By Emmanuel Nzomiwu
“We want to thank the Honourable Minister of Labour and Employment. He is such a lovely father, lovely gentleman and lovely elder. If more Nigerians are like him, I believe that this country will be a better place.”
Those were the words of Dr. Arome Chris Adejo, the first vice-president of the Nigerian Association of Resident Doctors (NARD), while thanking the Honourable Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator (Dr.) Chris Nwabueze Ngige, OON, for his interventions, which have yielded industrial harmony in the health sector. Adejo spoke after the leadership of NARD met with representatives of the Federal Government at Ngige’s office in Abuja recently to iron out outstanding industrial issues from the last memorandum of action (MOA) signed by both parties. The statement by the NARD officer, no doubt, encapsulates what Sen. Ngige is: “A paragon of everything that is good about public service and the ultimate role model for all who take that career path.”
The former Anambra State governor, who will clock 69 years on August 8, 2021, stands out among his contemporaries. His peers envy his legendary footprints in politics and public service in Nigeria as a former governor, ex-senator and two-term minister. It is an indisputable fact that Ngige’s sterling performance in his 34-month stint as governor has remained a yardstick for assessing successive administrations in Anambra State.
During his administration, Anambra witnessed a quantum of projects and other uncountable accomplishments. Where do we begin? Should we start from the 105 road projects executed by his administration across the three senatorial zones of Anambra State, some linking neighbouring states, or the clearing of the backlog of salaries and pensions, which he inherited from the regime of his predecessor, Dr. Chinwoke Mbadinugu? His exploits in road construction in Anambra State earned him the nickname Roadmaster.
The Ngige administration had not only clear the backlog of salaries and pensions it inherited from the Mbadinuju administration but also went ahead to institutionalise the prompt payment of salaries and pensions. This has remained the minimum standard for successive administrations in the state. He recalibrated pensions and, hence, Anambra State became the second state in Nigeria to pay 143 per cent increment, after Rivers State under Governor Peter Odili, which was at that time the highest earner from the Federation Account Allocation Committee (FAAC). He also made remarkable impacts on security, education, health, agriculture, water resources and other sectors in Anambra State.
While representing Anambra Central senatorial district at the Senate, Ngige could not hold a committee chairmanship position, being an opposition senator then. Leveraging on his position as Deputy Chairman, Committee on Power, he had attracted numerous power projects to the South-East geo-political zone. He also did a yeoman’s job as a member of six other standing committees of the Senate, including the Committee on Health, which produced the National Health Act that was signed into law by the then President, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, in October 2014. It was Ngige who moved a motion for the immortalisation of literary icon, Chinua Achebe, and, as a result, Achebe was given a plenary session, an honour reserved for only National Assembly members.
In his current capacity as Minister of Labour and Employment, Ngige has contributed hugely to national development by keeping the labour sector afloat in the past six years despite the economic downturn in the country. He has been doing so even at this critical time that the country is plagued by numerous industrial disputes, arising from the deleterious effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, which has depleted the earnings of employers and employees, leading to industrial disputes all over the public and private sector.
Although a medical doctor by training, many Nigerians are enthralled by the dexterity, finesse and proficiency with which Ngige conciliates labour disputes brought to his table. Indeed, he has not only created a harmonious relationship between the government and the two arms of the organised labour, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC), but has also taken social dialogue to the “next level” in Nigeria, by promoting and ensuring best practices in labour administration, in line with international standard.
Besides NARD, Ngige has successfully apprehended and conciliated industrial disputes between the Federal Government and other labour unions, such as the Joint Health Sector Unions, Academic Staff Union of Universities, Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities, the Non-Academic Staff Union of Universities and Allied Institutions, the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigerian Universities and the Judicial Staff Union of Universities.
As Nigeria’s chief labour officer, his impact has been felt across all spheres of our national life. A few instances will be mentioned here. Following his mediation of the disputes in the health sector, the Federal Government is currently negotiating a new hazard allowance for all health workers in government-owned health establishments. The Federal Government has also commenced the payment of death benefits to deceased doctors and other health workers under the Group Life Insurance. Over N1 billion has been earmarked by the Federal Government for this payment.
Regarding the Residency Training Fund, which was supposed to be captured in the 2021 budget, the N4.3 billion due to resident doctors was captured under the personnel cost in service-wide votes. The consequential minimum wage adjustment is also being taken care of while the Federal Government has abolished bench fees for doctors who have gone to acquire training that are not available in their original training institution.
In the education sector, the story is not different. Courtesy of the last MOA he brokered between the unions and the Federal Government, earned allowances have been paid to both the academic and non academic staff of public owned universities. Visitation panels have also been inaugurated for the universities while the Federal Government has constituted a team to renegotiate the 2009 agreement. The Federal Government is equally awaiting the outcome of the integrity test on the University Transparency Accountability Solution (UTAS) system, the platform preferred by ASUU to IPPIS, for the payment of the entitlements of its members.
