‘It is Not the Business of Ohaneze to Adopt Candidates’

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Minister of Labour and Productivity, Senator Chris Ngige

Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige is one of the leading figures in the All Progressives Congress (APC) within the South-east zone and one who had once taken the party to electoral victory in a senatorial contest. Ngige tells Onyebuchi Ezigbo of the strategies and calculations to be deployed by his party to overrun opponents in the general election.

In 2015 President Buhari secured less than 200,000 votes in the South-east and of recent leaders from that region who are members of APC have often boosted that in 2019 it would be different that the president will score a good number of votes, where does that confidence come from considering that the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Vice President candidate is from that region?

True the PDP has a Vice Presidential candidate from my zone and I can tell you that it won’t be easy for them. Politics and winning of election is all about calculation and strategic positioning and measured steps towards a direction. Two things are happening; in 2015 election there was no voting in most of the South-east and South-south states. Votes were allocated, the card reader hadn’t become functional it was just new and it can be tampered with and at the end of the day most votes were allocated. So Muhammadu Buhari was allocated 18,000 votes in the entire Anambra state; is it possible? When my local government alone, Idemili South had 80,000 registered voters, Idemili North had 200,000 registered voters you are talking about 280,000 votes. Even if they want to allocate they can’t do it now because they are not in charge of police and army like that time. They took police, army, navy everything and armour tanks and drove us away, in fact they put a price on my head when I was going to the collation centre. I got a call they said I shouldn’t go because the situation has been taken over from the centre but I refused I wanted to go because I am not afraid of death. So my boys insisted and I said they can go so they started chasing them about. It was my boys chasing them around that resulted in the writing of only 600,000 votes for Jonathan against the 1.2 million votes promised that they would bring. This time it won’t happen they will go and cast votes and whatever is cast is what we will announce. We are not interested in rigging or chasing people about with armour tank. Secondly, the Vice President of the PDP is former Governor Peter Obi my successor in Anambra state. I can tell you that those who are shouting that Obi is this and that are the elites who are looking for one thing or the other and people who don’t believe that Muhammadu Buhari has done something good in their lives because he is already building infrastructure for them. They want money.

They want all the monies that have been trapped by the TSA to be pushed down again on the table for them to start taking. That one is no longer possible. Peter Obi hasn’t been a wonderful governor as people expected him to be because I am the one to tell you because I know what I handed over to him. He is making noise that he handed money over to Governor Obiano. I was the first to leave money. I left N3.8 billion cash in the bank and I am not counting the bank shares we bought and dividend but because of propaganda they shouted that the left eighty something billion naira for Obiano and I left a lot of infrastructural work done, federal roads of which he received close to N15 billion as refund after my tenure. I was the first person to handover schools to the missionaries in Anambra state. I built more 880KM of roads. If you go there today you will see the roads I built 15 years ago they are still standing and most of them have no single potholes because I used first class contractors. So for people to say because he chose Obi ‘this will happen’. Nothing will happen. If anything, Peter Obi has no influence in South-east apart from Anambra. Even in Anambra Central Senatorial district we are going to battle him in there. Presently, I can tell you that in Anambra state Obi and I will struggle for the votes. We are not going to be pushed down like we were the last time.

What do you make of the recent endorsement from the leadership of Ohanaeze for the PDP Presidential candidate?

