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Brain Drain and The Vicious Cycle of Strike in Nigeria

Most of us who have passed through a Nigerian tertiary institution know what an industrial action, otherwise known as ‘strike’, is. We have gone through…

Most of us who have passed through a Nigerian tertiary institution know what an industrial action, otherwise known as ‘strike’, is. We have gone through so many ASUU strikes, so much so that we even joke about our year of graduation as ‘4 years + X’, where ‘x’ is the non-constant variable and stands for the number of ASUU strikes.

We finish from these universities with degrees and much jubilation, blissfully unaware of the damage that these strikes have done to our minds, our patriotism and our work ethics. Graduates come out disgruntled with the system, and with the ideology that strikes are the answers to all our problems. 

If you are in the health sector, like me, then after a while, you will most likely apply for postgraduate training as a resident and join the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD); another body that is fast becoming notorious for its strikes. A lot of the residents currently in this country graduated from Nigerian universities and are therefore familiar with ASUU strikes. Other health professionals through the joint association of JOHESU have also joined the strike bandwagon. Inevitably, we have imbibed the habits of our lecturers and believe that only a strike action can make the government implement what they have already signed and promised to do. 

These resident doctors then graduate to become fellows (consultants) in their various specialties and are now tasked with the double burden of working in the hospital and teaching medical students. So, in a cruel twist of fate, they have now become part of ASUU. The same fate is what befalls all graduates who follow the academic route and become lecturers in their department. The tumour that has been unconsciously growing in their minds starts to undergo an anaplastic change. The discontented student morphs into the dissatisfied resident doctor who in turn becomes the disgruntled lecturer who will eventually produce more discontented students.

And so, the vicious cycle continues. 

Along the line, a few people drop out. The way I imagine it, is like a giant sieve into which sand is poured. The bigger the stones, the more rugged they are, the more they stay on the sieve when it is given a good shake. At first, only the fine particles and pebbles pass through the holes, but as the shaking becomes more rigorous, the holes become bigger and some more stones fall through. At the end of the sieving process, only a few stones are left on the sieve. The rest are on the ground or have been blown away by the wind.

That is the parable of brain drain.

Nigerians are the stones and the sieve is the Nigerian system and government. During every ASUU strike, many students drop out of university. The children of the moderately affluent are enrolled in private universities in Nigeria, while others are taken abroad. It is pertinent to note that many will not continue with the courses they were studying in their home universities. For example, someone studying Medicine in ABU will be forced to take up biomedical sciences in a private university in Nigeria or somewhere outside the country, either because they do not offer Medicine or cannot afford the fees associated with studying medicine. 

Others start a skill, realize it is more profitable and decide to quit school altogether. Yet still, a sizable sum are affected by life’s many challenges: the death of a breadwinner or parent, poverty, marriage and added responsibilities. They cannot cope and eventually when the strike is called off, their absence is noted. Hence, they are sieved out.

Upon graduation, yet another group of people leave the country for their masters’ degree or in pursuit of greener pastures. At this point, many doctors have already started writing PLAB or USMLE with the hopes of practicing outside the shores of Nigeria. Some return, many often don’t. Another group of stones sieved out.

When the frustration of frequent ARD strikes and their gradual disenchantment with the healthcare profession grows to an intolerable level, another set of doctors emigrate. Mind you, these are the ones that have started postgraduate training and may have even reached senior registrar level, meaning they have significant specialist training, that are leaving. Another set of professional stones sieved out.

Finally, we have the consultants and Professors who teach medical students, with their decades of training and experience, who are tired of the vicious cycle of strike, tired of begging for crumbs, tired of asking for what is rightfully theirs and more recently tired of not being paid for the six months of which they have been on strike. They discuss with their colleagues who are outside the country and hear of their stability, work satisfaction and job security and they make the painful decision to leave the country. Some take up appointments in private universities while some decide to quit the profession and focus on other interests altogether. With that, the most resilient amongst the stones are sieved out.

On Monday, the 29th of August, 2022, Daily Trust’s cover story was about the effects of brain drain in Nigeria. The report put the ratio of doctors to patients at about 1:5000. Today, I woke up to the news that the National Postgraduate Medical College of Nigeria (NPMCN) stated that there is a ‘marked decline’ in the number of doctors who registered for exams across the country. Meanwhile, Oga Ngige insists we have sufficient doctors; Witch doctors, perhaps?

I laugh in Fulfulde. 

We need to wake up from our collective denial and slumber. Brain drain is very real and it is happening every day. A colleague went for a visa interview last week and met 5 other younger doctors on the queue. He came back depressed. How many doctors do we have that we can afford to be haemorrhaging them out like this?

ASUU and the next president (as far as I am concerned, this president has left us to our own devices) have to address these fundamental problems. How do we use dialogue as a means of effective communication? What other methods can professional bodies use apart from Industrial action? On the part of government; Since the ‘no-work-no-pay’ punishment is not working, how else do they ensure ASUU does not go on another strike? How do they reach a compromise? How best can they meet ASUU’s demands? Is IPPIS really worth the trouble? Have they thought about the long-term effects of this brain drain? Have they no conscience?

As for me, I will continue to munch my cashew nuts, before the sieve pushes me out.