Labour and Employment Minister Chris Ngige is fast developing a not-so-ennobling character as a man who fights at the best of times and at the worst of times. Right from the time he served as Anambra State governor, Ngige has been drawn to or has drawn himself into high drama and controversies.
Despite the seemingly endless battles he fought against his political enemies in the state between 2003 and 2006, it must be admitted that Ngige left an enviable track record of accomplishments in Anambra State. He is best remembered for the impressive network of roads his government constructed across various communities, particularly his ability to carve out and develop roads in many previously impenetrable rural communities. Beyond roads, there were other achievements he bequeathed to the state, for which Ngige is regarded as one of the best governors of Anambra State.
Unfortunately, all the achievements have been washed out by ceaseless disagreements in which Ngige has been involved since he was removed as governor by a federal court.
Most of the controversies featuring Ngige arose from comments he made in the public domain. Consider this. In late April 2019, Ngige outraged the nation when he said on a television programme that medical doctors were free to leave Nigeria and move to other countries because Nigeria had enough doctors and didn’t need their services.
The comment was Ngige’s response to a question about the emigration of skilled medical doctors who were being recruited by foreign countries. Ngige said emphatically that he was undisturbed by Nigerian medical doctors relocating to overseas countries. He said: “No, I am not worried … We have surplus. If you have surplus, you export … Who said we don’t have enough doctors? We have more than enough. You can quote me. There is nothing wrong in them travelling out. When they go abroad, they earn money and send them back home here.”
That was an unfortunate remark, something you would not expect from a senior minister of the Federal Government. The tragedy is that Ngige is a medical doctor by training. Who else should be concerned about this situation, if a minister is not worried? It is odd that Ngige should be indifferent to the flight of medical doctors from Nigeria. He did not seem to realise the major impact the exodus would have on the country’s health sector. For example, if doctors were to leave the country in large numbers, it would exacerbate the already anaemic conditions of hospitals and health facilities across the country.
Many people would contest Ngige’s argument that there is an excess of doctors in the country. If there was a surplus of doctors in Nigeria, many public and private hospitals would not be struggling to find qualified consultants and specialists to fill much-needed positions. There are disturbing stories of hospitals turning away citizens experiencing ill health because the hospitals did not have qualified medical and paramedical staff to attend to those people. Over the years, there have been scandals involving hospitals that did not have medical doctors on hand to supervise basic services such as blood transfusion.
Last week, Ngige was embroiled in yet another controversy that set him in opposition to the leadership of the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC). Ngige, as minister, was accused by the NLC of failing to set up the board of the Nigeria Social Insurance Trust Fund (NSITF). There were robust and angry exchanges between labour leader Ayuba Wabba and Ngige’s media assistant. Wabba used uncompromising language to outline what the labour movement would do to get Ngige to inaugurate the NSITF board. Wabba said: “Since Dr. Ngige has vowed to deploy every public resource possible to rob workers of a representation of the NSITF, we wish to announce our intention to meet him headlong. We will make the industrial space uncomfortable for him as we will picket him anywhere we see him.”
Ngige responded that he would not be threatened by the NLC. At the centre of the dispute is the allegation that a former secretary-general of the NUPENG was nominated to chair the board of the NSITF. In his response to the NLC’s hard language, Ngige said he would not capitulate to threats. He said: “The NLC can go ahead and picket the Ministry of Labour and Employment and allied interests a million times, but I want to assure them that Ngige will remain on the side of the law.”
This particular disagreement bears all the hallmarks of a similar quarrel Ngige had in July 2018 with Adams Oshiomhole, the chairperson of the All Progressives Congress (APC). Oshiomhole had directed Ngige to swear in board members of four agencies and parastatals of his ministry within seven days. He threatened Ngige with suspension from the APC if he (Ngige) did not comply. The language and tone of the threat were disrespectful because, in issuing the order, Oshiomhole showed total disregard for the position that Ngige held as Labour and Employment Minister.
In his reaction to Oshiomhole’s letter, Ngige said firmly that he was not troubled by the party chair’s threat to suspend him, arguing that Oshiomhole was uninformed about government policies and procedures. When he was asked whether he would abide by Oshiomhole’s order to constitute the boards within seven days or lose his job, Ngige snapped: “How, in a party that we formed and brought them in? The man is talking out of ignorance. I’m not afraid of suspension.”
When people say that Ngige likes to invite trouble to himself, they might be right. In another strife that Ngige generated in May 2017, he said Igbo leaders had no right to whinge about the marginalisation of their people by the government of Muhammadu Buhari because, in Ngige’s view, Igbo leaders refused to mobilise Igbo people to vote for the APC and Buhari during the 2015 presidential election. Unperturbed by the consequences of that comment that amounted to punching his kith and kin in their faces, Ngige said when he requested Igbo leaders to support Buhari’s presidential campaign in 2015, the leaders insulted him because they were more interested in supporting President Goodluck Jonathan’s government.
In yet another unwarranted comment, Ngige told journalists in Onitsha, Anambra State, in September 2018 that Nigeria would have disintegrated if Buhari had not emerged in 2015 to hold together the country that was tilting perilously toward total breakup. When journalists told him there was no evidence to confirm his exaggerated view of Buhari’s performance in the areas of national security and economic development, Ngige said he was surprised that many people were not hailing Buhari for his accomplishments. Ngige said to the journalists: “I want you to take something away and that thing is that any other person handling this situation, economy, security, it would have been worse … Nigerians should be clapping for us on a daily basis, and, after thanking God, they should thank us.”
Ngige might claim his right to freedom of speech and expression but that right does not include the freedom to squabble with just about everybody and every organisation. A senior minister of government should learn to restrain himself sometimes.