Former governor of Anambra State and the current Minister of Labour and Employment, Chris Ngige talks about his formative years with so much passion. Born in Enugu, Chris was son of a colonial civil servant, who got fired for leading a strike. This shoddy treatment in the hands of the colonialists influenced his father’s vow to give all his children quality education. He gave virtually all he had for their education. During the Nigerian civil war, the young Chris was conscripted into the Biafran army and was there for few months before he was discharged. He resumed secondary education after the war in 1970 and went on to study Medicine. He later went into politics and became a governor, and then Senator. This politician and medical doctor, who has never done private medical practice, shares the story of his life with Onyebuchi Ezigbo
Growing up in Enugu
I can remember my formative years in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I was born in Enugu and my parents, I remember my father, Pius Okonkwo Ngige was a civil servant. He was working in the then Public Works Department, called the PWD of the Eastern Regional Government. He was a trained carpenter who rose to become the chief adviser of carpenters in the PWD. PWD was an agency of government that is like the Ministry of Works and Housing we have today. My father left the PWD when he had some disagreement with the colonial masters, and with the technicians who were advising them at that time on their mode of payment to Africans and Nigerians at the PWD. There ought to be a part time pay and there was a disparity in payment given to Nigerians and Europeans and this segregation was what prompted my father and some others to do what they call ‘sit down’ strike and he then lost his job. After my father left service, he became a private person and started supplies to his former place of work.
My father gave his all for my education
My father gave his all for the education of his children. I don’t know how many parents today who can afford to give all they had for the education of their children. As a matter of fact, at the time I am talking about, a Volkswagen car was sold for 80 pounds and this was what my father was paying as school fees every term for four of us in secondary school. So, you can see that if my father had decided to be extravagant, he could afford to be changing cars every term. In those days, cars were issued at higher purchase so it wasn’t a big deal, but this man didn’t buy any car and decided to be taking taxi to his place of work, all in a bid to get his children educated. I had these parents I can tell you were role models, as far as I am concerned. They influenced my life by teaching me that hardwork doesn’t kill, being industrious doesn’t kill, being straight forward doesn’t kill or hurt and also being modest doesn’t hurt. So, those were the kind of parents I had. My secondary school was at St. John’s College, Alor in Anambra State and it is my home town and that was the school of my elder brother who was the first to go there and had a very sound education. I was there when the war erupted and they closed our school and asked us to go on break which we thought would be for some few days or weeks and it ran into days, weeks and months. My parents had to relocate from Enugu to the village with all of us. My mother started her business of trading again, but this time around, she had to put up a restaurant, an eatery at our market. Her eatery was one of the best and was booming. She also had some investment in textiles because our home town was the centre of textile trade in Biafra and my mother invested and had shops managed by some people for her. We did all these, and at some point, I was conscripted into the army and stayed very few months in the army before I was discharged again and we came back and started our school after the war in 1970.
My parents valued education
My parents valued education. There was a time some other parents were advising my parents: “Oh, you are not buying any car for yourself, you are not throwing parties like others” and so on and my father drove them away. Most of them were women who were coming to advise my mother, and my father sent them away and told them not to be visiting our home again. So, my father was a man who saw tomorrow, especially in investing in education, because he knew education was the key. After the civil war, I went back to school; many people didn’t know I was going to go back to school because when I was discharged from the army camp, I went into business. I joined my mother in business and it was there I met people like Arthur Eze. I had a little cash which enabled me to buy a motorcycle. So, when the war ended, I had a motorcycle. I also had a Mobilet which I bought; I had two motorcycles at the time. Most people were thinking I won’t go back to school because I already had some money and my father had to take my mobilet and motorcycle away from me. He gave the mobilet to his in-law to keep and the Honda was sold off. He told me to use the money realised to buy books; that he needed me to go back to school, which I did. I sat for WAEC exam again in 1972 and I also did the GCE ‘O’ level London as a precautionary measure which was the mistake they said I made in 1971. I came out with distinction and I also passed the University of Nigeria examination again, a more competitive exam where there were almost 3,000 of us looking for 90 spaces available in the Faculty of Medicine. I also passed University of Ibadan and University of Lagos, but I chose to go to Nsukka which was nearer home and where I had friends who also passed the exams in 1972. I entered the University in 1973 at the Nsukka campus. At Enugu campus, I played Student’s Union politics. I first was elected PRO Medical Students Association. Former Governor Peter Odili was my senior and was Speaker of the Association. I later contested and won a seat to represent my hostel in the UNEC Student’s Union as a parliamentarian. By the way, Medical Students, by an unwritten law in the Faculty, were not allowed to play in the General Students Union except in the MSA. Any Medical student who flouted this was deemed to have already opted not to be a Doctor. I broke the tradition and played in this game and not only that, I participated fully and represented B Hostel floor 15-30, a floor that housed many budding politicians like Paul Erokoro, SAN, then Secretary General of SUG, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, President of SUG later President NANS, Orji Nwafor-Orizu, to mention but a few.
