The month of November 2020 began on a sad note for the family of Dr Godwin Udo of the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital. On the first day of the month when Nigerians were calling their loved ones and sending congratulatory messages to them for witnessing the new month, Udo’s relations were greeted with disturbing calls and messages regarding the abduction of their breadwinners.
Udo was kidnapped from his residence at Bateba Street, Calabar, on November 1 by hoodlums numbering about five as he was trying to drive into his compound on his way from work. The kidnappers subsequently called the family to demand for a ransom of N7million.
Udo, it was learnt, was the 17th doctor to be kidnapped by hoodlums in the state in recent weeks.
This was in spite of Governor Ben Ayade’s signing of the state’s anti-kidnapping bill into law in 2018. The said law prescribes death penalty for kidnappers.
The governor was said to have informed the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) that the anti-kidnapping bill had been signed into law and that he would not rest until the abductors of their colleagues were brought to book. Yet, rather than abating, the abduction of doctors in the state has worsened.
Before Udo’s abduction, a Senior Registrar in the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital, Dr Vivien Otu, was whisked away by kidnappers on August 28, 2020. She reportedly regained her freedom after spending some days in captivity.
Earlier, Ogbonna Uchenna-Aju, a medical practitioner, was kidnapped on May 3 while he was travelling from Ogoja Local Government Area (LGA) to his house in Obudu Local Government Area (LGA) of the state. Aju was released safely on May 9, obviously not without ransom.
Before then, Mrs Christiana Ekanem, an Assistant Director at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital and wife of a member of the Nigerian Medical Association, Prof. Emmanuel Ekanem, had been kidnapped at her home at Satellite Town in Calabar on March 10, 2020.
Her abductors allegedly demanded N30 million as ransom.
Following the rising cases of kidnapping of its members, the Nigerian Medical Association declared that “the NMA in Cross River will henceforth withdraw all medical services without any notice any time a doctor or their dependants were held captive.”
The Chairman of the NMA in the state, Dr Innocent Abang, told our correspondent that the ugly trend had had untold effects on members.
Abang said: “Some of the doctors have left the state because the phenomenon leaves people with post traumatic stress disorders. They cannot even coordinate themselves. One of the ladies left the state completely and could not continue with the post graduate training she was doing in pediatrics. The other one left a long while, and I heard she just came back after some months.
“She could not cope and was even afraid of anybody just talking around her. That is how bad such things are. Kidnappers release people with memories that may linger so badly. That is why we have been having this consistent cry, understanding the health implication of kidnapping.”
He added: “So far, we have had about 17 doctors and their relatives taken by kidnappers. It became something of serious concern to us considering the nature of our work where you cannot be certain of when you are going home, particularly for those of us who do surgery.
“That has become a problem because when you get to the point when you think you should be home and your surgery is continuing, psychologically, you are no more balanced to do the job. This is why our members disembark from anything we are doing once any of our doctors is taken.
“Kidnapping has been a big problem since 2018. This year alone, we have had four doctors kidnapped and the cycle just became like a normal one: you take a doctor, the colleagues complain and go on strike, they release him and go ahead to pick another one.
“That prompted doctors in Cross River state to say they were not calling off their strike immediately the other doctor was taken.”
Why doctors are targeted by kidnappers
While acknowledging the fact that it is not only doctors that are kidnapped in the state, the NMA boss gave possible reasons why they are prime targets for hoodlums.
He said: “If you have some history, you will realise that many years ago, doctors were the highest paid workers. They were seen as the echelon of the society and people thought doctors were rich.
“That is no longer the picture, but it has not gone off many people’s minds. Doctors, because of the position, have to unconsciously drive reasonably good cars. Some of them have to take loans to drive good cars.
“In Cross River, a predominantly a civil service state where so many people are so poorly remunerated, majority of them see doctors as rich people.”
He added: “If you go to other states where there are rich business men and oil company workers, doctors are relegated to almost no position there. But when you come to Cross River, which is predominantly a civil service state, with the meager salaries doctors take home, hoodlums begin to attack them.
“Unfortunately, when they get to the doctors, they realise that they (doctors) borrowed the money they give for ransom. The family of the last one had to sell their car and ended up in serious poverty and debt which they had to start paying afterwards.
“We thank God that we have not had any casualty. We have had then molested beaten and all that, but so far, every doctor that was kidnapped has been released.”
Recalling his experience on a radio show, Abang said: “I remember I was doing a radio talk and one of the callers had to ask me if there is any doctor in the state who does not earn up to N300, 000.
“You can imagine N300,000 sounded very big to that man. That is where you realise that, that kind of person can kidnap a doctor. He does not know that the doctor has a chain of dependants. Some of them were sent to medical school with people put under them to train.”
Fears of spike in mortality rate over doctors’ strike
Since the NMA in the state resolved to proceed on strike each time any of its members is kidnapped, findings showed that the masses have always had to pay dearly for it. There are fears that mortality rate in the state may have risen over the strike action always embarked upon by doctors each time their colleagues are kidnapped.
The last strike action embarked upon by doctors in the state was said to be the longest as they failed to resume duties even after the victim was released. For more than two weeks, doctors in the state shunned hospitals, ensured total compliance by members and left patients writhing in pains.
