Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, has said the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC does not have power rotation arrangement and as such, the 2023 presidency is open to aspirants from both the North and the South. While stating that winning the party’s ticket or elections is a game of numbers, he expressed sadness that the Igbo who should be begging for consideration from the party have not shown enough interest in the race by embracing the APC en masse.
In this exclusive interview with OBINNA ODOGWU, he spoke extensively on other issues of national importance including but not limited to labour matters in the country, Igbo presidency, future of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and others.
With the rejection of third term agenda by President Buhari, do you see his successor coming from the South East?
How can you tell me to forecast. Am I President Muhammadu Buhari? He has told you people that he doesn’t want to do a third term; that he is a stickler for the rule of law and that the constitution that we are operating says two terms of four years each, a total of eight years. So, it’s even good that he is saying it by himself because if he didn’t say it and some of us start saying it, you’ll say it’s because I am a Buharist or that I don’t see anything bad with this man. But this is man who is standing straight as sharp and straight as a razor blade telling you what he will do and what he will not do. So, he has said it all. If I were people from the southern part of Nigeria, they will now be more appreciative of the man and then ask him to assist so that his party can move the presidency to the southern part of Nigeria. Our party, the APC, we have never moved our presidency. We made it open during the first time in 2015 and he emerged from the north. The second time, all of us gave him the right of first refusal even though he is from the north. So based on that, we can ask consequentially, that he should assist us. We ask. Not claim it as of right but we shall ask. We shall request our northern brothers in APC to allow the presidency swing to the South.
Of course, you know that they will ask you, who are your candidates? Who are the aspirants from that area? And so, it is left for the southern part of Nigeria to get their acts together. Politics is a game of numbers. You don’t stay in your bedroom and they bring power and give you. No! You must ask for it. You must stand up and struggle. You must show the qualities of a man who can utilize power for the benefit of all. So, when the southern portion of APC does that, the rest will be left with our other brothers to judge. But even in the southern part of APC, the Igbo of South East whom you have particularized in your question have not shown that they want their brothers to take it. They have not embraced this party.
They have not even spoken good words to their president. So, 2020 is a year for the Igbo of South East to know how to play their cards well. If they play their cards well, fine. Other Nigerians will say on a moral high grounds please let us give it to the South East. But if they start playing cantankerous politics and politics of bitterness and politics of hatred, the other Nigerians will be afraid to give it to them. We are all human. They will be afraid. As I speak to you I know those who have spoken to me and said that they are afraid.
This idea of IPOB singing secession is frightening some people. So, the sooner the Igbo via their organizations like Ohanaeze, Aka Ikenga, Ndigbo Lagos, Enyimba and the rest of them, the sooner they tone down the way they talk politically, the better for all of us. I am an Igbo man. If an Igbo is to be president or nominated by Nigerians to be president I will be very happy about it because I believe that Igbo people work hard. I believe that they are ingenious. I believe that they are dexterous. I believe that we are peace lovers and nationalistic like our founding father Nnamdi Azikiwe but we have lacked the politics of Nnamdi Azikiwe. That is what is missing. So, the sooner the Igbo come back to the politics of Nnamdi Azikiwe, with heavy dose of nationalism in it, the better for us.
But their reactions were as a result of their marginalization by the federal government. Don’t you not think that they were reacting to their marginalization?
Which marginalization? What are you looking for in appointments? Some Igbo love appointments. They like egoism. But your brothers have gotten appointments before and they didn’t use it for the benefit of your zone. Your brothers were secretary to government, senate presidents, deputy speakers, ministers of finance and managers of the economy, ministers of aviation, and they didn’t get anything for you in 16 years. Your roads are very bad. If not that I did federal roads in Anambra State, Anambra State roads were the worst in the federation when I came. Your brothers held all these positions when I came. They didn’t build your Second Niger Bridge for you. It was when your brothers became Labour Minister and Minister of Science and Technology, and Foreign Affairs that we spoke to our federal executive council and President Buhari showed compassion and put Second Niger Bridge as one of the five flagship projects of the nation. Over N300 billion is committed on that bridge and access roads into it and everything. The five flagship projects are Lagos-Ibadan Road, Second Niger Bridge, East-West Road, Abuja-Kaduna-Kano Road, and Mambila Power Plant. These five projects are being funded from the Sovereign Wealth Fund and other funds of the country. Yet when your brothers were the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Senate President, Deputy Speaker, Finance Minister and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, they didn’t do it. He also gave me N7 billion now for the rehabilitation of your airport; to upgrade it to international status. Yet you have produced three Ministers of Aviation from your zone. You have produced Njeze, Chidoka, Stella Oduah –– all three Ministers of Aviation under PDP government. They didn’t do it. The one they did was a ramshackle job that we are even going to use this N7 billion now to finish up everything. Put runway light, navigational aid equipment, the runways of international status and even the international wing arrivals and departure halls.
