Dr Ouma Oluga’s 100 days of hell during doctors strike

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Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentists Union Secretary-General Ouma Oluga addresses a past press conference. PHOTO| FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

“At one point, threats were used; either spoken threats or subtle threats. Before we went to jail on February 13, we had been threatened during the time we were at the Ministry of Labour: “You know, you guys will go to jail.”

When we were talking to the Salaries and Remuneration Commission, someone even said: “You will go to jail and they will separate you.”

There are many times we were kept exhausted during negotiations until 1am or 3am and then when we were no longer accepting the terms offered, we would be threatened. They would say: “You know you cannot beat government’ or “you know, so and so died in jail trying to do this.’

They start telling us, “You know, at the end of the day, it is just about you and your family.” At some point we were told: “Oh, you know we can deregister you (the union).” So, there were many threats.

Then there was the misinformation. A classic example was that we turned down an offer by President Uhuru Kenyatta when he called us to Mombasa for a meeting (on January 4).

Let me make this clear. We are very grateful to the President for inviting us. I think we are the only union that the President has ever met when we were on strike, and the truth is that he was really concerned about the strike.

ADVISED US

And I can say that if it was not for the President’s intervention, this strike could still be on. When we met him in Mombasa, he advised us and listened to us. He gave us fatherly advice and also the advice as a Head of State. And he called everyone who was concerned.

The President then gave instructions but the people who were given those instructions did not translate them into action. If the President’s instructions had been taken, the strike could have been over that Friday, two days after the meeting.

When we left Mombasa, there was no documentation that we were given about the offer. And we had requested for it more than three times. When we went for a follow-up meeting at the Treasury with the same people that the President had instructed, they told us to leave five minutes after we came for the meeting.

Also, I have heard people say that it was because of the tough talk by President Kenyatta and governors as they spoke on March 7 in Naivasha that made us to end the strike. Well, I would say yes and no.

Yes, because you have to respect authority, in one way or the other. But sometimes authority can also be wrong. However, when you see that you have reached a point where the leadership no longer cares, especially in a situation where Kenyans are suffering, someone has to be the bigger person.

After their remarks, I had to send a message to my members, the message that was aptly headlined ‘we shall heal’.

Knowing the values of medicine, knowing the character of doctors, you could tell that they were hurt by the utterances; not just the utterances in that week, but doctors had been insulted all along during the strike.

You know, there are people who would go to television and talk about the Hippocratic Oath. Let me tell you the truth: no one understands the Hippocratic Oath except doctors.

DOCTORS FEEL THE SUFFERING

And the opinions of those who were on television on many occasions, including some of the leaders — on how people suffer were simply superficial. Doctors see suffering, and doctors feel the suffering. And doctors care.

And so when those utterances by the President and governors came, it was like scratching a raw wound. That is why it was important for me to address my members and tell them we shall heal, because doctors are patriots and they want to do the best for their country.

Regarding the many remarks about us not being mindful of Kenyans who were dying, I would say that doctors are not responsible; the government was. And what we did as a union — and I am very proud of it — was to hold our government accountable on behalf of the people. Doctors have choices. Many people do not.

At some point in the strike, efforts were made to depict me as someone working to discredit the government. Fake posts were circulated that sought to portray me as a person who hates some communities. Those were desperate tactics.

You will realise that the fake posts came immediately after I came out of jail. And that already shows a sinister motive. So, the strategy is that you try to discredit someone, assassinate their character.

TRIBALISM BONDAGE

It is very unfortunate. I think it exposes our weakest point as a society; that a big issue such as healthcare can be looked through those lines. You know, every time there is a big issue in this country, we do three things: we tribalise it, politicise it and then trivialise it.

And I think there was a desperate attempt by quarters who are unable to engage in difficult discussions to portray the strike as either political or ethnic. And, for me, I think the doctors’ unity and reason answered it very well, because the doctors showed that tribe does not matter.

It is a lesson that the country should learn, because I think that we are held back by the bondage of tribalism; and every time someone says something, people look at his name or where he comes from.

On the matter of fake posts, we will be suing shortly. It was very hurtful. Many headlines came out of the strike, one of them being that Dr Nicholas Muraguri, the Health Principal Secretary, was playing double agent with Health Cabinet Secretary Cleopa Mailu; that he would attend negotiation meetings then see us separately to advise us not to take any offer.

This was said by Cotu secretary general Francis Atwoli when he announced that he was unable to find a solution to end the strike.

SPIRIT OF TRANSPARENCY

I think it is okay for someone, if they are unable to do something, in the spirit of transparency, to come out and say “I was unable,” instead of using scapegoats. For us as doctors, we have maintained a clean and clear path of engagement.

Mr Atwoli also said we may need training on how to negotiate about labour disputes.  On that I would say, we make decisions in the interest of what people want. And I think that is not common. I saw the government struggle with it. For us, we are open, so, we will welcome any training that will come our way.

And while the story morphed day after day, my 63-year-old mother back at home in Rarieda, Siaya County, was concerned. She has solely raised me and my six siblings since our father died in 1996 when I was 11 years old— and I must say I grew up in the most humble of backgrounds in this country.

But much as she was worried, she did not tell me to tone down. You know, my mum has been a staunch member of the Anglican Church for over two decades now. So, she was concerned about the lack of dialogue, and, you know, she is not well-educated but she is very intelligent. She kept asking, “What is it that these people do not want to agree?”

Because she was also concerned about the effect of the strike in the village. I kept reassuring her, I kept updating her. I think she believed in my judgement. One of the things I think she will attest to is that I portray honesty and integrity. My siblings were also with me in the fight. My elder brother, a pharmacist, visited me for the two days that I was in jail.

Friends also fought with me, but not all saw things my way. There are many who sympathised with the situation. But some advised me to give in and give up. Let me tell you, many Kenyans are indolent. We would rather avoid something than confront it.

TRANSFORMATIONAL SOCIETY

And that makes us generally a transactional society rather than a transformational society. So, everyone wants to align themselves for their benefit, even when that benefit is short-lived.

And as we await the registration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in court, I have been reflecting on the tumultuous time this was. One thing I learnt was that every time people tell you to “show leadership,” there are two reasons for that. One, they are trying to buy you into their idea and two, they mean, ‘Make a bad decision.’

Another lesson is that propaganda works as far as your membership is concerned and I think government needs to be advised. Doctors no longer care about propaganda and fake news.

And when I will be looking back at the strike a decade from today, I will be glad that in my small way I brought the issues of healthcare and doctors to the forefront. It will never be the same again.”

©Alleastafrica and Daily Nation

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