The Kenyan doctor's strike took a new twist when a court jailed seven officials from the doctors' union. Public doctors have been on strike in Kenya since early December.
The Employment and Labor Relations Court in Nairobi found union officials guilty of contempt of court on Monday for failing to call off a strike which has crippled Kenya's health sector and left millions without access to public medical care.
The officials of the medical union will remain behind bars for the next 30 days. Talks between the government and the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) collapsed over the weekend. Over 5,000 Kenyan doctors have been on strike since early December demanding better pay and working conditions. According to some estimates, the strike has left hundreds dead and thousands without access to public health care.
With no clear end to the strike in sight, Judge Hellen Wasilwa said she could not delay further the contempt of court sentence she had suspended earlier on the condition that the doctors call off their strike.
"The applicants have not demonstrated to court any new and compelling issue, or pointed out any mistake or error apparent on the record, or any sufficient cause that would warrant review of the court's order," Wasilwa said.
Moses Masika, a doctor and lecturer at the School of Medicine University of Nairobi, said that the ruling was unfair.
"The arrest has been sugarcoated for contempt of court but we know the real reason is that they have been jailed for leading the strike which is within their right," said Dr. Masika. "It is a freedom which is safeguarded in our constitution. While they are in jail there will be no negotiation because these are the leaders leading the negotiations."
Opposition leader Raila Odinga criticized the decision to send the union leaders to jail and blamed the ruling Jubilee Party government for the crisis. Odinga said he was "horrified, disturbed and shocked" at the sentencing and said it marked "the lowest point that Jubilee's intransigence, incompetence and inability to lead has brought the nation to."
Political analyst Brian Wanyama said that the strike is being seen as a test for President Uhuru Kenyatta's leadership and his Jubilee Party ahead of August elections. A series of corruption scandals - including an investigation into millions of dollars allegedly missing from the Ministry of Health - has bolstered support for the doctors.
"It is not just the doctors who are on strike but also university lecturers and the government is not offering anything," said Wanyama. "It is a minus for Jubilee and a fodder under which the opposition under Odinga would want to use to bring down the Jubilee government."
Back to the deal
The doctors are demanding implementation of a deal reached in 2013 that would enact a 150-180 percent pay rise. However, the government maintains it can only afford 40 percent. An issue that most doctors like Masika don't agree with.
"The doctors have expressed their aspirations. The government needs to make an offer that would be acceptable until that happens," he said. "Whether the doctors are in jail or not the strike will still go on.
Union members and supporters will hold daily vigils outside prison until the officials are released, he added. "We are disappointed. We have suspended all negotiations," said Thuranira Kaugiria, a union official.