Ngige: Nigerians are Lucky to Have Buhari

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Personality Interview
The Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, in this interview with Charles Onyekamuo, fielded questions on a wide range of issues, including the despondency among Nigerians over the slow pace of the Muhammadu Buhari administration to bring about the change promised by the All Progressives Congress party. Excerpts:
By May 29, the Buhari administration will be a year in office and so far, a majority of Nigerians are disappointed with the state of the nation. What really is the problem?
Well, first and foremost, I have to thank the Nigerian people for electing us, for believing in us and our mantra of change. I can tell you unequivocally here that we have a four year mandate, and within this period, Nigerians will smile. The question of being despondent now after just ten months of the administration should not arise. You Know that as the Igbos say, to start to cry is usually very difficult, but when you start, the tears flow. I am going to tell you that we are in our tenth month of a-four-year tenure, and a-four-year tenure is 48 months, so we have 38 months left.
But within the 10 months in question, what have we achieved? We promised Nigerians change, change in the way things are being done, change from corruption, and its tentacles – that we shall fight it to a standstill. We promised them infrastructure development. We are going to tackle manpower, transportation, air and land.
We are going to look at Agriculture, we are going to look at employment which is part of the economy, and we also promised them that we shall in conformity with the Nigerian government, make sure that the primary focus of our government is security – securing the lives and property of the citizens of Nigeria. In that 2015, we told them we were going to defend the constitution; that the material resources of the country will be deployed to general use, not being cornered by a select few.
 
So, which of these has the government achieved?
First, we have faced the issue of security. Let’s look in the area of security, before this administration came, Boko Haram was a scourge. They had taken 14 local governments in the North Eastern States of the Country.  They had hoisted their flags in the north east; they had become what you can call theocratic states and theocratic local governments. They were trying to drive out the governors of Yobe, Borno and Adamawa from office. From Madagali, they were moving to see if they could take Yola; they were moving from Sambisa and Gwoza to see if they could take Maiduguri; they made inroad into Maiduguri many times. They made incursions into Yobe and got up to Government House.
But when we came, our President, a tested and trusted leader and a general of the army said I will have no more of this nonsense. He moved the Army command headquarters into Borno, Maiduguri and overhauled the command structure and put in more funds, material resources, money, arms, armament of all sorts and there was a balance of terrors. The army started pushing them, and today they are no longer a big fighting force; they are now ready for negotiation.
Even the Boko Haram hostages are being released. The Chibok girls who are still in their custody, the latest Video clips have shown that they are still alive, and we will do something. When two sides go to war, even the side that defeated still comes to a round table for negotiation. So, this government will negotiate terms with the Boko Haram when necessary, and the Chibok girls will be released. Military operations can do that, but if they do, it may result in casualties and fatalities.
This is just security. On corruption, we have fought it to a standstill. A lot of money had been recovered. We stopped the fuel subsidy, which trillions had gone into. We are no longer subsidising, we are no longer doing subsidy. The money for the subsidy is in the kitty, it is going to be used to fund the federal budget for 2016. Recovering has also been made. Some people say why not put the money into the system to ameliorate the suffering of the people, but things are not done like that. They should go through the right process. All monies derivable from export, from oil go into the federation account, from where they are to be distributed according to revenue derivation formula. So, this money is in a special account in the CBN, and would be put into the budget and appropriated for Nigerian people by necessary organ of government which is the national assembly.
On the economy, the budget is there. For the first time, we are having a budget going into capital expenditure in the neighborhood of 35%. This is the first time. We are not playing as a government, and that is why the government was even ready to borrow to finance the capital because that is the only way we can relate this economy, because it was almost going into recession. Oil has moved from over $105 per barrel to $35 per barrel, so the earnings of the country, in a mono earning economy like ours have dwindled by 66 to 10%, and it is no mean feat to run a government in this particular situation.
But we are up to the billing. We have put on our thinking cap. One thing Nigerians should be grateful for is that it is President Buhari that is in the saddle now. All areas of leakages have been plugged; even we in the federal cabinet are cooperating. None of us ministers has bought any new cars as official car. In fact, our February and March salaries were paid just the other day.
The running cost of government has come down. No frivolous trips, no retinue of aides, special advisers must be sourced from the federal civil service, same as personal assistants. No minister will fly first class. A lot of sacrifices are being made. Show me the leader and I will tell you the kind of government we have. So, our leader is leading by example. He has not bought any new car; he is using the cars bequeathed to him by Jonathan.
So, we have plugged the area of leakages and now we have some resources. That is why the federal government does not owe salaries and wages. We want to fight unemployment and social protection safety nets. The government has budgeted N500 billion, with which to do intervention skills. These intervention skills are safety protection in nature. Five hundred thousand graduate teachers we are going to employ them. Whether it is Engineering that you read, whether it is law, humanity, physical science, biological science, we want to move half a million people from the pool of army of unemployed graduates, who if we leave them for some time will constitute social security risk.
Next to that is the skill acquisition programme and vocational training, which we are going to give to 300,000 persons, who for no fault of theirs did not attain university education, but only have the O level certificate. Some may not even have, but so long as they are literate enough to read, we will teach them painting, carpentry and furniture making, fashion design, tailoring, POP making, tilling, brick making, and others, and the good thing about it is that at the level of the NDE, they receive what we can call basic training, and their skills, their labour can be exported for them to earn money.
Our education curriculum is not so wonderful in the area of skill acquisition. We are also looking at it again. Agriculture is another area of diversification we are looking at and we have selected key areas in agriculture, and entrepreneurship, by which young people will be made to farm. You give them capital, give them fertilizers, seedlings, extension services workers to oversee what they are doing and when the programmes come out, they will be able to employ themselves. We also have the graduate internship scheme, which is there. Then we have the conditional cash transfers, where we will have people like the market women receive micro credits. All these are blue collar jobs.
 
