-Sen Chris Ngige
From Chuks Collins, Awka
The Minister of Labour/Employment, Sen Chris Ngige has in this exclusive interview with CHUKS COLLINS, thrown more light on some achievements and ongoing life transforming projects of the President Muhammadu Buhari-led All Progressives Congress (APC)administration.
He also revealed that contrary to the insinuations by political opponents, the administration has continued to pursue projects that would unify, transform and engender quality of life of all Nigerians.
For example, the new ongoing land-rail projects that will link up all state capitals, especially those of the South East.
While the equally ongoing coastal rail project has been modified to link PH, Agbor, Onitsha and Warri, with all other coastal cities in the country.
Q: It’s a brand new year, and your dear state, Anambra is also expecting a new government. What message do you have for the people and hope for the in-coming administration?
Well, first is to give hope to both the people of Anambra State and Nigeria generally. The years past have been very difficult and trying times in terms of the economy and security. The only thing that has been steady is that the President, Muhammadu Buhari and members of the cabinet decided that we will continue with our infrastructural revolution. And we have been doing that religiously; in the area of road construction, bridges -like the second Niger Bridge and other bridges nationwide. Also the railway transport, as the rails are functioning now. The Abuja-Kaduna-Abuja, Lagos-Abeokuta-Ibadan, with the construction going on the Kaduna-Kano line. Moreso, the coastal rail is going to take off as the financial engineering has been done.
The Portharcourt-Enugu-Makurdi-Jos-Bauchi to Maiduguri is also on course. The narrow gauge has been awarded and the contractors have moved to site. And the test runs are even being done on the portion that has been repaired. It’s a full rehabilitation and reconstruction that’s going on. So we are very hopeful.
Then Power; we have built a lot of injector stations in particular to enable the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) generate more power. We now generate close to 15,000mw. So, infrastructure-wise we are trying.
Again all the airports are being remodeled. They are all being fitted with modern aviation equipment and landing systems and all the AIATA regulation requirements. Really we have not done badly, as a lot of resources are going into them. But because our earnings as a country based on our major economic resource material-ie, oil and gas has dropped; our earnings also reduced so much. The reasons are open to everyone. It’s the insurgency in the Niger Delta region. Production moved from 2.2million barrels per day, if you add condensate, to 2.5m bpd to just 1m bpd. Sometimes it gets to 700,000 barrels. The prices experienced slide moving from $120, $110 a barrel to $60, and even to as low as $30 at one point. And in the height of Covid-19 scourge it fall to $15. It was such that we couldn’t lift further or sell. We were forced to pay for storage. It was as bad as that. So if you look at all these in a weighted basket you will see that the government has done marvelously well.
It’s only those in destructive opposition or that would choose to close their eyes or will not agree that we have done the unexpected. Covid-19 came and scattered everything. African nations suffered. There was so much job losses, especially in the informal sector. So unemployment moved up from 18% to 21%, then to 27%. And before we know what was going on, it hit 33%. We couldn’t stop the slide because the informal sector had been decimated. You know that the informal sector are people who employ themselves; people who are on pay as you work. They are the daily paid workers who work and get paid daily.
Even industrialists suffered huge losses. So the government tried to see how to reflate the economy -MSMEs, SMEs, etc were being encouraged. But there’s an extent you do that, especially if your pocket is not heavy.
We couldn’t even give the aviation sector the money they needed. Same for the pharmaceutical sector. But the FG has been doing its best, especially with the backing of the Central Bank of Nigeria that came to our rescue. So we don’t have to lose hope. We want Nigerians to be people of hope for them to move on in the new year with a lot of optimism and faith.
Q:People of the South East geopolitical zone have continued to grumble about the glaring exclusion of the zone from the rail transport plan in the zone.
It’s not true. The people saying that are simply being economical with the truth. The coastal rail envisaged by the Jonathan administration didn’t pass through the South East zone. That is correct. But President Buhari came and corrected it. He gave the South East people legs and because of the way it had been structured most of the legs coming into the South East were coming in as spurs. So that’s what President Muhammadu Buhari did for the Igbos, who said that he hate them. The original plan for the coastal rail was from Lagos-Ijebu Ode-Benin-Agbor -Warri-Yenegoa. The Yenegoa line will then go through Aba into Portharcourt.
