Drama greeted the entry of Vice President Paa Kwesi Amissah-Arthur to the campus of the Bolgatanga Nurses’ Training College Thursday over the nationwide withdrawal of trainee nurses' allowances by government.
The first day of the Vice President’s 2-day tour of the Upper East region, in what began with the inauguration of a regional election campaign squad for the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) and courtesy calls on traditional authorities with a robust entourage of government officials, ended on a rainy night with angry students leveling loud threats to boycott the 2016 general elections if their demands were not met.
It was a one-hour encounter punctuated by a no-allowance-no-vote mantra as the students filled the space in the hall (where the meeting took place) with placards. Some of the students were so blind with rage in front of the Vice President that they did not know the placards they lifted with both hands were hanging upside down as they chanted throughout for attention.
A number of the placards spotted read: “A hungry nurse is a potential killer”, “We are tired of promises; we want our allowances back”, “We can’t pay fees; allowance now” and “Employ our Enrolled/Cert Nurse” among many others.
“We are suffering, President Mahama. Without our allowance, we can’t pay our school fees. At times, we are sacked in the middle of an exam because we owe,” a male student groaned from the crowd.
A female student from the crowd told Starr News: “It is not all institutions that can provide hostel facilities for students. Most of us rent rooms outside the campus. How do you pay your house rent and utility bills without allowance? Some of us are from poor backgrounds where we have siblings to take care of. The cancellation of the allowance is seriously affecting us. Tell Mahama for us!”
Tutors embarrassed as placards wave in front of Veep
For the same government, who is held responsible for ‘inflicting’ the removal of what the trainee nurses see as their monthly life-support package, to schedule an encounter with the same agitated students, the drama seen Thursday was anticipated. And it was the toughest task for the Vice President and his company on the day.
Before the Vice President took the floor, senior government appointees to no avail took turns to calm distressed nerves in the hall. Grey-haired tutors of the school, whilst the government delegation smiled soberly at the high table, looked completely embarrassed in front of the rare visitors as the students persistently ignored their orders to lower the screaming placards. Some tutors repeatedly penetrated the airtight crowd to ensure a placard-free interaction but did not succeed as the targeted students, before they could be reached, relocated deeper with their placards within the assembly to avoid being silenced.
“Away! away!”- Students tell Ayariga
The Minister for Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, Mahama Ayariga, in an attempt to soothe the sighing students, explained that government arrived at the decision to do away with the trainee nurse allowance policy because it was eating increasingly deep into the country’s budget at the neglect of some priority projects as populations at health training institutions continued to swell.
He indicated that government also had welcomed a move to maintain the allowance but to reduce the number of trainee nurses to a size easy to cater for. But that idea, he said, was discarded stillborn because it was only going to bring about a system where there would be fewer nurses to meet an overwhelming demand at health facilities as the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS) register was bound to expand.
Mr. Ayariga told the students, perhaps what they already knew, that government had resolved upon migrating nursing college students onto the student bursary and loan scheme that pertain at the universities and polytechnics.
“We do agree with you that you need to be supported whilst you are in school. But the policy is that you will be given the same treatment as your colleagues in the universities and in the polytechnics. That process is ongoing and we want to assure you that it will be implemented.
"But the process of transitioning you from taking allowances to taking student bursaries and loans will take some time. And so, the Ministry of Health took a decision that they would restore the allowances in a certain form in the interim whilst we carry out the transition,” the minister said, attracting opposing reactions from the crowd.
The students chanted “away! away!” when the minister sought to convince them further by likening the two policies- the trainee allowance and the student loan- to each other in the hope that the students would buy into the latter.
“The two policies are the same. The difference is in the way that they are being described. If I give you an allowance to go through training as a nurse; when you graduate and you come and you are employed in a hospital owned by government; when I’m determining your salary and want to factor in the fact that when you were training I was giving you allowances,” he said but the students rejected the explanation with an uproar.
He continued when the deafening noise receded: “The second one, which is the student loan scheme. When I give you a loan to finance yourself and go through a training programme; when you graduate and you come; and you are negotiating your salary with me as your employer; you would factor in the fact that you had to pay a loan…” But the students, who obviously wanted their allowances restored without any afterschool strings attached, interrupted him and chanted “away! away!” for a while.
In what only sustained the anger in the hall, Mr. Ayariga maintained that the allowance scheme would be restored temporarily and later transitioned to the student loan scheme.
People don’t want us to hold elections - Veep
The Vice President responded to the agitations in the hall, saying some people appeared to want to prevent Ghana from going to the polls in December, this year, through open protests over projects.
“We went to the Western Region. And the placards said, ‘no road, no vote’. Today in Upper East, we went to a place where they said, ‘no electricity, no vote.’ We went somewhere in the Volta Region. They also said, ‘no water, no vote’.
“It looks as if people don’t want us to have an election in 2016. Because everybody has one single issue, which if not resolved in their favour, means that they will not participate in the elections. We cannot have a democracy where only one item matters against the hundreds of other things that are important to us,” the Vice President observed.
He explained that government abolished the allowance scheme to shift focus from short-term ventures to long-term investments. He urged the students to welcome the new scheme so government could channel more resources into the development of deprived communities.
“We are not interested in the here and now, consuming today, forgetting about tomorrow, because tomorrow is also important. It is better to invest in order to secure the future. You will not always be students. You may want an allowance, you may also have a community that doesn’t have electricity. So, when you go home, you want electricity.
“But if the money for the electricity is used to pay an allowance, you would be comfortable here. But when you go home, your parents, your siblings would not have the resources in order for them also to join the 21st century,” he stressed.
Asked at the close of the encounter what they made of the explanations given by the veep-led government officials, a number of the students told Starr News they were not satisfied.
“We are with the Ministry of Health. If the Ministry of Education has been able to restore their feeding grants for the trainees, why can’t our leaders also help us to get our allowances? We are not satisfied,” one of the grieving female students said and, like her dissatisfied colleagues, left the hall flaming with fury.