But the question remains: when will Nigerians begin to enjoy all these?
As soon as the budget is signed, you will see a difference in things and also appreciate the works we are doing now. We sympathise with Nigerians and appreciate all they are going through, especially in the cost of petrol. The issue of fuel scarcity did not also start today, we are doing fundamental restructuring in NNPC, in the way business is done in NNPC, and that is why you are seeing the queues. We are doing fundamental restructuring in the downstream sector of distribution, and even in the upstream. In the upstream for example, the refineries are working, but they are not working optimally.
Refineries cannot work at 10% or 50% and you say they are okay. It is because of the dilapidation that took place in the over 16 years of the PDP. Somehow, if you talk about the rising cost of food, it is because of dilapidation, neglect of the agricultural sector. Everything that has been mounting and no one has paid good attention to it except lip service. For the first time, we have dissected, we know the problems and we are facing them transparently, and that is what matters. We are not facing them with corrupt tendencies.
You know Buhari doesn’t do deals and Chris Ngige doesn’t need any deal. If someone tells you I need any deal, then confront me with it. Chief Audu Ogbe doesn’t need a deal, Babatunde Fashola doesn’t need a deal, Ogbonnaya Onu doesn’t need a deal. I can go on and on mentioning people here. For us, our reputation is at stake. Anambra people know me, and they know I do not say what I will not do, and I am telling the Igbo people of the South-east that this government will deliver.
The same way I told them that the APC will win and they did not believe me, I am telling them that this government will deliver. Midway into the tenure of this administration, it will be Alleluia, alleluia, and clapping of hands all over the place. We are lucky we have a president, who does not discriminate based on tribe, religion or anything else. He believes in what is correct and what is good, and I can tell you that the masses of Nigeria will smile. I am telling you that before the close of the next 18 months, you will see all these things.
 
Now, the relationship between the senate and the presidency smacks of mistrust and that could be seen in the way the budget has been handled. What do you think are the areas that had bred such mistrust?
First of all, I do not want to say there is suspicion. Yes there could be misunderstanding earlier on during the election of the principal officers of the National of Assembly, and that misunderstanding arose from the fact that the president decided to play neutral, and having played neutral, the tendency is that you will not be anybody’s friend because no one will agree that you did not help the other person, but we who are in the APC party structure and belong to the highest organ of the party know that we enjoy good relationship with them.
However, the 2016 budget, people should look at it and look at the genesis of the problem. The genesis of the problem arose from the fact that when the calls for budget were done, some bureaucrats, some technocrats, some civil servants tampered with the budget out of mischief, just to feather their nests. Some other group of civil servants, out of carelessness or ignorance missed out vital items in the budget. So, the budget that first went to the National Assembly had a lot of omissions, and corrections were done. And details were not in the aggregate sum of the budget.
So, the budget was actually returned and the national planning commission that was in charge of budget took the corrections and omissions and corrected them and sent back. It’s the ministries that detected these omissions and applied to the planning commission for corrections. At the same time the ministries were doing this, they were supposed to be going to their various committees in the National Assembly to defend their budgets. Therefore, in a two way double pronged attack, as they were sending to the budget office, national planning commission and budget, they were also taking advantage of their budget defence to defend those corrections they had corrected.
Budget making process starts at committee level and nothing stops a minister, who has gotten clearance of omission or an error from the budget office and national planning from tendering same to his committee. I was a deputy chairman of committee, I have gone through budget cycles, I did five budget cycles; a budget supplementary cycle in 2011, and I did four other ones, making altogether five. I was a chief Executive of a state too, I sent budgets to my House of Assembly, and I know also what is involved. Nothing says a minister cannot take a correction or omission that has been accepted and formalised at our budget office into the committee for defence.
As a matter of fact, the committee is better guided if such a minister detects this at that particular level. It is after the committee level that it now goes to the appropriation committee of the Senate or the House of Representatives. These places are collation points. After their collation; the senate will collate and the House of Representatives will collate and then there is a joint sitting of both houses, and after the joint sitting, they send them to their respective houses as harmonized versions. We operate a bicameral legislature and that is why we have bicameralism, because two heads are better than one.
So, it is after that that the respective houses now pass and send to the president for assent, and for as long as the president has not assented, appended his signature, it is still a bill. When he assents it becomes a money law; it becomes an act. Therefore, there is no suspicion, we simply detected some errors and omissions and we sent them back, and when they brought us back the details, even though the aggregate sum is still the same, we still saw that some errors and corrections we made were still omitted. I don’t know if that could be called distrust.
 