But it has now been readjusted; of course with more money. Consequently when it gets to Agbor going to Warri, there’s going to be a new leg moving to Asaba crossing into Onitsha with a railbridge. So there will be a third bridge on the River Niger at Onitsha, a rail bridge. It will drop in Onitsha and from there into Nnewi.
The Yenegoa line will go through Aba into Portharcourt; and do what you can call an anastomoses and come out from Portharcourt, to Umuahia on another line. It’s just like you have the green line in the United Kingdom, Central line, Model Line, etc. The coastal line from Portharcourt to Umuahia to Enugu to Makurdi. But when it gets to Umuahia it would do a spur into Owerri; when it gets to Enugu it will do a spur into Awka and Abakaliki.
And it goes again and comes to Bauchi, because of the serious implication and agitation from the North East a new spur is being proposed into Yola, passing through Gombe and Jalingo. Due to the outcries of marginalization, all the state capitals are going to be linked up to this coastal rail project plan.
This is apart from the one I mentioned that would run from Portharcourt on a narrow gauge going through Umuahia again through Uzuakoli and so on to Enugu and to Benue, etc. So you have two lines -one is “coastal” and the other narrow gauge called the North East line.
The difference between the narrow gauge and the broad gauge or what they call the standard gauge is the speed of the train. The train on the standard gauge will do 150kph, whereas the one on the narrow gauge will do 120kph. That’s just the difference, the coaches, the engines, the personnel, drivers, engineers, etc are all the same. So when some people criticize and say oh they gave us narrow gauge and have given the Northerners the standard gauge and even took it to Maradi. They really don’t know what they are talking about.
Yes, it has to go to Maradi because we want to stop Maradi to stop using the port of Cotonou. We want to see if we can make them use Lagos or Portharcourt ports. Because if they go into the rail that comes from Lagos; meanwhile Maradi is just a border town between Nigeria’s Daura and Niger. It’s just 10km away. So it will just do 10km and join the line and move to Kano, down to Lagos. And Niger has Oil now and we want them to move their oil down to Lagos for export for us to make some earnings therefrom. That’s it. With the earnings our economy will boom, and more jobs will be created. This is as per the rail.
It’s clear the South East will gain. All the capitals of the South East are touched and as a matter of fact there’s also a linkage between the coastal rail that cuts into Onitsha going to Nnewi which will be linked to Awka, to join the one that comes from Enugu. So the man from Enugu going to Nnewi can just pass through Awka and get down to Nnewi; or get down to Onitsha. It’s just a question of knowing the configuration, the contours that are being drawn on this system. A lot of people don’t know. They speak out of ignorance and abuse the government for no just cause.
Q:Hon Minister your speak with so much optimism. You also show you are at home with the details. So, what’s the effective timeframe like; when would these become operational?
It differs. The completion timeframe for the Eastern line moving to the North is Mid 2023. Then the coastal rail will take a much longer time because the financing is loan-based with the counterpart funding from the FG. We have seen the Chinese back out, because they said they had already bitten more than they could chew. It necessitated us to take up alternative financiers especially in the coastal rail project. This is because they said they have taken a lot. So they backed out of that eastern flank of the rail line project and we had to replace them.
Our financial commitment will increase because we have now added spurs and enlarged the particulars, so the initial money they were supposed to bring is no longer what it is. Again, our own counterpart funding will increase and they are insisting that the percentage for counterpart funding for those ones have to also increase. That’s it. Overall, this Government is tackling a lot.
Q:The Year 2021 witnessed a lot of Labour unrest. It’s our wish that 2022 will be a lot different. Hon Minister Sir, why does it appear that FG often fail, renege or deviate from agreed matters/terms with the Labour unions?
No. I have explained this a couple of times. A lot of these agreements they were saying that the FG deviated from were agreements they negotiated in 2009 and 2013 with the Jonathan administration. If you talk about that of the ASUU and other university-based unions like NASU, SSANU and others were agreements they reached in 2009 when they did their first negotiation. But in 2013 they renegotiated and that government agreed that they will be paying them N220Billion every year for the next six years, for revitalization of Universities.
