Medical doctors in Cross River State are now living in fear of kidnappers, writes Bassey Inyang  

In the last one year, medical doctors living, and working in Cross River State have become endangered species due to the fact that they have become frequent targets of criminals.

Not even the hospitals and medical centres, which to some extent are considered sacred places, are safe haven for the healthcare providers. At least in one instance, a female medical doctor was reported to have been forcefully taken away from her duty post at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH), and raped by the criminals.

The normal sense of security provided by the day light has proven inadequate to deter criminals from kidnapping doctors, who provide healthcare for citizens. A case in point was a broad day light armed robbery attack at the premises of the UCTH last year, where a staff of a bank was killed.

But, most worrisome to the medical doctors in the last one year is the introduction of the kidnapping of their members, in what the healthcare providers feel has assumed a dimension of targeted-kidnapping for ransom.

The situation which they have found themselves has driven fear of insecurity, and personal safety into their psyche to the extent that they fear being identified in public as medical doctors.

So, on Wednesday, January 10, this year, medical doctors in Cross River State under the aegis of the Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), took to the streets of Calabar in protest against the frequent kidnapping of their members operating in the state.

According to the protesting medical doctors, no fewer than seven of their members, and in some instances, relations of medical doctors practicing in the state were kidnapped in 2017 alone.

The doctors who marched through several streets in the morning took their protest to Government House at Diamond Hill, where they announced that they have downed their tools until their member, and Senior Registrar in Paediatrics, University of Calabar Teaching Hospital (UCTH), Dr. Emem Udoh, who was kidnapped in the morning of Tuesday, January 9, was released.

What apparently irked the doctors to the extent of moving them into the streets was the audacious abduction of Udoh, barely 24 hours after, another medical doctor; Dr. Usang Ekanem was released on Sunday, January 7, having been kidnapped on December 26 last year.

Before Ekanem was released, the NMA had threatened to embark on total strike if he did not get his freedom unconditionally from the kidnappers’ den.

When Ekanem was in captivity in the kidnappers’ den, the NMA addressed journalists on Friday after they had an emergency general meeting.

Chairman of the Association, Dr. Effiong Mkpanam, who delivered the address on behalf of the NMA lamented what he said was “an upsurge in the cases of targeted kidnapping of medical practitioners.”

Mkpanam said Ekanem, who was practicing with the College of Education Medical Centre in Akamkpa Local Government Area, was abducted on December 26, 2017, and that the kidnappers were demanding a ransom of N100 million.

“The NMA Cross River State,  hereby instructs all its members, both in Public and Private Medical Facilities, University of Calabar Teaching Hospital, Federal Neuropsychiatric Hospital, Institutional Hospitals, General Hospitals, Medical Centres, Mission Hospitals and Private Clinics and Hospitals) within Cross River State, that as from 8.00a.m. of Monday 8th January, 2018, to observe a total, and indefinite withdrawal of services to members of the public, until such a time that our colleague is safely released by his captors, and measures taken to forestall future occurrences,” the chairman said.

“As we address you today, it is with grief that we make public the fact that a very Senior Medical Practitioner, and a one-time Chairman of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), has been in the kidnappers den for 10 days and counting, specifically from Tuesday 26th December, 2017, and the state government and various security agencies in the state seem unable to offer any meaningful assistance towards securing his release.

“It is from the foregoing, that the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) Cross River State Branch arising from this emergency general meeting, and believing it has allowed enough time for constructive negotiations, hereby make bold to take the following measures until the safe release of our colleague from his captivity in the kidnappers’ den is facilitated by those saddled with that responsibility.

“We are hereby using this medium to call on the following persons, His Excellency Prof. Benedict Ayade, the Chief Security Officer of Cross River State; the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Kpotun Idris; the Assistant Inspector General Police (AIG) Zone 6, Abubakar Marafa; the Commissioner of Police Cross River State Command, Hafiz Inuwa; the Director General Department of State Services, Lawal Musa Daura; and the State Director, Department of State Services to immediately intervene as a matter of urgency, to ensure the immediate safe release of our colleague, and to forestall the unpleasant consequences that a total shut down of medical services will cause the good people of Cross River State.

