The National Industrial Court in Abuja on Thursday rejected a request to order Nigerian resident doctors to suspend their 18-day-old nationwide strike.
The judge, John Targema, in rejecting the ex parte application by a non-governmental organisation, Rights for All International, said he would not issue such an order behind the back of the doctors and other parties sued in the suit.
The judge said issuing “a restraining order” against the doctors to stop the strike without hearing them would be in breach of their right to fair hearing.
A similar application earlier filed on Wednesday by the federal government along with the ministry of health, was also mentioned in court on Thursday but could not be heard due to non-compliance with procedures.
PREMIUM TIMES reported how the strike embarked upon by the doctors on August 2 is already taking its toll on many Nigerians’ access to healthcare.
The striking members of the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), believed to constitute the largest number of physicians across Nigeria’s tertiary hospitals, are demanding among others, payment of COVID-19 inducement allowance and medical and life insurance for frontline doctors.
Rights For All International, an NGO that prides itself as a defender of human rights, had filed its ex parte application on August 16, urging the court to restrain the members of NARD from continuing their strike and order them to return to work.
Being an ex parte motion meant to be deployed in only cases considered urgent, the NGO’s application was heard in the absence of the NARD and other defendants on Thursday.
Mr Targema heard just the applicant’s lawyer, Nnamdi Okere, who painted a picture of “an extreme health emergency” requiring the doctors to be urgently ordered back to work.
The lawyer cited “the recent outbreak of cholera and the ravaging COVID-19 pandemic which has resulted in the death of over 3000 Nigerians.”
“The strike action amounts to an act calculated to obstruct the smooth running of essential service and therefore callous, ill-conceived, wicked, illegal, unconstitubonal, null and void,” Mr Okere wrote in his application.
Mr Okeke accused the resident doctors, “classified as essential services workers,” of failing to explore available legal remedies before downing tools on August 2.
According to him, the strike “has now paralysed the entre health sector across Nigeria”, amounting to “a denial” of Nigerians an access to healthcare, and “detrimental” to their right under section 33 of the Nigerian constitution.
The court’s order is needed to halt the strike “to prevent further loss of lives of innocent citizens,” he said.
If the resident doctors were not ordered to resume duties, Mr Okere said innocent Nigerians “will continue to suffer most irreparable losses.”
But ruling after taking a short break to take a decision, the judge said he would not grant the application, but rather invite the doctors’ umbrella body, NARD, and other parties sued as defendants in the suit to come forward to state their side of the case.
Mr Targema said granting the NGO’s application without hearing the defendants would amount to a breach of their constitutional right to fair hearing.
“The affected parties ought to be put on notice,” he said, adding that issuing a restraining order in their absence as requested by the applicant would be “in breach of section 31 of the 1999 Constitution.”
The judge therefore ordered that the application and the substantive suit along with other documents filed by the applicant be served on the respondents.
He directed that a proof of service on all the parties must be placed in the court’s file.
Mr Targema, who heard the application as a vacation judge, said the next judge taking turns to sit, would fix a date for hearing.
The defendants sued by the applicants include relevant government ministries and ministers who would not be opposed to its suit challenging the legality of the suit.
Those sued as the main targets of the suit are the National Association of Residence Doctors (NARD), its chairman, Uyilawa Okhuaihesuya, and the Nigerian Medical and Dental Association (NMDA).
The rest of the defendants are the Minister of Health, the Federal Ministry of Health, the Minister of Labour and Productivity, and the Attorney General of the Federation.
Government’s case stalled
Meanwhile, similar ex parte application jointly filed by the federal ministry of health and the federal government on August 18 could not be heard on Thursday.
The government’s lawyer, D. E Kaswe, drew Mr Targema’s attention to the application, but the judge said it had yet to be officially assigned to him by the court’s president to be heard during the judge’s ongoing vacation.
NARD is the sole defendant sued by the government in the suit.
The government argues in the case that members of the association “embarked on this strike without proper notice as provided by the extant law.”
It also said the association being of “essential services providers” are prohibited by law from embarking on strike.
“The continued and sustained industrial action by the defendant/respondent is contrary to public policy and equally endangers the lives of the citizenry,” it added.
As of the time of filing this report on Thursday, no date had been fixed for the hearing of the government’s application.
The Thursday’s ruling rejecting request to order the suspension of the resident doctors’ strike is a departure from what has come to be the National Industrial Court (NIC)’s predictable disposition towards stopping workers’ strike.
Always certain of victory, the federal government and some sympathetic NGOs often rush to court to obtain ex parte orders to stop workers from embarking on strike.
Once they obtain the order, the applicants often lose interest in pursuing the main case.
In the last few years, there had hardly been any planned or ongoing industrial action by workers in the health sector or by the larger organised labour without the court’s order issued against it.
Last year alone, the court issued an order against NARD’s strike and two separate restraining orders in an episode of industrial action being planned by the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress (TUC).
Barely eight days into a strike embarked upon by NARD last year, a judge of the court, Ibrahim Galadima, on September 16, issued an ex parte order directing the resident doctors to end the industrial action.
Mr Galadima had issued the order at the instance of two barely known NGOs, Citizens Advocacy for Social and Economic Rights, and Association of Women in Trade and Agriculture.
About eight days after, on September 24, 2020, the same judge granted an ex parte application filed by a group, Peace and Unity Ambassadors Association, stopping the NLC and te TUC from embarking on a planned strike.
The strike billed to start on September 28 was called to press for the reversal of the hike in electricity tariff and petrol pump price.
The day after granting the NGO’s request, the same judge, Mr Galadima, on September 25, granted a similar application filed by the federal government to stop the same strike.
On November 2, 2018, Sanusi Kado of the NIC in Abuja, ordered the organised labour, comprising the NLC and the TUC, not to embark on a planned November 6 strike which was declared to press for the implementation of then new minimum wage.
This followed an ex parte application filed by the federal government through the office of the Attorney-General of the Federation.
Earlier on May 17, 2018, then President of the NIC, Babatunde Adejumo, issued an ex parte ordering health workers under the umbrella of the Joint Health Sector Union (JOHESU) to suspend their one-month-old strike which had started on April 17.
The judge issued the order following an ex parte application by a group, Kingdom Human Rights Foundation International (KHRFI).
Exactly two years earlier, on May 17, 2016, Mr Adejumo, who retired as the president of the NIC last year, issued an order at the instance of the federal government to stop the organised labour from embarking on a strike against a hike in fuel price.
Although, it may be argued that many of the court orders failed to stop the strike actions they were targeted against, they add to the strength of the government when at the negotiation table with the aggrieved workers.