They paid the first N220Billion and thereafter reneged. That payment was actually made in 2014, with money from TETFUND. So rightfully there was no new injection because TETFUND money was money that was already there. It was that government that also negotiated that they would pay the end allowances and agreed on how to pay them. They only dropped the first amount and none again. They never paid for 2014 or 2015, for an agreement that was drawn in 2013.
So it happened that as we took over, no one had anticipated the economy would go this way. The earnings slide so down. So we all agreed on the need for re-negotiations. Consequently the Babalakin Panel was then set up to look into it. We then said, meanwhile, as the renegotiation was going on let us see what we can do. It’s that what we can do that we are doing. And that what we can do, since I came on board we have been doing with timelines. That’s why they tell you that timelines have been breached. In the former times they won’t say that. I introduced the idea of timelines so that government people would sit up and do the needful. So we renegotiated those revitalization and they were being paid. Already the FG has paid N70Billion on revitalization. On earned academic allowances they were paid N30Billion plus N22.27Billion in 2021, for the university Unions.
What are these earned Academic allowances? They are allowances they said should be paid because in a class where they supposed to have 30 students they now teach 50. So they calculated the extra 20 and said they should be paid more money. That’s what is called academic allowances. It has nothing to do with their salaries. Payment of salaries are unaffected as it’s being paid as at when due by the FG. These allowances are to be called extra load or overtime, but in academic circle they use different nomenclature called “academic allowances”.
Then those in the Water Works, Engineering and Laboratories, etc call their own Earned Allowances. These are talking about same thing. That’s why when we bring it out for them to share they start having another round of problems on the percentage. Because it’s always like a dogfight, Government often have to step in again and it’s resolution takes time.
This is just the situation. But am not saying that the government is a saint; there are certain government agencies that handle things too slowly. They are all part of bureaucracy. If you tell us that you want the government to review the act of NUC in such a way that State Governments don’t establish universities indiscriminately, the act that established NUC is National Assembly (NASS)matter. So when we send it to the NASS we persuade them but they will do it at their own time. So that Act is there, and the review sought is also there. Who then do you blame?
But when they talk about it they accuse the FG. They say it’s FG fault. They are always careful not to mention the particular agency of government involved, or Ministry of Education. They won’t even mention NUC. They would simply call government. It’s clear they are afraid of NUC because it’s NUC that appoints Vice Chancellors; same with Ministry of Education because they appoint Vice Chancellors also, etc. The only point when they can come to vent their feelings is the Ministry of Labour whereas am the conciliator. Am not their employer, instead am an arbiter, so to say.
But they would come and sit in my office singing, etc. And because am their father I will not disown them -all the Unions of ASUU, NASU, etc. As the Minister of Labour am their father. Yet some ignorant ones would say that Ngige has refused to pay us. They claim that Ngige is withholding our money.
I give you another example, they developed University Transparency Accounting System (UTAS)and said they want it against IPPIS. They highlighted some cogent points against IPPIS. That put IPPIS on their toes, and demonstrated the UTAS system which is a home-grown thing. You know our President likes home grown things. That’s why we have Executive Order 3, and Order 5 for home grown things for us to save foreign exchange.
But when we highlighted some rough edges for them to go and tidy up, they end up blaming Ngige for that. The relevant agency in that aspect is the Minister of Communication. In fairness, our government has been carrying them along. I push their matters on all fronts, often in the Ministry of Education and atimes in the Ministry of Finance for them to find the money with which to pay them. I do a yo man’s job to get things done and to ensure every agency of government sits up on their responsibilities always.
Q: The amended Electoral Guidelines has raised a lot of dust in political circles, especially the issue of Direct Primaries for the selection of electable candidates by parties.
The President has said that he could not sign and has given his reasons. We are Advisers to Mr President according to the Constitution. Ministers are his advisers. He also doesn’t have political advisers. So some of us stray into other areas and advise.