“We also enjoin the security agencies in the state, to heighten their intelligence gathering and service delivery to prevent future reoccurrence of “doctor- targeted” kidnappings in Cross River State.

“The Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Cross River State regrets any inconveniences this action taken may cause the general public and wish to advice law-abiding members of the public requiring medical attention within this period, to seek services in neighbouring states of the federation. We cannot continue to safeguard the lives of others, while ours is under constant threat by kidnappers and armed bandits and those charged with the responsibility of offering protection simply watch us suffer physical and psychological trauma.

“For the avoidance of doubt, the Nigerian Medical Association will withdraw clinical services without any notice, any time a doctor is taken captive in future. We cannot continue to save the lives of others while ours is not secured.”

But, the NMA suspended the planed strike as the kidnappers who seem to have taken the threat from the medical doctors seriously swiftly released Ekanem before the expiration of the deadline. THISDAY could not establish whether any ransom, in cash form, was paid before he was released.

However, the release of Ekanem may have been a gimmick deployed by the kidnappers to stop the medical doctors from withdrawing their services because, it was no sooner than he was released that the kidnappers abducted Udoh, a nursing mother, from her Calabar residence.

The abduction of Udoh can be described as the last straw that broke the camel’s back.

To the medical doctors, the dimensions the kidnapping of their members, and the brazen manner the abductions were executed demanded swift, and decisive responses, so the medical doctors did not only down their tools. They took the fight against their insecurity to the streets, court of public opinion; and to the Government House, Calabar and the seat of power in the state.

At the Government House, Mkpanam who led his members declared that until Udoh was released unconditionally by her abductors, all public, private and missionary hospitals in the state will remain closed from Wednesday, January 10.

“We are not safe and we want people to know that we cannot go to work because we are not safe. We want unconditional release of Dr. Emem Udoh who is a nursing mother and until she is released, all the doctors in Cross River State will sit at home. Anybody who wants medical treatment should go to the neighbouring states,” the NMA chairman said.

Mkpanam said the strike by the doctors, which is a sit-at-home action, would “last for the whole period that Dr. Emem Udoh will be held by the abductors.

“We will not go back until government ensures the release of Udoh because it is the duty of government to protect the citizens.”

Speaking in line with the chairman, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of the NMA in the state, Dr. Ernest Ochang, said that it was the decision of the association’s leadership to ensure that medical doctors downed their tools until Udoh was released unconditionally.

Ochang put the blame for the frequent and targeted abduction of medical doctors in the state on government.

“The litmus test for any leader is security, and safety of its citizens. But, when we are not safe, we dare say that the government has failed the litmus test.

“The government, however, has the litmus test of redeeming itself, which is to bring Dr. Emem Udoh back. If Dr. Emem is brought back today, we will resume work today. But, until then anyone seeking medical attention in Cross River State should go to neighbouring states.

“If after today Dr. Emem Udoh is not released, we will occupy Government House, the Police Headquarters and the DSS office. We will sit there indefinitely until Dr. Emem is brought back”, Ochang said.

The Secretary to the State Government (SSG), Tina Agbor, a lawyer, while responding to the demands, and comments of the medical doctors, said government was doing everything possible to secure the release of the abducted doctor.

Agbor said Governor Ben Ayade, was unhappy with the security situation in the state.

“It is unfortunate that soon after one of the doctors was released, another one was abducted, and this time, a woman. I am a woman. And right now, the State Security Adviser is on the streets trying to solve this problem. You did not need to come here to remind us of our duty because we are doing something about it,” the SSG said.

Before the Wednesday street protest, the NMA had issued a press statement on the evening of Tuesday, January 9, where they dropped the hint that they had downed their tools.

They also demanded that government should take some immediate actions including the immediate redeployment of the state Commissioner of Police, Mr. Hafiz Inuwa.