So, I don’t know what they mean by marginalization. When we started newly, some of them came to me and said ‘oh we would have wanted you to be Minister of Works or Minister of Health. This portfolio given to you is nonsense portfolio’ and I looked at them and laughed. They are very mercantile in their thinking. Mercantilism, money, contracts; that’s what they are thinking about. And I used to tell that in other climes, Minister of Labour and Employment is the Number 3 minister in portfolio. Just like if you go again to other clime, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in America they call it Secretary of State, it’s the Number 1 minister. Secretary of State in America is Number 1. If you got to some other climes, Minister of Science and Technology is the Number 2 in China. If you go to some other climes, Labour and Employment Minister is in charge of employment; he is in charge of social security programmes, giving those who are not employed money.
We don’t pay them money here but we are doing other things that add up like N-Power programme, school feeding and the rest of them all. In the last committee I was the Number 2 man in that committee. So, I do not understand what you mean by marginalization. And he gave South East four cabinet ministers during his first tenure. Whereas the North West where the President comes from, only one minister or so was of cabinet rank at that time; one or two of them. I don’t want to start extrapolating that Chibuike Amaechi of Rivers State is an Igbo man. I don’t want to also extrapolate that Ibe Kachukwu Ibe is also an Igbo man from the South-South. So, when they say all those things I just regard it as a case of trying to give a dog a bad name to hang it.
So, for me, we have never had it so good in terms of our infrastructure from this Katsina-born General. I will call him General even though Punch newspaper said that they are calling him General as a sort of derogatory remark which is nonsense as far as I am concerned. The man is a General as far as I am concerned. He doesn’t claim he is a professor. He has never told you he is a professor, or Professor of English or Professor of Philosophy. He is a man who learnt how to shoot and kill. That’s what soldiers are trained for. So, you now say you are calling him General, that it is derogation. I look at it and laugh. There is nothing derogatory about it. In fact, when he finished his assignment as Head of State I knew he would like to answer General because he merits it. So, when you people write and write and write as press people, you can write anything you want. The man is not perturbed. Just like the other time you people wrote about me, that I did this and that, I don’t care. I just want to do the right thing and go and sleep. I have no time for rigmarole. That’s why some politicians don’t like me but I don’t care because I am at peace with my mind. So, there is no question of marginalization as far as I am concerned.
How can Igbo contest fairly with the likes of the national leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu, and whose mobilization is already going on across the country quietly?
The Igbo can contest fairly if they do what is called a stitch in time saves nine. Their presence in APC is not strong enough. So, they have to join us that are there. We have been going on campaigns. We have been begging them to come. That is the assignment I gave to myself since 2011. I was the one who campaigned to Okorocha, Izunaso, Annie Okonkwo and they agreed to follow us and joined us in the negotiation. Okorocha was an APGA governor then. So, technically I brought Okorocha, Izunaso, and others into APC because the first meeting that they attended, I was the one who introduced them at the meeting. It was a negotiation meeting and they came. They came with their one faction of APGA even though it wasn’t a big faction. But it was a faction. So, it is never late to come because Okorocha after joining us at that time went and ran for presidential nomination. So, let them come. It’s a level playing ground for everybody.
What do you make of the agitation for the removal of Comrade Adams Oshiomhole as APC National Chairman?
Comrade Adams Oshiomhole is National Chairman. He was brought in by a process; anybody who wants to remove him, there is also a process for removal as enshrined in our party’s constitution. So, you go and meet up that provision. He is human. He has his own flaws just like I have my own flaws too. He is human. Nobody is perfect.
Some people may be correct to compare him with the former Chairman who was very less effervescent. Oshiomhole is effervescent. So, no two individuals are same. So, for me, I am looking at the situation. Those who feel aggrieved, if your number is enough and you want to apply the constitutional provision, so be it. If your number is not enough and you apply the constitutional provision and you fail, so be it. So, that is the way I stand on the matter.
As Minister of Labour and Employment, what will you count as your biggest achievement since assuming that office?
The biggest achievement will be difficult to define because we have so many achievements that are contemporaneous within the time spine you are talking about; from 2015 November when I was sworn in as a Minister of Labour to my leaving the cabinet for a small sabbatical and later on getting a reappointment and being re-inaugurated as minister to continue in the same portfolio. We have so many achievements both domestic and international that it will be difficult for one to say that this is more important that the other.
But overall, I want to say that we have put in some stability in the labour industry milieu. That is the major achievement. You can see that that milieu has been quite stable. We didn’t have all those perennial strikes that go on to months, a year, and so on. Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) at a point did nine months strike. There is no such thing in this administration and we have been proactive; working to establish that industrial relation engagement that is needed for a peaceful coexistence between all of us in the industry; those we call the social partners.