Balancing my studies and student politics
I struck a balance between my studies and both MSA and SUG politics and passed my second MB exams and moved to the University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital to finish Medical training to the admiration of my parents and friends. I graduated June 1979 and left the UNTH and headed straight to General Hospital Onitsha for my Housemanship. I finished my one year Housemanship in Onitsha in July 1980 and headed straight to Lagos for my NYSC at National Assembly clinic. My senior friend, Joseph Wayas, whom I met with late Senator Chuba Okadigbo during our NANS/SUG politics at the UNN, Enugu Campus and their Constituent Assembly days in 1977/78 turned out to be a mentor. He was elected Senator and Senate President in October 1979. He assisted me to settle down in Lagos very quickly. I thank God for my never being in want since my childhood as you would have observed from all my narrations.
I was heartbroken going back to sit for school certificate exam
The most difficult thing that happened to me as a teenager was going back to sit for school certificate when the previous one I sat for was cancelled for no just cause. Few students were cheating and they cancelled the entire result of the whole school. I didn’t imagine myself going back one year and my mate would be a year ahead of me. I passed to enter the university that same year and I couldn’t go. So, for me, the temptation was to drop out of school because I took an examination that I knew I could easily surmount and make very good grades. In fact, in the mock exams we did, I was on-top of the class. When we went to do the federal government college qualifying exam for the best five students in the schools they chose, and I came out tops in my own school. That was why they sent me to Federal Government College Warri and gave the others Maiduguri. So, for me, I was very heart broken, it was very difficult for me to accept that I lost out in an exam that boys I worked better than were passing.
I married as an overgrown adult
I married as a full adult. Infact, I married as an overgrown adult. When I got married in Lagos, they were calling us very senior bachelors. The girls were not taking us seriously anymore. They felt that we didn’t want to get married, but then the truth of it was that it isn’t every time you are lucky. I was not comfortable with my dates, because we needed to date in other to get married. So, I had two conditions for dating and that took me into my 40s before I got married and by the time I got married 1993 I was already 41 years, but it wasn’t my fault. I had planned to marry much earlier. As a matter of fact, I made my first attempt at marriage on 31st December, 1983, which was the night of the Abacha coup. We had gone to see the family of the person I was to marry from my home town and we got there and it didn’t work for some reasons that had to do with religion. I wasn’t a Pentecostal or what some call born again Christian. From 1984 to 1985, it was family discussions of converting me to a born again or the marriage will breakup and at the end of the day the marriage had to. I couldn’t continue. Then in 1986, 1988, I started trying again and again the marriage couldn’t go through, again because of some differences. So, it was in 1992 that I saw my present wife; I saw and liked her and she saw me and liked me but we didn’t date for long like the other cases and we got married in 1993 and the children started coming.
I don’t think I made any major mistake in life
From my story, I don’t think I made any major mistake. I corrected any deficiencies that came my way very quickly and took good decisions but the only thing is that when you sit with people, they can tell you that you are making a mistake or you have made mistake along the line but that is their own perception which is different from yours. Perception and reality have a very thin line and you know one man’s meat is another man’s poison. I think some of my friends earlier on in 2007, 2008 said I made a mistake that when I was governor of Anambra State, I shouldn’t have fought President Obasanjo, that no one fights a president and wins. Some would say ‘oh, you would have listened to the Ubas and not fight them, that it portrayed you as someone who was ungrateful’ and things like that. For them it was a mistake I made but for me, up till today, it wasn’t a mistake. I took my decision and it was simple. The choices were clear; either for me to be with the people of Anambra State or forsake them and their interest and go to the other side and continue to become governor and end up spending eight years and achieve nothing. So, for me it was clear.
My parents taught me how to stand on the path of the truth
Because of my background, my parents taught me how to be industrious and also taught me how to stand on the path of the truth all the time. You may suffer some inconveniences and setbacks but at the end of the day the truth will always prevail. That is my father’s motto and I live by that motto and I will not change. So, that is what a lot of people say is a mistake but they don’t give me the benefit of doubt that I didn’t go out of my way to start fighting Obasanjo as the president, I had to disagree with President Obasanjo when he said I had to fall in line with the Ubas and their group and I said ‘no’, I will not sir because I don’t think that was why I was assisted to become governor. I was assisted; nobody becomes a governor or president without anybody assisting him. People will assist you with material resources, people will assist you with the human capacity, people will assist you with even prayers so I was assisted and I became the governor of Anambra State. The day I took an oath and I swore by the constitution that the interest of this people would be first cardinal objective of the government and my service in government, was the day I ceased to be Chris Ngige as a person and dancing to the tunes of my person or my family or my friends. So, that is it. For some people, it was a mistake but it is not. If I had been governor as they wanted me, dance to their tunes, do all I was told to do, being tele-guided, make the state coffers, funds and the rest available for pilfering; at the end of the day, I would be the one that would be held accountable before God and man. So, I don’t think I have made any mistake that can make me say I regret. I didn’t do this or do that because God has taken care of me and I am grateful. He gave me the wisdom, the strength and knowledge to do what is right at all time.