The Nation correspondent in the state, Nsa Gill, told of how he took his ailing brother to the hospital but got no attention.
He said: “We went to the hospital on that day, hoping that there would be someone on ground to attend to us. But after waiting for a long time without getting any attention, we had to leave for Navy Hospital where my brother was attended to.”
The NMA boss also spoke of how he could not get medical help for a boy who had a fracture.
Abang said: “I had a small child that had a fracture on the elbow and I knew the implication of that, but we were not permitted by the strike to attend to the child. That wasn’t good.
“As a doctor, you have that natural instinct to immediately attend to an injured person, but it is unfortunate that we cannot do what we are expected to do by attending to patients when we see them in their predicament.
“It has affected most of our patients, relatives and citizens in Cross River. We don’t know what they have resorted to doing, whether they have resorted to traditional bone setters or traditional birth attendants, but we are hoping and praying that everything will be sorted out immediately, and I believe that this will not happen again.
“The strike affected almost all the health institutions. This time, both the private and public health institutions were shut down and we had a formidable strike monitoring team that was going round to make sure that nobody worked.”
Asked about the implications of the strike on mortality rate in the state, Abang said: “Since we have poor statistics in Nigeria, you wouldn’t really say. But certainly, there would be an increase in death rate. You can’t overrule that.
“Even recently, there was a case of somebody who collapsed. They tried to take her to the hospital but could not, so they took her to one of her relations who is a doctor, but she gave up.
“We don’t have statistics, but it is certain. Even when there were hospitals working, we had a lot of people dying, so you can imagine when the hospitals are not functional.
“There would definitely be an increase in maternal mortality, because in normal medical setting, 80 per cent of pregnancies can be delivered safely without the aid of health attendants, but the remaining 20 per cent can be dangerous.
“We can be sure that both maternal and infant mortality will increase.”
NMA seeks help from federal government
Following what it described as the helplessness of the state governor to address the problem of kidnapping, the NMA called on all well meaning members in the state to support their calls for urgent solution to the menace.
Abang said: “The government had even told us how helpless they are because most of the security agencies seem to be answerable to their heads which are not the governors. A governor being called the chief security officer of a state is just a misnomer, because if he cannot command the security apparatus of the state, then he is not the chief security officer of the state. That is why we begin to see the shortcomings in the government itself and the weakness in the capacity of the governor to really handle the whole issue.
“We think other agencies should join the NMA by lending their voices to the work. Let us call the National Security Adviser to set their eyes on Cross Rivers State because it is almost becoming a haven of kidnappers.
“Since the time the last doctor was released, we had information that nine other persons have been kidnapped in less than 10 days. That is how terrible it is. It is not about doctors alone, it is just a terrible thing that has bedeviled Cross River State.
“We have been struggling to talk with the government for a long time but it was difficult to get their attention. Thank God we recently got the attention of the government that gave us their commitment and told us the challenges they are passing through. They said there is no money for them to run the government, the security agencies and all that. They have promised to raise money for special security in the state and we are looking forward to seeing that happen.”
Cross River govt, police react
The state government and the police dismissed insinuations that kidnapping in the state is targeted at doctors.
The Commissioner for Health, Dr Betta Edu, said in a telephone interview: “Doctors are not on strike in Cross River and kidnappers are not attacking doctors alone. It is an issue that affects the whole country and not just Cross River State. There is no targeted attack on doctors.”
She added that “the government is doing its best to improve on security. There are different security outfits which the governor will be launching almost immediately. On December 1, they are supposed to launch one.
“The governor will be launching several security outfits that will address this issue in the various neighbourhoods. It is not that there is a targeted attack on doctors, and doctors are not on strike as we speak.”
Spokesperson of the Cross River State Police Command, Irene Itohan, also frowned at the insinuations that doctors are sole victims of kidnapping in the state.
She asked: “Is it only doctors that are being kidnapped? Why are you people making things difficult? Please, I don’t like the way you are putting the question to me.
“Is it only doctors that are being kidnapped? Are the kidnappers related to doctors? Ah! Don’t ask questions like that.
“Businessmen are being kidnapped. Even your colleague’s wife was kidnapped. Is she a doctor?”
On the efforts of the police in tackling the menace, Itohan said: “Of course, we are putting up efforts. We just came out of a serious crisis that took most of our materials by the #Endsars protesters. We are trying to put things together to make peace reign in this Christmas period.”
She said the lack of patrol vehicles was hampering their operations.
“Thank God the government has promised to give us vehicles. When we have vehicles, they will enable us to patrol effectively. If police do not have vehicles, how do you attend to distress calls? It is not possible.
“But when we have vehicles and somebody calls and says something is happening in XYZ area, we would run there. If we have police vehicles at strategic places, you will see that crime will reduce.
“If we don’t have guns, there is no way a policeman will carry gun and would be walking and pursuing criminals who have guns and vehicles. You people should help us talk to the government; let them give us vehicles to make us more effective.
“Last week, we arrested three kidnappers. All of them have been charged to court. There is never a time we keep kidnappers because we don’t have the capacity to keep them. After investigation, we charge them to court.
“A woman was rescued last week and so many others like that have been done. Even in these difficult times, we have been trying our best.”