The social partners by ILO definition, and ILO nomenclature and parlance is the government on one side, other private sector employers on the other side and then the labour unions or workers on the other side of the tripod. So, it is a tripartite thing. In that, we discuss. There is social dialogue and everybody is on board. That is the principle that we have adopted. So, we have peace in that area. We have also fought unemployment. Unemployment and underemployment are very serious cankerworms that have invaded the economy and if anybody tells you that it calls for cheers, it is a lie because the absorption rate for people who are being put out from the schools, universities, polytechnics, Colleges of Education; the absorption rate in terms of giving them work and the output rate is not same.
The output rate quite outstrips the absorption rate and I can tell you that the figures coming out are frightening figures but we have at least tried. First of all, we have diversified the economy and went into agriculture; a low hanging fruits; made agriculture easy and attractive now. Agriculture is part of the blue-collar jobs we are talking about, not the white-collar jobs. Agriculture is there; people working in the field of agriculture especially in rice production, sorghum and the rest of them all. The Anchor Borrowers programme of the federal government through the CBN is working and working very well. In fact, it has made Nigeria very self sufficient in terms of rice. Do not mind the hike we now have in terms of rice price because of the border closure. It will stabilize and the price will get down to normalcy.
But the important thing is that we have stopped now taking that rice cultivated, milled abroad and brought here through the borders of Benin Republic, Mali and all the rest of them. We are now 98 percent self-sufficient. So, we have created jobs and if you look at the direct and indirect jobs created in agriculture you will be surprised in the neighbourhood of millions, about seven to eight millions. From the man who is going to the field to till the land, the man who is plucking it, the man who is doing the paddy, the man who is doing the rice mills; the man who is producing the bags that will be used in bagging them, the man who is de-stoning the rice, the man who is transporting the rice, the man who is loading and offloading them, these jobs that are being created.
And of course the man who is marketing them in the market. So, across that chain about eight million jobs are being created. Apart from agriculture, we have also tried to keep the jobs we have. We have told the companies that there is nothing like retrenchment.
And the federal government took the lead. President Buhari, one of the mandates he gave me and the Head of Service was that there would be no retrenchment of workers. So, what we try to do is to retrain them and make them more productive and even created employments, or direct recruitment in police, armed forces, and even in the public service instead of before when you have embargo on employment. We didn’t have embargo on employment. We didn’t even have embargo on promotions and other things that are associated with public service.
So, you can see that this is a government that is really trying to fight this unemployment with all weapons and everything at our disposal. We have also created ad-hoc jobs or ad-hoc employment through the N-power programmes –– N-Power teach, N-Power agriculture, N-Power health, N-Power build –– and from the National Directorate of Employment which is under my ministry, we are training persons to do blue-collar jobs; to do welding, fabrication, tailoring, carpentry, painting but we have not done enough. That is the most important thing. I must concede. We want to do more than we are doing now. What we are doing now is like a drop of water in the ocean.
With some of the governors yet to agree with labour on the payment of the new minimum wage, do you fear any labour unrest in the making?
Any governor who does not pay the new minimum wage of N30, 000 is flouting the law; and nothing says that a state government cannot be taken to court. The new minimum wage act is very, very profuse in the way it has liberalised the idea of seeking for the penalty. It doesn’t leave it for me as Minister of Labour to enforce as like before. Now, unions can go to the Industrial Court direct. They can approach the Industrial Court.
We have even made it more liberal by saying that a worker who is being denied his minimum wage can go to court. It is there in the new act. We have also the penalties. Do not forget that when a penalty is given, don’t look at the monetary aspect of the penalty because you can be given a fine or sent to prison or both of them. And no state government would want to be said that the Industrial Court says that the state government should go to prison or give them conjoint fine and conviction to prison. No! So, I know that those governments, which haven’t started paying, it may be due to some internal constraints. The consequential adjustment is another kettle of fish. It is different from the minimum wage itself of N30, 000. The minimum wage of N30, 000 once you pay that minimum wage to the least paid worker in grade level one step one you have conformed to the law. It is now the consequential adjustment for level 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and getting to 17 that a government can negotiate with its own joint negotiating council. You don’t need to follow the template done by the federal government. That is our own template given our peculiarities. But they can use it as a guide and that is why the federal executive council ordered my ministry and the Salaries, Income, and Wages Commission to send that template down to them as guidance and we have done so. It is left for the state governments to convoke their joint council meetings and discuss. It is tripartite. They must discuss. It is something that emanates from the convention which Nigeria is part of. It is like a collective bargaining agreement, convention 87. So, you must do it.
You have been criticised for trivializing the problem of brain drain in the health sector. Do you have fresh facts now to confirm that Nigeria does not have sufficient medical personnel especially doctors in the health sector?