Senator Ngige’s impact has equally been felt across the three arms of government in Nigeria. Besides performing his duties as Minister of Labour and Employment, he serves in very important presidential committees, including the Economic Sustainability Committee constituted by President Muhammdu Buhari, which is headed by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, to tackle the challenges and fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic and post COVID-19 era. Most recently, he was appointed as a member of the National Steering Committee (NSC) on the National Poverty Reduction with Growth Strategy (NPRGS) to work assiduously to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in 10 years. All these are besides other demanding engagements of the Minister of Labour and Employment, such as playing supervisory role over several federal parastatals under his Ministry.
His wealth of experience and versatile knowledge of governance at different tiers and arms of government immensely contributed to the resolution of the complex issues involved in the quest for autonomy for the state legislature and judiciary, culminating in the suspension of the prolonged strike by the Judiciary Staff Union of Nigeria (JUSUN) and the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN). All the parties involved, including JUSUN, PASAN, the Nigerian Governors Forum, and the Conference of Speakers of the 36 states of the Federation, signed the historic document containing the framework for each of the State governments to grant autonomy to their legislature and judiciary. Some states have already started the implementation.
The unique thing about Ngige’s intervention in industrial disputes is that he does not stop at signing agreements with unions, but invites members of the Government for meetings periodically to assess the level of implementation of such agreements.
Nonetheless, the burden of managing the Labour Sector has not deterred him from social discourse, especially on issues affecting the Nigerian workers. For instance, last year, a bill surfaced at the National Assembly, seeking to transfer the Minimum Wage from the Exclusive List to the Concurrent List. He joined the organised labour to oppose the bill on the grounds that the minimum wage served as social protection by providing minimum income floors to safeguard low earners. While addressing Nigerians workers at the May Day celebration in Abuja, he threatened to take legal action against Nigerian Governors who refused to implement the N30, 000 minimum wage in their states, warning that they were breaching the law by not doing so.
As a politician and chieftain of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), he has proved to be a very strong, confident, dedicated and honest party leader. While most Nigerian politicians see lying as an “occupational hazard”, Ngige will always stand by the truth even if it will earn him political enemies. He replicated this character during the controversial June 26, 2021 governorship primary election of APC in Anambra State that produced Senator Andy Uba as the party’s flag-bearer for the November 6 election. Today, APC is at crossroads in Anambra State for not heeding his call for the postponement of the primary election not minding the obvious flaws that marred the exercise.
In addition to being a consummate politician, Ngige is a respected public figure, a patriot and nationalist who believes in a united and indivisible Nigeria, founded on equity, justice and fair-play. At the time it appeared that the South-East zone was about being consumed by violent secessionist agitations, the Association of Eze Ndigbo in the 19 Northern States and the Igbo Delegates Assembly beckoned on him. Being a prominent player in Igbo affairs, leading Aka Ikenga as President from 1991 to 1997, which conferred on him membership of Imeobi Ohanaeze from 1992 till date, he rose to the occasion by not only condemning the violence, but also dispelling the propaganda by Igbo elite against President Muhammadu Buhari, which the secessionists capitalised on to brainwash people in the South-East.
In the area of philanthropy, through his foundation, Senator Chris Ngige foundation, he instituted university endowments and offered scholarships to over 3,000 indigent persons from his senatorial district in secondary and tertiary institutions. No fewer than 60 persons per ward in the senatorial district, benefitted from the scholarship. The scholarship scheme which runs till date, also had beneficiaries from Imo, Enugu, Abia, Ebonyi and children of non Anambra indigenes living in the state. The foundation equally sponsored hundreds of persons in various skill acquisition programmes as part of its empowerment programme. In addition, the foundation paid hospital bills for many less privileged persons in Anambra State, and Central senatorial district in particular.
Senator Ngige was born on August 8, 1952 to the family of Late Pius Akunnia Ngige of Alor in Idemili South local government area of Anambra State. He graduated as a medical doctor from the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) in 1979. After undergoing the compulsory one-year national service under National Youth Service Corps (NYSC), he joined the civil service, serving at the National Assembly and State House clinics at different times. Through hard work, he rose to the position of Deputy Director in charge of Hospital Services in the Federal Ministry of Health. In that capacity, he not only spearheaded the movement of University of Nigeria Teaching Hospital (UNTH) from its temporary site in Enugu to the ultramodern Ituku-Ozalla Permanent site, but equally played a major role in the conversion of Kano Specialist Hospital to a Teaching Hospital.
As he marks his 69th birthday, the prayers of all Nigerians should be that God should give him more strength to render more service to the nation even in higher capacities.
•Nzomiwu, journalist, writes from Abuja