I have experienced many high points in life
I am happy you said high points, because there are many in my life. Let’s start from my university days, one of the high points I experienced was getting admission to study medicine at the University of Nigeria and before then, the day I got my school certificate result at St. John’s, Alor. I stood at the board and read my result and the whole students, the entire school were jubilating and singing that I have done it and I felt God came down to assist me that I took the decision to go and re-do the school certificate. I was overwhelmed and the students carried me shoulder high because I was their senior prefect. I was the school captain the previous year before the school certificate. I felt God had heard my prayers. The second one was when I got admission to the University of Nigeria to study medicine. I remember Dr. Chike Chinyelu, who was my school mate at St. Theresa Nsukka where I was doing lower six before we entered the university, went to the University of Nigeria the previous day and read the list of those who were admitted. So, as he was coming to our house to announce the names of the people admitted, the vendors had given me a copy. I think it was the Daily Star Newspaper and I had seen my name there. We were very many at that exam and I was number 27 out of the 81 students that were admitted and the 3,000 students that fought for 90 chances. So as Dr. Chike was coming and announcing the news to me, the vendors were also coming to bring their newspapers, so we both knelt down on the road to thank God and people didn’t know what these two youngsters were doing that morning. Another high point in my life was the day I was appointed to be doctor to the great Nelson Mandela when he was visiting Nigeria. I was attached to him as his physician by the then Minister; Dr. Ransome Kuti. I was in the federal Ministry of Health and I was in charge of outdoor medical services in the Department of Hospital Services. My clinic was in the federal government guest house clinic and I was the doctor on morning duty. I was then delegated and I went round Nigeria with Mandela. I went to Otta Farm in a helicopter with him to see Obasanjo and we went to Enugu and some other cities. That was my first taste of international assignment as a medical doctor before the National Assembly work came in. Being a doctor to a colossus; world political colossus, world nationalist, Nelson Mandela and the wife Winney Mandela was a very big high point in my life. Thereafter, I was appointed to be the medical physician to a Nigerian group; the G15 economic-political council founded by President Ibrahim Babangida. We were to do a tour of the G15 countries, get what their economy looks like and see how Nigeria can meet up and even surpass those economies. The group took a tour of Malaysia, Indonesia, Venezuela and they made me a member of the committee in which MKO Abiola was our leader and that brought me close to MKO Abiola. When he now started his journey to become the president of Nigeria, many of us were involved in that journey. Another high point was when I got married in 1993 during the June 12 crises in Lagos, and the day I was sworn in as Governor of Anambra State.
I have an innate fear
Do I have any fear about things in life? The answer is yes! Fear of fights; no! Whether it is political or otherwise, I don’t fear. I have no fear but like my father who was a courageous man, I have an innate fear, that which whenever I remember, I say God let it not happen. That fear is me changing from who I am and what I am now to becoming another being, who is not Chris Ngige. That is the fear I always have, which comes like a flash and I pray God, let it not happen. I don’t want to be a sycophant. The fear of being a weakling, the fear of me ever being a liar, I don’t want to be a liar. The fear of me being a lazy man, I don’t want to be a lazy man. I like hard work. I believe in the principle of reward for hard work and I also don’t want my children to imbibe these other traits I said I don’t like. I pray, and by the grace of God. I have children today who are not liars, not afraid of speaking the truth at all times and have imbibed some culture from me like the culture of hardwork. They have also imbibed the culture of respect from me and their mother.
I can still aspire for positions to serve our people better
Yes I am still a politician; I can still aspire for positions to serve our people better. I can also aspire to the pinnacle of international position to serve the international community. I don’t think it will be right for me to say that I don’t desire more. I desire to be the Secretary General of the United Nations or Director General of the ILO, which is an international position. I am the Minister of Labour today and if I am called up to do any other work, I will do it. If my people call me up and say they want me to be the councilor representing my ward when I retire from active politics, I will go and serve. So, for me, there is nothing I am desiring; anything that comes my way and I look at it and I see I can use it for service, I will do it. I don’t desire anything like material things; money, houses, cars and more wives. I don’t desire all those. God has blessed me.
Lessons life has taught me
The lessons I have learnt in life are that it pays to be honest, it pays to work hard. It pays to speak the truth at all times. It pays to be just to all without discrimination because the world is round as geographers will say and if we are being unjust today, we will meet tomorrow in another place or I’ll meet your brother or your relative and that injustice I served you will still come like a fresh wound every time we meet. So, it pays to be just, it pays for us to defend the defenceless. It pays to help those that we are above in terms of things of life either you give them directly or service for all.
I use my political office to serve
My motivation is simple; from my background I have told you, like my father always invested in human being, which was his own way of serving. For me, my own way of serving is using the political office to serve. First of all I served by giving medicine to humanity. I practiced my medicine without going to open my private practice, without charging money because I was in primary practice working in government hospitals. That is my idea of service to the people. But now, I am a politician and I have started getting political positions and it is on me again to serve humanity through service to the people of my community, local government, my state and the entire people of Nigeria, as well as internationally. This is my belief and this is what I want to be practicing all my life till God calls us all because, at the end of the day, we shall all go and render account of our service to humanity to God, be you big or small.