Chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association in Cross River State, Dr. Felix Archibong, tells By Muhammed Lawal, Punch Newspaper why members of the body withdrew their services after their colleague, Mrs. Ekanem Ephraim was abducted in July.
Why did medical doctors in Cross River State embark on an indefinite strike?
We are not on an indefinite strike, we just withdrew our services and that is because for about three weeks now, a female doctor, Prof. Ekanem Ephraim, was kidnapped from her clinic. The kidnappers disguised themselves as patients, went to her clinic and when she came out, they brought out weapons and took her away. That is why we are not mentally and psychologically stable. So, instead of endangering people’s lives and trying to act strong, we withdrew our services.
Our action is to draw the attention of the governor and the security agencies to the matter because it is their responsibility to secure lives and property. So, we met with the governor and he asked us to give him some time. We met with the security chiefs and they still told us that they were working. However, we are wondering what they are working on that is taking them this long. Someone has been in captivity and she is making calls to the family and they want to tell us that they cannot track this person. Why do we have the national identification number? Why did we register SIM cards? So, it’s giving us cause to worry. We are not on strike. We only withdrew our services. We go to work, but we do not consult, which is different from a strike action that will ensure that we stay in our houses. We go to the office but we do not consult.
You must have been in touch with the family of the victim and from what you said, the kidnappers have established contact with her family. Can you tell us what the kidnappers want?
They are demanding N15m. Where will the family get N15m in this economy? I will keep telling people that they have a misconception that doctors have money and we have told them that if doctors in Nigeria are well paid, our colleagues will not be running out of the country to go for greener pastures. I think the crime we have committed is that some of us decided not to go out because of the love we have for our country. Perhaps, we do not want to go and render our services elsewhere. So, that is the crime we have committed. It has been a recurrent thing.
How many doctors have been kidnapped in the past eight years?
This woman is the 18th doctor that has been kidnapped in Cross River State in the past eight years or so and people are telling us that we should not have suspended our services because it will make the kidnappers feel that (Ephraim) is a high-profile person in society. For God’s sake, they did not just pick her up on the street, they knew she was a doctor and they pretended to be patients. So, what is high-profile about the fact that she was abducted from her clinic by kidnappers who pretended to be patients?
We have started calling on the government to come to our aid. So, what is the need for apportioning blame? There is no time for blame games. We did not just sit down to sustain our services. Something happened and they should start looking at the effects, look at the cost of this and we are calling out the government to do something. We cried out some years ago when medical doctors were made targets for abduction and we thank God that the then governor responded and established an operation called Operation Akpakwu in the state and this thing died down. Probably, we want to believe that the operation has been dissolved because of the change in government and they (kidnappers) have come out again. So, we are still going to cry out to this new administration to do the needful.
Do you think your withdrawal of services will force the kidnappers to change their minds without collecting ransom?
It is not in our place to tell kidnappers what to do. We are human beings; we do not just jump in to treat patients. We have to be mentally stable to treat anybody. So, if we are not mentally stable, then the government should do the needful. This is about three weeks since the person has been in custody, which is giving us even more reason to doubt the security apparatus of the state. So, do you want us to go and risk our lives? You see people coming to disguise themselves as patients to kidnap you, and you still go ahead to treat the same set of people? What is the logic behind that?
What are your expectations from the state government?
We are still waiting for the government to get our colleague released and no pressure will make us return our services without her rescue or release. What sense will it make? It is not a child’s play. As I am talking to you now, most of my colleagues are already depressed and you want them to go and see patients under a depressed mood. That is not done. These people (kidnappers) live among the masses. What have the masses done? If they think our services are needed, they should do something; they should cry out to the government.
They should join in protests. Can they go on street protests for the government to rescue our colleague or for the kidnappers to release her? There is no need to cry foul. If they want us to go back to the clinic, they should do the needful both on the side of the government and the kidnappers. I don’t even think I should appeal to the kidnappers because I don’t know if they can hear me, but I know the government will hear me.
Cross River State used to be a preferred destination for tourism because of its serene environment. What do you think went wrong?
If I may answer that question, I think the hoodlums saw a loophole in the security apparatus of the state and they capitalized on it. As we heard, there were kidnappings in the state in the past, but it took the then-governor and his cabinet to stop the crime. So, I strongly believe that if the government wants to stop kidnapping in the state, it can stop it. We give it to the government; they can stop these kidnappers. I keep telling them that this is like a little test for this government. It is either they stop the crime or the crime will stop them.
But some governors will always say that the Federal Government is in charge of the police and other security agencies and that they have limited control over them. Do you agree?