The statement signed by Mkpanam, and the secretary of the NMA in the state, Dr. Ikechukwu Ukweh, read as in part: “Gentlemen of the press, you will recall that four days ago, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA), Cross River State Branch called a press conference in respect of the kidnap of a doctor in Akamkpa Local Government Area, Cross River State and we raised concerns that these kidnappings seemed to be targeted at doctors living in Cross River State.

“The Nigerian Medical Association Cross River State for the avoidance of doubts cannot continue to safeguard the lives of others while ours is under constant threat by armed bandits and kidnappers.

“It surprisingly will appear at this point, that the various security organisations in the state are either helpless or are complicit in this kidnapping racketeering in Cross River State. Or how else will one explain the fact that a doctor is kidnapped just within three days of the release of another from kidnappers, and the perpetrators of these heinous crimes are never identified and arrested.

“From the foregoing, the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) Cross River State Branch therefore resolves as follows: members are to immediately withdraw all medical services in all hospitals; private and public, from the hills of Obanlikwu to the creeks of Bakassi LGA, until our colleague is released to us, safely without any conditions.

“We call for the immediate transfer of the Commissioner of Police, Cross River State Command out of this state, due to the upsurge in kidnapping, and violent crimes in the state.

“The Inspector General of Police (IGP) should as a matter of urgency send a carefully selected crack team of specially trained officers to save the lives of law abiding citizens of Cross River from the onslaught of these kidnappers.

“We appeal to the Cross River State House of Assembly to as a matter of urgency pass a law prescribing capital punishment for those convicted of kidnapping in a competent court of law.

“We demand the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators involved in the last two incidences of kidnapping of doctors by the crack team of specially trained officers from the office of the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Abuja.”

But, Inuwa has absolved the police of any blame over the kidnapping saga. He said it was on record that the 2017 edition of the Carnival Calabar has been adjudged the best in terms of security provided by the police, as no death or serious crime was recorded.

“Not knowing there was a press release by the NMA, they sat down here for two hours commending my own effort, and commending the efforts of the command. So, you can see the irony of it. I am telling you, to the extent that the PRO of NMA said when the police sent some officers to them, they (officers) told them who the police commissioner was. When they came here it was commendation, commendation, commendation,” the police commissioner said.

The commissioner said the police in the state was doing everything possible to arrest the kidnappers, just as they have arrested some kidnappers in the past.

He said compared to other states, especially in the South-south, and states in other geo-political regions in the country, the crime rate in Cross River State was low, and the police cannot be isolated from the achievement of that feat.

Udoh was eventually released on Thursday afternoon by those who kidnapped her.

Though Udoh was released on Thursday afternoon, the medical doctors were yet to resume work as of Monday, January 15th.

The NMA said members in the state are now living in fear of being kidnapped due to incompetence and lack of understanding of the level of insecurity faced by medical doctors practicing in the state.

So, the doctors announced on Saturday morning that they were still on strike because Udoh was not released unconditionally as demanded by the NMA in the state.

In a press release signed by Ochang, the medical doctors said contrary to reports making the rounds, Udoh was not rescued by the police, but was released after her family paid ransom to the kidnappers.

The press release entitled ‘Why we are still on sit at home’, read as follows: “Contrary to public perceptions, and information bandied around, which is anything but correct, no rescue was made. The family of Dr. Emem Udoh paid a ransom to the kidnappers. So, she was not released unconditionally as demanded by doctors. Dr. Usang Ekanem also paid a ransom. Therefore, doctors feel they are still not safe as nothing has changed.

“Doctors feel the kidnappers will likely grab another person once they exhaust their booty. The NMA is also irked that, at this moment, a Red Cross volunteer who is a primary school teacher in Akpabuyo is still in captivity, and his captors are demanding one million naira ransom.

“Some arrests were made by the DSS at the local community at Etankpini, Odukpani Local Government Area, where both Dr. Usang and Udoh were abandoned, but there is yet any information that they were connected to the kidnapping.

“The much we can say is that the ransom has not been recovered. The NMA also received a letter Signed by the Chief Security Adviser Mr. Jude Ngaji, which members felt was a clear demonstration of either incompetence or lack of understanding.”