-By Samuel Owolabi
“He died from a lack of medical care,” his wife said.
That sentence cuts deep in Nigerian daily expression. But when uttered about the demise of a prominent reporter who lived his life agitating for better living and working conditions for those in his field, it cuts even deeper.
The news of Chuks Ehirim’s passing on June 15 took many Nigerians by surprise.
Presidential spokesperson, Garba Shehu, conveyed President Muhammadu Buhari’s sympathy to Mr. Ehirim’s family.
“He was a very honest, courageous and hardworking journalist,” Mr. Shehu said.
Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar also commiserated with the family of Mr. Ehirim.
A glimpse into what he left behind revealed a man who died trying to make ends meet, his public profile notwithstanding.
With the assistance of a long-time colleague and family friend, Jude Opara, PREMIUM TIMES visited Mr. Ehirim’s family.
In a small, unpainted bungalow in Pegi, a remote village about 43 kilometres southwest of Abuja, Esther Ehirim had finally accepted her fate and summoned the courage to talk, after days of writhing and sobbing over her husband’s death.
“He would have died in this house, in this village,” Mrs. Ehirim said faintly after offering a timid curtsy. “He preferred to die than ask anyone for help.”
Mrs. Ehirim said her husband’s illness started in April when he suddenly began to breath heavily, prompting the family to rush him to the hospital.
Doctors said it was pneumonia, a bacterial infection of the lungs.
Before then, Mrs. Ehirim had expressed concerns over the feeble appearance of her husband who, she added, couldn’t entertain the thought of being ill in the face of pressing family demands.
“Each time, he would tell me everything was fine.”
But after spending five days in the hospital in April, Mr. Ehirim’s health began to deteriorate. His wife advised him to seek financial support from his colleagues or politicians, most of whom he was well acquainted.
“He always swore to me that he would rather die than beg anyone for financial support,” said the mother of four. At this point, she was already fighting back tears. “Unless someone gave him something voluntarily, he didn’t know how to ask anyone for help.”
Indeed. When Mr. Ehirim’s pneumonia relapsed in the early hours of June 15, he was reluctant to send out any alarm to his friends. It took the intervention of neighbours and Mrs. Ehirim’s insistence to get the message across to Mr. Opara who rushed to his ‘brother’s house.’
“He said he’d told his family not to disturb me or anyone else,” Mr. Opara said. “But I didn’t bother listening to him because I could see clearly that something terrible was in the offing.”
After struggling to source petrol to power available vehicle, Mr. Opara and Mrs. Ehirim rushed Mr. Ehirim through a narrow, bumpy and unpaved road to the nearest hospital in Kuje, about 13 kilometres from Pegi.
Upon arriving at the hospital, they met attendants who told them the hospital was not running. But they did one thing unusual, said Mr. Opara.
“They accepted to give him medication to stabilise him before giving us papers to proceed to National Hospital for proper treatment.”
Mr. Opara said he quickly reminded the nurses in Kuje that the National Hospital had also been paralysed by striking medical doctors, but “they said we should proceed” because “they have a different policy there.”
At this point, Mr. Ehirim’s wheezing had worsened. But that did little to dissuade Mr. Opara who took him back to the vehicle and off to the National Hospital.
After driving almost 40 kilometres to the National Hospital, it turned out Nigeria’s flagship medical facility was deserted.
After waiting hours trying to decide what to do next, they opted for a private hospital. It was already 5 p.m.
“We arrived at Garki Hospital and the doctors went to work immediately without demanding money first,” Mrs. Ehirim recounted. “We felt lucky.”
But that feeling was short-lived. Mr. Ehirim succumbed to his illness just before midnight.
Even though Mr. Ehirim was not denied treatment when he got to the hospital, his wife said he could have lived longer if he’d been able to get medical attention on time, especially following his initial attack in April.
“I won’t lie to you sir, we had serious financial issues that made it difficult for him to get proper medical care,” she said. “But my husband would say: ‘I have a job, so why should I go begging?’”
Ikechukwu Amaechi, the publisher of TheNiche Newspapers, where Mr. Ehirim worked until his death, said the wife called him a few times in recent months seeking financial support to get staple.
“I am aware that, since he got out of the hospital in April, his family had continued to have problems with feeding,” Mr. Amaechi said.
Despite his failing health, Mr. Ehirim continued to work to provide for his wife and kids, aged 14, 6, 4 and 1.