Is the Lagos-Calabar rail line part of the omission?
Yes, it was part of the omission. It was part of the original omission when the president presented the bill, and when it was spotted, we corrected it. The ministry of transport corrected and the national planning commission transmitted it. You have a right to correct. That rail way line is a very strategic project. It is called Lagos-Calabar, but that railway line will go from calabar into Ikot Ekpene, to Aba, to Owerri, to Onitsha, to Asaba, Benin and passing through a lot of South-west capitals and cities to terminate in Lagos. It will carry a lot of goods and services and less pressure will be on the roads. Then another arm of it will come from Port Harcourt and join them at Aba. So it is a critical Railway artery, light transport artery. So it was a very big omission. So, for me, nothing is lost, anyone can make a mistake. After all, we made the first mistake.
So if the mistake happened in the National Assembly, there is no loss of face, it could still be corrected, and that is where I thank the speaker and members of the House of Representatives for the maturity they showed and the able way they took up the issue. Even the senators of the South South, South East and South West have also lived up to their billings. It’s not a tribal thing, but when you are doing something to balance, Nigerians will still recognize that. So if there is a railway transport that moves from Lagos to Ibadan, llorin and getting up to Kano, and it should even move from Kano and get up to Maiduguri and Yobe and to the farthest ends of Nigeria, we will have evacuation of agricultural products. Road transport is not the answer, heavy goods and services are supposed to move by rail, and that is what it is in other climes.
 
Will government consider a rail line too from the North to the East?
Yes, there is a north east rail line, which runs from Port Harcourt to Enugu, to Makurdi, to Katsina Ala, to Zaria and Zaria to Kaduna, but the important thing is to start with this (Calabar-Lagos rail line), and all of them can be synchronised, then we will have a linkage. And once Nigeria gets the railways right, there will be less pressure on the roads, all the haulage, cement you are seeing will all get into the railway lines. Petroleum products will move in the railway lines.
 
In December 2015, the court of Appeal annulled the election of a sitting senator for Anambra Central Senatorial District and ordered a rerun within 90 days. You are supposed to participate in that election. The election was supposed to hold on March 5, but for the order of a high court in Abuja which said PDP should be included. Before then however, you did not indicate interest and your party appeared not ready too. Why?
No, that is not true. My party was ready and also did a primary to pick someone that will be substituted with me. My people met and agreed that I should carry on with the national assignment given to me by Mr. President. They said for the president to choose me to help fight the scourge of unemployment was a big vote of confidence, and I now made a request to the party asking them to hold a primary and elect a substitute, and we had done that before INEC threw a spanner in the works and said we did not have a right to substitute.
They also told PDP they do not have a right to choose a fresh candidate, and the judgment you spoke about was gotten by PDP to force INEC to let it participate, but my party is also in court, asking them that we have a right to substitute. The case is coming up soon, and there is also a plethora of litigations, because the court of appeal in Enugu ordered that the election be conducted within 90 days, and 90 days have elapsed, so some other people had gone to court to say because the 90 days had passed INEC does not have the power to conduct the elections any more.
 
Does this mean Anambra Central will not have a representative in the senate for this assembly?
I do not know. Only INEC and the court can answer that now. When they give their judgments, they may factor these in. Any election you conduct now is just a risk because some people may go and get it nullified on the grounds that it is not in consonance with the Court of Appeal judgment. So, we are watching, but meanwhile, I will continue to do my work and fight the scourge of unemployment.
Quote 1
One thing Nigerians should be grateful for is that it is President Buhari that is in the saddle now. All areas of leakages have been plugged; even we in the federal cabinet are cooperating. None of us ministers has bought any new cars as official car. In fact, our February and March salaries were paid just the other day. The running cost of government has come down. No frivolous trips, no retinue of aides, special advisers must be sourced from the federal civil service, same as personal assistants. No minister will fly first class. A lot of sacrifices are being made
 
Quote 2
You know Buhari doesn’t do deals and Chris Ngige doesn’t need any deal. If someone tells you I need any deal, then confront me with it. Chief Audu Ogbe doesn’t need a deal, Babatunde Fashola doesn’t need a deal, Ogbonnaya Onu doesn’t need a deal. I can go on and on mentioning people here. For us, our reputation is at stake. Anambra people know me, and they know I do not say what I will not do, and I am telling the Igbo people of the South-east that this government will deliver