing of imagination, adding that his class cannot write MBBS professional exams this month due to a functionless hospital facility.

Alexander added, “The unpaid salaries of doctors really put a stop to our studies, especially in the aspect of clinical studies. We are Normally meant to integrate ourselves with the patients and learn the skills that make doctors who they are, but unfortunately, we lack that because of the unpaid salaries of our doctors.

“So, we are just trying to find alternative ways to do them, like attaching ourselves to private hospitals and/or watching videos online.”

Abia NMA steps so far…

Abia state doctors protesting over unregulated payment of salary.
Abia state doctors protesting over irregular payment of salary.

Currently, the National Medical Association, Abia branch, is on strike over the non-payment of the arrears. The strike, which they embarked on on December 9, was a result of the failure of the state government to address the issues raised by the National Executive Council of the Association.

The council had, on November 21, 2022, given the state government ultimatum of 21 days to clear the aforementioned salary arrears of its members. But the state government, according to the communique issued by NMA on Sunday, December 4, has shown no serious commitment to the course.

Speaking with The ICIR, Abia state NMA secretary Daniel Ekeleme disclosed that despite the Union attempt to address the issue amicably, the state government is still not ready to pay the salary arrears of the doctors, adding that their offers are not ideal enough.

“The congress turned their technical offer down. And we resolved that going forward, the government must pay at least 50 per cent of the money owed with a documented agreement of paying two months’ salary every month-one month of the current and one month of the arrears until the whole arrears is paid up.”

Governor seeks election to senate despite owing over 117 months workers’ salaries

The Abia State Governor Okezie Victor Ikpeazu

The Abia State Governor Okezie Victor Ikpeazu is seeking to be elected as the senator of the Abia south constituency after serving as the state governor for two terms.

Victor Ikpeazu is the Governor in charge, while the non-payment of the state medical doctors spans 26 months. Also, according to the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), Ikpeazu owes workers in different agencies and institutions 117 months of salary arrears and 30 months of pension benefits to pensioners in the state as of November 2022.

A report published by The Guardian, states that “secondary school teachers are owed 14 months; state college of education (technical) 27 months and Abia State Polytechnic 30 months.”

On July 19, 2022, The Abia State Polytechnic lost its accreditation due to non-payment of salaries and allowances of staff members for 30 months.

Abia Gov’t declines comment

On Saturday, February 4, The ICIR contacted the commissioner for information, Eze Chikamnayo, through phone call and SMS, but Eze didn’t respond to both at first. On Monday, February 6, The ICIR again reached out to him through a call and a reminder SMS which Eze also failed to pick up and respond to.






     

     

    Later that day, this reporter realised that the information commissioner blocked his contact as the service provider stated, “Dear customer, you’re not allowed to call this number.”

    Similarly, when The ICIR reached out to the Commissioner for Health, John Ahukanna, he declined to comment, noting that the state government will release a press statement after the official meeting with the governor and doctors, which he said would be next week.

    He further declined to speak on some of the doctors’ claims in this report.

    *Names with asterisk were changed to protect the speakers.

    Usman Mustapha is a solution journalist with International Centre for Investigative Reporting. You can easily reach him via: [email protected]. He tweets @UsmanMustapha_M

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