“I always asked him to be very careful,” Mrs. Ehirim said. “But the children must eat or go to school and I have no job.”
Mrs. Ehirim said if her husband was not owed salaries, 17 months as at May, he may not have died, “at least not so early.”
Mr. Amaechi acknowledged owing Mr. Ehirim, but said he was also a victim of a “tough” business environment for media owners.
“The last two years have been extremely unbearable for us at TheNiche,” Mr. Amaechi lamented. “But, make no mistake, the situation is the same in almost every newspaper in the country.”
Alas, the Ehirims are only a microcosm of a lingering salaries crisis that most media practitioners’ families are grappling with.
Although there is no data that details the steepness of the crisis, a PREMIUM TIMES’ check revealed that many media houses – print, online and broadcast – are dealing with several months – even years – of unpaid remuneration.
“I haven’t been paid for 34 long months and the heartless owners of this newspaper have continued to pretend as if everything is in order,” a journalist with Peoples Daily Newspapers told PREMIUM TIMES.
“We’re not getting paid on one hand,” he said. “And Nigerians are blasting us every day for not being able to carry out proper investigative journalism or even report ordinary stories timely and diligently.”
Another reporter for Vanguard Newspapers said her employers have not paid staff for five months.
“I just wait at the secretariat with other correspondents until someone has a serious crime case that can earn us money or the securities agencies have something for us,” the reporter said. “We must survive somehow.”
The situation has made it difficult for journalists to demand other allowances, much less demand basic entitlements, such as health insurance, life policy or pensions, said media analyst, Bruce Ugiomoh.
Mr. Ugiomoh, a communications strategist, said Nigerian media houses had battered the psyche of their employees so much that they could no longer summon the courage to make demands outside their basic salaries.
“Their attention is being permanently diverted from these entitlements because the. “It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy to keep reporters poor.”
Mr. Ugiomoh said not all defaulting media houses have financial crisis
“Just pay a little attention and you’ll see media owners spending money like drunken sailors,” Mr. Ugiomoh said. “The poor system we run in this country has made it easy for heartless individuals who call themselves media moguls to spend millions of dollars on frivolous endeavours while leaving their reporters in a perpetual state of penury.”
Mr. Ugiomoh warned that failure to properly address the situation could take an adverse toll on the Nigeria’s nascent democracy.
“You need to understand that journalists contribute a lot to democracy and we risk losing that great service,” Mr. Ugiomoh said. “Journalism is an intellectually challenging profession, you can’t do much if you have no concentration because you’re not well motivated.”
Perhaps no one is more saddled with the responsibility of dealing with the indifference of publishers to the plight of their workers than Waheed Odusile, President of the Nigerian Union of Journalists.
Mr. Odusile told PREMIUM TIMES that despite the fact that Nigerian journalists were placed on “very poor” salaries, even that little hardly hit their bank accounts at the end of the month.
This, Mr. Odusile said, made it difficult for journalism to excel in the country.
Mr. Odusile, who was elected last year, said he assumed office with “a clear plan” to address salaries crisis headlong.
“I immediately started confronting media houses about non-payment of workers’ salaries.”
While tackling the crisis, Mr. Odusile said, he discovered that a lot of factors contributed to its persistence.
“Media houses have had to import newsprints at a very costly price and a poor power supply forced them to fuel generators and maintain them,” Mr. Odusile said. “But that is not an excuse for them to continue to renege on their obligation to workers.”
He, however, said his association would continue to put pressure on the government to help proffer an enduring end to the forlorn situation.
“We have approached the Federal Ministry of Labour to do something about this situation. We need to have a good pay for journalists as well as a good business environment for employers.”
Amongst the solutions it pushed for was the issue of taxes and tariffs.
“A tax break and very low tariffs on imported newsprints would reduce operational cost on media houses,” Mr. Odusile said. “Media owners would have no excuse not to pay workers at least their basic salaries.”
Mr. Odusile said pressure is being mounted on the National Assembly to resuscitate a bill that would address the crisis Nigerian journalists are facing.
The bill, first proposed about 10 years ago when Smart Adeyemi was leading the union, would go a long way at fostering a more bearable living conditions for media practitioners, Mr. Odusile said.
He said some “mischievous” media owners went to truncate the progress of the bill in the National Assembly in order to maintain the status quo.
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