I don’t discuss that matter anymore. The Nigeria Medical Association (NMA) has made a U-turn and indirectly they are supporting what I said. The day they said that some doctors are unemployed that was the day they supported me. And I said that we have doctors that we can plug to man every place. That was the point I was making. If you want to use the word surplus, that’s your business. If you want to use excess doctors, that’s your business.
But when they said that some doctors are unemployed, it means that there’s excess in the manning system. And what I am telling them indirectly is that, that excess can be used to go to places where you have needs. There are state governments up north such as Zamfara, Kebbi, they are employing Korean doctors, Egyptian doctors; some of them are employing Cuban doctors and they are employing them in foreign exchange.
So, if Nigerian doctors want to go and work there, I do not see why they would come to work there at emoluments that I know will be a little bit cheaper than the ones they are paying those foreigners and they will not be employed. Again, I said, why are youth corps doctors serving in the urban areas? What is their business in urban areas? They should be deployed to the Primary Health Centres (PHCs) that we have. We have PHCs all over the country. And doctors do not man those PHCs. And doctors themselves have asserted at the NMA conference as part of what their jurisdiction says that PHCs should be manned by doctors for effectiveness and efficiency. And there is money for PHCs under the Health Act.
This year, I think the federal government’s component of it is from the consolidated revenue, which is about N49 billion or so. And what the states are required to pay as counterpart fund is just about 25 percent and then they will use it to man the PHCs, man the Accidents and Emergencies that are envisaged; that’s by the thrusts of the Health Act; Primary Healthcare Centres and their drugs and personnel. Then, accident and emergency cases of persons especially who are unknown so that states can establish a fund from which you pay for such services for any hospitals that have taken people in when they have accidents and they are unknown. These are the three areas and part of it is for health insurance. These are the three areas but the PHCs take large chunk of the fund. And the money is lying down there in the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), that of the federal government. The state governments have refused to provide counterpart fund in most of them.
So, the NMA should take their fight to the states. A lot of state governments have also refused to recruit doctors. A lot of them have also refused to modernize even their general hospitals that are supposed to be doing residency programme for them. Yes! And even taking housemen or house officers in. A lot of states don’t modernize their general hospitals but when I was a house officer, I did my housemanship in Onitsha General Hospital. The then Anambra State government was manning the place and refurbished the place. We had consultants and they were teaching us. And when we finished from there we became good doctors at NYSC. So, why the slide? And most of the health commissioners in the states are doctors. They don’t want to go to the state executive council and present a robust, iron-cast case so that the general hospitals will be brought back to life. Some of them are even supposed to have specialist hospitals per senatorial zones. When I was governor here in Anambra that was what I did. I converted Onitsha to a specialist hospital. I converted Ekwulobia and I think Enugwu-Ukwu and Amaku in Awka to a specialist hospital. That’s how I did it. I gave them specialist status. Today, where are they? Nowhere! They don’t even have house officers not to talk about residents. So, NMA has to take their battle into the states.
It is not everything you call on the federal government. I have told them that. And I say it everywhere. I am a medical practitioner of 40 years standing and so I know what I am talking about. They have to do some homework, some soul searching and take their fight to the appropriate place so that our people can benefit. The people are in the states. They are in the local governments. They are in the communities. And these are where we have the Primary Healthcare Centres. If you have primary healthcare that is functional, you will not see people thronging the general hospitals and even the specialist hospitals. All federal teaching hospitals are overlaboured with malaria cases, typhoid cases, cases of gastroenteritis. What are they doing in teaching hospitals? They should be managed at primary healthcare level and if the primary healthcare feels they can’t do enough, they send to the general hospital.
But the pyramid has been turned upside down. The teaching hospital is supposed to be on top of the pyramid but today the teaching hospitals are at the base. Every ailment goes there. So, the pyramid is standing the other way round and that’s an abnormality. And no abnormality can last. Once you practice an abnormality you will see consequences you don’t desire. So, this is what is going on in the health sector. I am sorry I have to even discuss it again. I told you I am tired of discussing it. But the state Commissioners for Health, the NMA in the states, the NMA national even the health workers in the states, everybody should change attitude and do the right thing. Governors should also listen to their commissioners and pay attention to health and give health good budgetary allocation. If you put the budgetary allocation given to the Ministry of Health and teaching hospitals now by federal and put again together with it the health fund that is coming out from the consolidated revenue fund of the federation and join it what the federal government is spending on water and sanitation; because water and sanitation is part of health budget; if you aggregate these three components you will see that the federal government of Nigeria is doing more than 10 percent if not 12 percent of her budget into health. And that is what Abuja Declaration is asking us to do. Abuja Declaration says 15 percent but I can tell you that most of the state governments are not doing up to three percent in their health budget. So, this is my own stand on that.