Ohanaeze is a socio cultural organisation. In a bid to please their masters they went overboard. First and foremost they went overboard to do an endorsement in November 2018 and when the strategy committee of Ohanaeze confronted them in the executive they denied. They said they endorsed them just like every other person whereas the clips showed that they were in that meeting in Nike Lake Resort Hotel. I am telling you we found it difficult to still conceal what they were doing so just two weeks ago they put this meeting on a date that Mr. President was visiting Anambra state. I personally spoke to the Ohanaeze President General who is my personal friend of many years and I said to him we have a guest so he should do us that favour of moving this meeting so that we can all attend, so that the governors of the South-east will also be involved; the governor of Anambra and Enugu who will welcome Mr. President to their domain because the President was to commission CBN Centre of Excellence build in Nsukka. These were functions created for that day and he said no that he couldn’t do so because this meeting had been long fixed and I said no the president of the nation fixed an appointment in our place. So finally he said we can move the hours. He said no he can only move it to 4pm so I spoke to Ebonyi state governor who is the chairman of governor’s forum and I said look at the problem we have with the current Ohanaeze maybe you can intervene because you are supposed to be part of this meeting. I had already contacted the governor of Anambra state so he said he will take it up with him which he did. In fact I personally invited him and said it is your function, you should be there and the Governor of Anambra also told me he invited him. The Governor of Ebonyi called me and said I should tell my colleagues that we would be accommodated that the meeting will be for 7pm because he had spoken with him. By 6pm, the President departed at Enugu airport and we started heading to the meeting which we arrived around 6:30 pm and we were told that the meeting was concluded by 20 minutes past 5pm and that they have endorsed the candidate of the PDP. Two things are clear; Ohanaeze is a socio cultural organisation not known for endorsement of any candidate. What you are supposed to be doing is to get the candidates and give them your demands not going to endorse because it is clear in our constitution that we are not allying with any political party and some people have tried it before unfortunately they got their fingers burnt. With all due respect, Professor Nwabueze in 1999 without clearance from Ohanaeze general assembly endorsed Olu Falae against Obasanjo. Olu Falae was flying the flag of APP/AD alliance and Obasanjo won the election and they held it against the Igbos and claimed that it was late Chief Alex Ekwueme that secretly told Nwabueze to go and endorse Falae. Little did they know that it caused a lot of bitterness between Alex Ekwueme and his friend Nwabueze. Nwabueze is a strong willed man so he did that by his own judgment thinking he was doing the Igbos good and Obasanjo antagonised Alex Ekwueme and all of us who are members of Ohanaeze and all of us who he felt were close to Chief Alex Ekwueme and that was how he took some mafias from South-east and made them his friends. At another time, they went and endorsed in 2003 and the same thing happened. In 2015 the immediate predecessor of Nwodo and the Secretary General, my good friend went and endorsed President Jonathan and said he is Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan, that he is their brother and they failed because President Buhari beat Jonathan in the 2015 election. The claim of marginalisation because of that endorsement and even the award and allocation of votes that followed there after some APC members used it against all of us in the APC. They said there was no vote from us that the election was won without input from the South-east. That gave rise to the famous five percent; those who gave me five percent and those who gave me 95 percent being peddled against Mr. President. In any case we are all human beings if someone looks you in the face and says ‘I will not vote for you’ and you eventually win the election and he didn’t vote for you and you saw he didn’t vote for you even though it is a secret ballot buy you also saw that there was allocation tell me would you be very happy? I am not trying to justify anything. All I am saying is that we can’t be adopting candidates. We can see the second Niger Bridge. He has committed N3 billion. No other government has done it. He put it in the national budget and put it as a flagship project in Nigeria and we are funding it. Unlike the previous governments that said it should done on PPP basis for foreigners to invest and collect money this president said I am building direct. Okonji Ewela when they came into the senate caucus of the South East in 2011 when we became senators the first meeting they came and told us that it is an PPP that they are doing on second Niger Bridge and investors are coming and I told them that they should clear away with that kind of proposal. We did a bridge to connect FCT which cost N80 billion. It was funded from the federal budget and at the time they came the Niger Bridge was estimated at N110 billion and Madam Okonji Ewela and my friend Pius were saying that it would be built on contractor PPP and I said no and that was what happened. Today this man is building second Niger Bridge. He is building Enugu to Okigwe to Umuahia to Aba to Port Harcourt which was abandoned in the last 16 years. He is building Enugu, Oji River, Awka to Onitsha also abandoned during PDP regime so I have no apologies to say that this man is doing well. A lot of us, the South-east governors don’t believe in what they have done. Governor Obiano has voiced his discernment. I have worked in Ohanaeze, I was Secretary in Ohanaeze strategy committee, I was deputy chairman of Ohaneze Ndigbo as President of Aka Ikenga. I brought Aka Ikenga from Lagos and we organised a forum for South-east delegates under Abacha regime to go to the constituent assembly. We did it with our own resources.

No one will talk to me about Ohanaeze or Igbo politics. I have paid my dues. I was president of Aka Ikenga for six years. All these people that are parading themselves can’t talk to me about Ohanaeze or Igbo politics and no one can tell me that he loves Igbos than me. The Igbos of Anambra know that I love them more than any of these people that are parading themselves up and down. I put my life on the line for the people of Anambra state so that they would have good things and I am also ready to put it on the line again for the Igbo nation so that they can secure their future in the nation and the only way they can secure their freedom is for them to follow a man who has shown signs that he loves everybody, that he is working for everybody. People say that Obi is Vice President what is Vice President? The shortest route for the president of Igbo extraction is for them to vote for APC and in 2023 by the rotation principle even if it is not entrenched in our constitution but has become a norm and convention now the presidency will come back to the South and when it comes back to the South on moral grounds it will be the turn of the people of the South-east. We must struggle for it and it starts now. We must show our party that we can deliver. We must show our party that if we are given the ticket in South-east, we can do something with it.

This issue of 2023 presidency is one of major plank of APC campaign in the South East. The party has not decided on it. Don’t you think that you are building castle in the air when indeed there is no such decision within the party?

Decisions of this nature are not taken four years away from when it will happen. ‘The come comes to become the men would be separated from the boys’. So when 2023 comes, the party will speak. The gladiators who are interested will come out and it will be the turn of the South if Muhammadu Buhari does another term. He even said it in the South-west rally in Ekiti that he isn’t seeking for third term because some people have tried it and failed but he has only a second term so we should support him to go for a second term. After his second term, the different zones in the South will come out and lay claims and make their point so there is no question of building castle in the air, we are being realistic. It is those that are saying the Vice President in PDP is a step away from presidency that are building castle in the air and not us in APC. When the time comes for the shuffle or the push, we will do it

Why did it take so long to resolve the issues with ASUU?

