Protracted doctors strike was an indictment to Kenya’s leadership

The nationwide doctors’ strike which started in December 2016 has now been resolved after more than 100 days without provision of basic healthcare at government health facilities. The protracted impasse’ saw the government resort to threats which  include sacking of the striking doctors – a move that would have probably had little if any persuasion for them to go back to work just like the 30 day jail term previously handed on the union’s leaders.

Among the striking doctor’s demands is the full implementation of a contentious collective bargaining agreement (CBA) signed with the national government in 2013. That agreement is contested for among other reasons that it was signed by a ministry of health official at the national government despite the fact that in Kenya healthcare is a function of the county governments. This CBA outlines salary increments and upgrading of public hospital facilities to enable the doctors efficiently deliver on their mandate.

The past 100 days saw protracted court battles between the doctors’ union and the government, doctors sent to jail and mass protests that included the shutting down of private health facilities in the country.

This strike was one of the longest industrial actions in Kenya’s history. That it has lasted for this long clearly shows a leadership deficiency that we are struggling with as a country. This deficiency is evident when we spend USD 5.5 billion on our military as if we are a country at war while the Western world is awash with TV images of Kenyans suffering from the effects of drought.

In an attempt to find a middle ground on the strike, President, Uhuru Kenyatta intervened in the early days asking his Health Cabinet Secretary (minister), Dr. Cleopa Mailu to spearhead the negotiations process with the doctors union officials led by their Secretary General Dr. Ouma Oluga. To show the utmost lack of seriousness, the minister would further delegate this to the ministry’s Principal Secretary and three other senior officials. The Principal Secretary who seems to enjoy a close relationship with the President and his deputy defied his boss’ orders and did not attend any of the said meetings. Although his office was not a political office and in total disregard for the law that prohibits public servants from engaging in politics, Dr. Muraguri was at the same time actively involved in monitoring voter registration in the President’s Central Kenya stronghold.  This was evident in the Deputy President’s speech earlier this week during a funeral service for a Senior Government official.

One evening while I was getting updates on how the mass voter registration exercise was progressing in different parts of the country, I called one of our PS from Nyeri – Nicholas (Muraguri) and asked him how things were progressing in Nyeri. He told me that today Gachagua (the late Governor) talked to all his people on a conference call from a London hospital. – Deputy President William Ruto

Why was  the PS being assigned duties in the mass voter registration exercise while he had a huge crisis in his ministry? Are the hundreds of lives lost so far less important compared to votes that the president and his deputy are hunting for?

This failure in leadership though is not only an indictment to the current government. The opposition and parliament could have done better. When the opposition wanted changes in the electoral commission, they organized for mass protests that forced the government into a negotiating table. It was evident from the start that the government was not ready to come and sit down with the doctors to have these conversations that other than just grant the doctors more pay would have revolutionized the quality of public healthcare in Kenya. The opposition still had the same tools they used to institute an overhaul at the electoral commission at their disposal. But just like it is in the case of the president and his deputy, an election win was not at stake here, only the “worthless lives of Kenyans “were.

At the height of the crisis, the government had resolved to sacking all striking doctors and employing new ones from Tanzania, Cuba and India. How practical that would have been will forever remain a mystery but Tanzania was on record saying that they did not have enough doctors to send to Kenya.

Even as we celebrate the return of doctors to our health facilities, nurses are threatening to down their tools too. Teachers have issued a strike warning and lecturers just went back to work after months of industrial action.

Maybe instead of importing doctors and other striking public servants this country really need to think hard about sacking it’s leaders and importing new ones – if we have to.

A version of this article was published on the Africa Blogging website.

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