By Isaac Mwangi
The strike by doctors in Kenya revealed, first and foremost, the region’s acute weakness in human resource development for skilled professionals. But to the shock of many observers, the government doesn’t seem to have learnt any lesson and continues its grandstanding.
Soon after a return-to-work formula was signed and the strike declared officially over, top government officials headed for Dar es Salaam, where Tanzanian President John Magufuli announced that the country would second 500 doctors to work in Kenya. As would be expected, this raised a number of issues.
It was not lost on observers that Tanzania has a poorer doctor-to-patient ratio than Kenya. President Magufuli, however, explained that his government did not have the capacity to employ all its medical graduates, hence the surplus manpower that could be exported to Kenya.
And while there would ordinarily be nothing wrong with manpower exchange between countries – in fact, this should be encouraged considering the regional integration project – it was the special circumstances in which this was being done that raised queries. The most important consideration was that the country had just emerged from a prolonged strike by doctors, one in which thousands of patients had suffered neglect. The heavy toll from the strike was felt by the ordinary masses of people for whom treatment in private institutions was basically out of the question.
The firefighting measures that the government tried all appeared to backfire. One of these was recruitment of foreign doctors. Belatedly, the Jubilee administration discovered that it wasn’t so easy to just ship in doctors from the three countries their minds were toying with – Cuba, India, and Tanzania – in the middle of a strike. Having eaten humble pie, government bosses could hardly wait for the strike to be over before showing that it can really be done – and that there are doctors out there dying to come to work in Kenya.
It further dawned on government functionaries that doctors aren’t like other professionals who could be whipped into submission once their salaries were withheld. Well, armed with nothing but a stethoscope, a doctor can easily stand in any marketplace and attract scores of patients so withholding the salaries of doctors isn’t a brilliant idea, after all.
Only thing left, then, was to threaten doctors with the loss of their liberty by sending a few to jail. Unbelievably, this was done, raising such a storm locally and internationally that the government simply had to find a way out to save face.
Even when a deal was about to be struck, no less a person than the head of state appeared intent on scuttling the efforts. The health sector being a function that is devolved to counties in accordance with Kenya’s 2010 constitution, governors took the cue as well to harden their stance. Eventually, however, reason prevailed and agreement was reached between the various parties, bringing the 100-day strike to an end.
On the face of it, the move by Kenya to extend a hand to Tanzanian doctors may appear to be a move in the right direction. Free movement of labour is one of the key requirements for a functioning Common Market – in addition to the freedom of movement of capital as well as goods and services.
Moreover, mutual arrangements to benefit from the labour surpluses of other East African states ensure that private citizens get to benefit by having a wider market in which to offer their services. This has been made possible by efforts to harmonize the education sector and define equivalence between the academic qualifications of various partner states.
The tragedy, however, is when governments operate outside this integration framework and seek to score cheap political points against sections of their own citizenry. That should not be allowed to happen, and Tanzanian doctors shouldn’t allow themselves to become pawns in such a game. Governments need to be made accountable in all ways – and professionals must stand up to be counted in forcing them to treat their citizens fairly. Attempts to misuse the integration agenda for egoistic reasons or to achieve narrow political gains should be resisted by all.