In 2017, ASSU went on strike. They had at that time about 12 points which we tried to address, we addressed them. Some of the issues are the ones in court now which is about pension reform which they floated for university workers. They made that demand in collaboration with other people operating universities ; Non Academic Staff Union, (NASU); National Association of Technologist (NAT) so that was one thing that unified all for a common demand. So government told them what to do, set the process in motion for them and they started. Midway they felt there was a lot of money and they were required to make some deposit and they paid some deposit and but later found out that they didn’t have an office which was locked which you can call the headquarters of the organisation, They didn’t have personnel so we summoned PENCOM and they got that together. It was there in 2017 negotiations, it is also there now but we resolved it finally because there has been an issue with an operating licence. Again there was the issue of end allowances both for NASU, NAT and SANU and of course with ASUU which is called ‘End Academic Allowance’ which are all part of a generic allowance therefore last time we paid them N31 billion. This time around that they have been computed collectively to know the aggregate amount because at that time in 2017 they were paid N30 billion by the Jonathan-led administration and this government came and said it will be verified by the Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit (PICA). So PICA was looking at that and we discovered that it wasn’t necessary for PICA to do that because PICA was more of looking at allowances and salaries. So we felt that a consultant should be engaged by the former minister to audit the usage of the N30 billion before the new one can be released which was an agreement that was done. So we gave the auditors and they worked on it and found out that government was in arrears of that money from 2013 to 2016. So we owed them N105 billion which were allowances earned from extra teaching, extra work in laboratories, and allowances earned by those who ordinarily will do what we call overtime so government saved and paid it.

In 2017, we released N31billion to them. On that N31billion they were asked to bring a template for the sharing between the various workers in the various universities and that was just concluded early this year. The money is being paid to them which came in two tranches of N23 billion and N8 billion making N31 billion. That was the agreement which spilled over to 2018. One month ago, the last tranche of N8 billion was paid to the various unions because they had problems in carrying out the template for the payment. Then there was the issue of revitalisation of the universities. Again we gave then N20 billion as a sign of good faith that the agreement they reached with President Jonathan in 2009 that we believe in it notwithstanding the fact that we had a negotiating committee which was supposed to get alternative source of funding for the revitalisation of the universities. Take note that President Jonathan’s administration paid them N200 billion in 2013 after four years and they had programmed that they would be paying N220 billion every year for six years and that was what was in the agreement and that came to N1.3 trillion. Therefore when they could not pay in 2013, the administration went into TETFUND money and took N200 billion and paid the universities which was just like recycling. We don’t want to do that, we are looking at alternative source of funding so we gave them this money and said it is an act of good faith. The summit for the alternative source for funding completed its work and reported to the president where they listed and categorised alternative source of funding for university education because come to look at it; everybody knows education is an expensive business and that is why even in the best of climes like the United States of America students have to pay, they have to go for loans, even in Nigeria there was a time that students were paying from loans. So these were the things that government thought about, saying let’s look for an alternative source of funding. Today, you now know that there is an education tax and that tax goes to TETFUND and another education tax goes to UBEC. So that raised its head again and we appealed that the workshop had to finish but the president isn’t yet decided on the sources of funding. However, N25 billion was dedicated to universities for them to go on until government makes its final decision. There are other issues like human calculations that resulted in shortfall in salaries of people and immediately it was brought to our notice Finance Ministry intervened, the Accountant General’s office made up the payment for the shortfall. About N15.4 billion was released for the university system alone and they confirmed that they had received the money starting from about one month ago. The last was Tafa Balewa University that got their money last week. Therefore, all those issues were almost done with, however, I must tell you that ASUU saw a different kind of negotiation with me. I believe in being bitterly frank, straight forward and saying things as they are. Whatever they cannot get I tell them. For example one of their requests was that the University Panel renegotiating the 2009 agreement should be disbanded and we said no. I even referred them to the various statutes and conventions that no partner in a negotiation between an employer and an employee can dictate who would be in your team to come for the negotiation. So we can’t tell labour people that we don’t like the face of Mr. A and Mr. B and in the same way they can’t when a panel has been set up to negotiate something, you turn back and say you suspect that Mr. Babalakin because he had appealed for a university license for a private university so therefore he shouldn’t lead the negotiation party on government side.

They consulted their constituency and came back two, three times and finally they saw reason and we agreed because everything that has a beginning, has an end. That panel should be commencing work on the February 18th and they are to finish their work by March 28 and turn in their report which is six weeks to conclude their work. Other issues they raised include visitation panel because they wanted the rot in the university system cleared which we also felt the same way. This is an anti-corruption government. In fact they were aiding us in what we wanted to do so we had no problem in putting up Visitation Panels. They also talked about state universities being inferior in terms of funding and infrastructure. We then set up a Standing Committee comprising of ASUU members, NASU members, other unions in the university and on the government side, Pro- chancellors of universities as members. It is a seven man panel and they are supposed to be the Standing Committee that meets with the governors under the auspices of Governor’s Forum and also commissioners for education on things they want rectified. About eight issues were handled during this period and I can tell you that we had to do what we had to do so that they can get back to schools and our children can go back. A lot of people registered in university campuses to vote in the election and if these universities are closed then these students won’t be able to vote.