When the news broke that the Minister of Health, Prof. Onyebuchi Chukwu, alongside six other serving ministers in President Goodluck Jonathan’s cabinet, has resigned from their positions as ministers, there was jubilation among health workers, especially those under the aegis of the Nigerian Union of Allied Health Professionals (NUAHP) and the Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU).
The leadership and members of these unions had, over the years, blamed Prof. Chukwu for the many problems in the health sector and specifically for being too pro-doctors. Prof. Chukwu was reported to have resigned to pursue a gubernatorial position in Ebonyi State ahead of the upcoming 2015 general elections.
Since his appointment in April 2010, the health sector had consistently been in a state of unrest. All the health professionals went on strike at various times.
Members of NUAHP and JOHESU, who are currently on strike, repeatedly blamed Prof. Chukwu for the non-resolution of the issues that prompted the latest round of strike action.
In the words of the National President of NUAHP, Mr Felix Faniran, “Since the appointment of Prof. Chukwu as health minister, our sector has not known peace. He has demonstrated that he is a nominee of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) and not a minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, having been partisan and outrightly discriminatory of all other health professionals in favour of member of his constituency from the beginning till date.”
JOHESU and NUAHP had been strident in articulating the wrongs done to members of the association by the Prof. Chukwu led health ministry. Among other allegations, Prof. Chukwu was accused of using his influence to ensure that the government avoided coming up with circulars to back up the Memorandum of Understandings (MOUs) it signed with the labour unions. He was said to have done this in a bid to placate doctors under the aegis of the NMA who equally went on strike between July and August, 2014.
It must be said, however, that even though Prof. Chukwu was, perhaps more than any other previous health minister, seen as a pro-clinicians minister, he was equally not well loved by members of his constituency, the medics. Whatever goodwill he enjoyed even among doctors was destroyed when the federal government temporarily suspended the residency training programme for medical doctors in all government hospitals last July. Barbs were thrown at him by his medical colleagues for that action.
Whatever achievements recorded by the health sector and the ministry of health under his watch, Prof. Chukwu will go down in history, at least till date, as the health minister under whom the health sector suffered the greatest upheavals.
It must be said that Prof. Chukwu could have been more tactful in handling the issues he dealt with as health minister. First, it was actually not very savvy that he wore the toga of being a supporter of a particular professional group as a minister of a multidisciplinary sector, like the health sector.
It must also be stressed that Prof. Chukwu as health minister was perhaps not also very decisive in resolving the numerous issues that came up and required shrewd resolution to foster team spirit and engender harmony in the health sector. Eventually, issues that could have been easily resolved were allowed to fester and became more complicated.
Even though Prof. Chukwu showed good leadership in working with the Lagos State government to contain the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) when it broke out on our shores; even though he accelerated efforts towards ridding Nigeria of poliomyelitis and ensuring that four Nigerian pharmaceutical manufacturing companies got WHO GMP certification, he will perhaps be remembered more for the strike actions during his tenure, than these laudable achievements.
Whoever is appointed to succeed Prof. Chukwu must avoid the pitfalls that plagued the tenure of Chukwu as health minister. More than anything, the new health minister must ensure he is seen as a minister protecting the interest of all health professionals and not biased towards any particular group.