When we formed the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in 1998, we started with direct primaries. We are all living witnesses that the gubernatorial primary for PDP here in Anambra was fraught with a lot of crises. It was bedeviled with a lot of crises. Prof ABC Nwosu was announced winner, in 1998. And the day he was announced, I was on my way to my town -Alor to vote in the direct primary. But they were already announcing the result as I was entering the venue to cast my own vote. People were yet to vote and the results were already being announced. It was chaotic.
At that point people didn’t really know which line to stand on. Some people also disrupted the exercise because there was no adequate logistics and manpower disposition by the new evolving party. Thereon, the PDP then metamorphosed their selection process to become indirect primary.
I didn’t believe those who argue that indirect is not a reflective of whole. The argument is certainly not true. After all those delegates are thrown up from the wards. They are elected by all party members. By these elections they have been given the authority to go and represent others.
The only thing is that it gives a lot of people delegate status to represent everybody. Then, there are some other people that undergo other elections and voted by people. For example, a state governor and his deputy have been elected by the entire state, so they should be delegates. A President should be delegate because he was elected by the entire country to be president. So he now has a statutory delegate status. Same goes for the National Assembly members. They have statutory delegates right because they have undergone through an election where the people voted for them to go, and represent and speak for them in the National Assembly. No one can therefore say that such person was not known to his people or wasn’t a reflection of the entire people. Put on a weighted scale, both represent the people.
Again, I have spoken about the logistics. Direct primaries put a lot of strain on the political parties, because in most cases parties don’t have enough logistics for direct primaries no matter how big the party is. I did delegate election here to emerge as candidate in 2013 under APC. It was a little bit chaotic. But because I was a known candidate, it was fairly easy to manage. I have also supervised direct primaries elections, under the APC.
I am an APC member; I was also an APC Senator and anyone telling you that direct primary format is not possible for manipulation is telling you a lie. It is prone to manipulation. It is prone to godfatherism and godfatherism dictations from the party. For me therefore, we have to democratize. We have to abide by our national constitution. The constitution in Section 40 allows everyone freedom of association to form unions and even form political parties. That is people of like-minds. And if people of likeminds gather and agreed in our party constitution for us to elect people to be our flagbearers in position ‘A’ or ‘B’ is by this method, so be it. We don’t have to go and chain their hands and tell them no, you must do direct primaries. It’s unconstitutional and undemocratic.
So I prefer that political parties decide what they want; and entrench it in their constitution, not the Electoral Act.
Q: It would appear somewhat abnormal to have this session without any mention of the just concluded Anambra State Governorship election and the crisis it generated within the APC.
The election has come and gone. There’s basically nothing to talk about. A winner has emerged and we have a Governor-elect. That’s Prof Chukwuma Soludo; an erudite economist, Former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor(CBN). He’s somebody I have known for sometime now and from all indications, and from what I know of him and his antecedents based on his track record either as an administrator or lecturer at the University of Nigeria where he rose to become a professor, or with the World Bank, Economic Adviser (Planning)to President Olusegun Obasanjo. Then from there to the CBN and now he’s a member of our National Economic Advisory Council and we are also members of that council together because am a member of the Economic Sustainability Committee. So we work hand-in-hand synergistically on the Nigerian economy. I have no doubt in my mind that he will make a good governor, especially if he picks the right team to assist him. That is my conviction. We can’t all win in any election. Only one man will win, and one man has won. Anambra people spoke. I was here for the election and I saw what transpired. It was peaceful, it was credible and fair. So having conformed to the maximum compliance provisions of the Electoral Act we should then all go home and rest.
Q: What do you say about the crisis that beset your party the APC as fallout of the election.
There was no crisis. It was just a storm in the tea cup. Yes,when people lose election they would like to make noise and give reasons, pointing accusing fingers and blames where there was none.
We lost the election from the June 26,2021 primary. That was the day my party lost the election. I warned them that it’s the way it would go if we tread on that part. I had appealed for us to re-do the primary so that we gather everybody together. Where we had fourteen aspirants and there was no primary and you start announcing one person as winner in an election that never took place. I was in my ward waiting for materials, none came, no official came. Then you go to announce a result including my ward. That was the height of it.