I equally know that the governor is the chief security officer of the state. So, if he knows that security agencies are in the hands of the Federal Government, he should work with the Federal Government and restore security in the state.
In your opinion, what are the possible reasons why your colleague was abducted?
We may not say this is possible because she is the 18th doctor that has been kidnapped and we have observed that doctors have been the target. I will be crying out. We cried to the point that the former governor formed an outfit called Operation Akpakwu and we did not hear anything again. So, we are crying out that the government should, please, do something about this. Nobody should think that if they kidnap any of us, we will continue working. We will not work. We will not work because we need to be mentally stable to attend to patients. Why will you even see a patient as a doctor when you are not mentally stable? Who does that? Since they (kidnappers) keep coming for us, we will keep withdrawing our services, not minding who suffers.
Don’t you think this will affect the populace?
Are the doctors not affected? Don’t you think the kidnapping is affecting the doctors? So, we have to balance it out.
Don’t you think there should be another approach to this beyond withdrawing medical services?
What other approach do you want us to take? No, I am just asking whether you have a plan. I am equally putting the question back to you. We have lost the solution. I did not train as a crime fighter. I trained to fight diseases. If you ask me questions about diseases, I will answer them. So, maybe you have information about what you think we should do apart from suspending services. I know that for a doctor to treat anybody, he has to be physically and mentally stable and sound. How will you feel if you come to my place and because my mind is not stable, I prescribe poison and give you a poisonous injection and you die? Will you blame me because I was trying to act like a very strong man? They should allow it if they want us to work. We did not just wake up and suspend our services. Something happened. If they (the government) come up with this, that means they are enjoying it. Please, nobody should tell us about thinking of the masses.
How do you and your members feel about the current situation, especially in the area of safety?
Why won’t I be afraid? I am a human being. There was a time Boko Haram killed journalists. Would you have applied if you were to be sent to a place where the kidnappers kill journalists? You are a human being. We are all human beings. Why will I go to a place where my life is endangered? Do you know what the woman is passing through now? You can imagine that our colleague has been in the kidnappers’ den for about three weeks now without being released, and you expect me to bathe, wear my clothes, sit down, and consult. That is a very difficult task. It is just like sending you to wherever Boko Haram members are to go and get news.
Do you intend to meet the state government again on the need to rescue Mrs. Ephraim?
Of course, I will continue meeting them. We met with the state governor, deputy governor, Speaker of the House of Assembly, and the Obong of Calabar. We have met the three paramount rulers in Cross River State. So, we will continue interfacing with the media houses and continue to appeal that the government and the security agents do something.
Do you think youth unemployment is connected to crime, including kidnapping, in the state?
Are you trying to say that kidnapping is a job? So, why are you bringing that in? Nobody should hide under that. The first thing is to secure the state. For example, to the best of my knowledge, a greater percentage of the people that do business in Calabar left the state because of kidnapping, which will affect the economy adversely. So, kidnapping has never encouraged the economy in any way. It is better if they (the government) secure the state so that people will do their business.
Since the kidnappers are asking for N15m, what is your message to them?
My message to them is that the NMA does not pay any ransom because we do not have the money to pay any ransom. They should channel their grievances to the government. All we want is for our members to be released, and then we will go back to work.
What has the association advised its members to do to secure themselves?
We have told our members to be security conscious. In short, after this whole incident, we are going to bring security experts to give us a brief on how to go about being security conscious. That is the least we can do. If you come around the state, there are few doctors because the doctors are the least paid. They (the government) pay them half the amount they pay federal doctors, and most of the doctors in federal establishments are in training. They pay for their exams. So, they are not even living a flamboyant life. They are content with the little they have and people think that they are comfortable. It is a misconception that doctors are rich.
However, I want to believe that doctors are targeted because nobody in society will have a doctor as a brother, a wife, or a husband and think that the person should be left in the hands of kidnappers. So, you see families running up and down trying to pay the ransom. Maybe they see it as a lucrative means because everybody, every family, rates doctors highly. However, it is not only doctors that are being kidnapped in Cross River State. The only thing is that when they kidnap doctors, we make noise about it. Other people will just keep quiet and pay the ransom.
You said that you’ve spoken to security agencies. What assurances have they given you about the release or rescue of your kidnapped colleague?
They keep telling me to relax. They are working; we are relaxing. What are we going to do? Are we going to carry guns? No. Do we enter the bush? We cannot enter the bush. What are we going to do? We have to know. Of course, the fact that we are aware that our colleague is still with kidnappers is increasing anxiety; depression is increasing. We are depressed as I speak to you now. So, we cannot even attend to any patient.