Minister of Labour and Employment, Senator Chris Ngige, was governor of Anambra State and he also served as a Senator representing his senatorial district in the National Assembly. In this Interview with select journalists in Awka, he gives an update on the 2nd Niger Bridge, talks about 2021 governorship election in state, and maintains that the surest way for an Igboman to be President of Nigeria in 2023 is for the zone to join his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), while voting massively for APC in 2021 in the state. Nwanosike Onu was there. Excerpt.
WHAT stage is the 2nd Niger Bridge as we speak?
The 2nd Niger Bridge is ongoing. The contractor has made an undertaking on his own to deliver the project before the appointed date of 2022 and handover, and I believe them because they’re working day and night. Apart from the little hiccup occasioned by demands for compensation, they’re on schedule. The job is on 45% completion and the fund for the construction is available. That is the good news for the people of the South East. The cost of the bridge from exit route of Delta and South- East, South- South is about N336bn, and the money is available unlike the Obasanjo/Jonathan arrangement when they were trying to look for PPP.
But now we’re building the bridge as one of the flagship projects of the federal government which are- Lagos/Ibadan, East-West Road, 2nd Niger Bridge, Abuja-Kaduna-Kano, and Mambilla. Works have started in all these because money is guaranteed. The 2nd Niger Bridge which concerns me and you and people of South-South, South-West and North-Central is on course. It’s a very strategic bridge that links North, South East, South-South, South-West. It’s very cheering news because during the time of PPP, I opposed it in the senate and I had a very serious altercation at the South-East caucus meeting with the then deputy senate president, Ekweremadu, and ministry of finance and then SGF Anyim Pius. I blasted them that they’ve not treated us well. Whereas others were getting bridges that are toll-free, these people were giving us toll bridge.
So the 2nd Niger Bridge is toll free?
It is toll free for now. When we are going to toll, we’ll toll all the federal roads and bridges all together. So it’s not a question of tolling the bridge to recoup our money. No, we’re going to recoup all; because I’m one of those who believe that the federal roads in the whole of Nigeria should be tolled. As a matter of fact, a lot of roads they call federal roads, I don’t believe they are federal roads. The federal roads are the ones we call trunk ‘A’ roads that lead to state capitals. The state government should face other roads in their domain and build them like we did when I was the governor working in Anambra. I’m happy President Buhari listens to South -East ministers who are members of Federal Executive Council (FEC) who make tremendous efforts to remind council members that this same 2nd Niger Bridge is like a doyen of all bridges in the southern part of Nigeria.
The president, being a listening leader, granted our requests and made that bridge one of the flagship projects. The same goes for the Enugu International Airport but only international by name. The facilities were run-down; the runway became one of the worst in Africa, according to an Ethiopian airline pilot who ferried us from Addis Ababa to Enugu in 2018. He told us that this is one of the worst runaways in Africa. You can now know it was a death trap, the reason the president decided at the FEC to close the airport so as to bring it back to standard. He even approved N10bn for the re-furbishing of the runway and the landing and runway lights, a separate contract – arrival and departure terminals are running being handled by Chinese firm. As we speak, the Minister of Aviation, my very good friend, has visited the site. From the clip he showed us, work is ongoing with new contractors.
Why I’m going into all these details is because the people of the South-East always feel they’re being marginalised. When you ask them, they said they are not being appointed as SGF, Ngige is not made Minister of Works, Housing or Power, Health. Why it surprises me is that all those positions they’re mentioning, under the PDP government nothing spectacular was achieved for the Igbo. Under the PDP, South-East people had ministers of power, aviation, but they didn’t get all the appointments in the world, even the ones they gave them from that portfolio were abused. They’ve also become Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of Economy, like Okonjo Iwealla, representing Abia. They’ve also headed health, Onyebuchi Chukwu. Stella Odua, Chidoka and Njeze were all in aviation. So I don’t know what they’re talking about. But the good thing again is that we’re only one FEC established by section 148 of the 1999 constitution. President and the vice president hold regular meetings with ministers and that section makes us chief advisers to Mr. President.
Except for any other person like members of council of states- who are being consulted; members of National Defence council, they are all on consultations. But in our own case, president meets with us regularly; it’s statutory and we review international and domestic policies and efforts and programmes of government. So when people talk, they talk out of ignorance and it pains me that people who should know also join them. There’s no programme that comes to FEC that is not discussed passionately by all. The president is so democratic in handling the affairs of the FEC that you will think the ministers are now running parliamentary system of government. So there’s excessive democracy under President Mohammadu Buhari; excessive democratisation in decision making, and I can attest to that. We practiced that on the issue of 2nd bridge and he bowed to our pressure and changed the programme because ministry of works also supported that the bridge should be funded by the Nigerian government’s fund, not waiting for external fund that’s nowhere to be seen. I’m asking that we be careful the way we castigate the government.
I’m appealing to south easterners, my brothers, that unnecessary criticisms that are not constructive will not lead us anywhere. Criticisms that are constructive are welcome by any government and this government is not averse to such. When you criticise us, give us an alternative, your own view, solution to what you are suggesting and it will be done. It has been done many times by this government. The point I’m making is that the South-East is getting her fair deal, forget about appointments. People like big appointments, for ego’s sake – my brother is Chief Defence staff, what are you defending? For me, our people should play our politics well, this is a time for us to reengineer and join other Nigeria ns in believing that this country is ours and become more patriotic about it, and give honour and accolades to whom it is due and appreciate government or whoever that have done justice to you. We’ve got our fair share in the areas of infrastructure. I don’t want to delve into the area of flood and erosion control where the president ensured that the South-East gets more than other zones because it is believed and that it’s true that our soil is prone to gully erosion.
So the president recognises that and gives us priority. You look at our roads, they’re being done. The journey of five hours will now take you one and half hours. Umunya has been done. These are projects undertaken in four years. But the government that stayed 16 years called PDP government didn’t do them. Instead, at every election, they carried people to 2nd Niger Bridge, Udekpe side. There were rituals, starting from Obasanjo to Yaradua to Jonathan; they all would go there and take your vote. The last occupant said “first Niger Bridge was built by Azikiwe, the 2nd one will be built by another Azikiwe.” But these are things our people want to listen to. Some of us don’t like to listen to such fable and tales. We’re too old in this business to listen to tales by moonlight. But people don’t like us for that but I can’t change my character of saying the truth.
What is going on about the federal government’s school feeding?
The NSIP is undergoing some rejigging. A new ministry has been created, Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management. A lot of people are in that programme and they’re civil servants drawn to pilot the affairs. So let’s give them up to first quarter of 2020, the programme will be repackaged so as not to disrupt the ongoing one. But definitely, it’s being repackaged because some areas need to be retouched. Same goes with the N-power programme under the same NSIP. They’re all being rejigged. I have no doubt in my mind that we’ll all benefit more at the end of the day. No system is very perfect. We’ll support the idea when it comes to the FEC.
Is it true you intend to come back to Anambra as governor and from there you will vie for the presidency in 2023, how true is that?
Who’s telling you that story? It’s not correct. I’ve not discussed the presidency with anybody. The president just assumed his 2nd term on May 2019. He should be allowed to do some work. I know the government I’m under, that anyone talking about presidency should talk about it rightfully. By May this year, we’ll be one year. So I’ve not discussed the presidency with anybody. I’m facing my work as minister. But I do know that if the South-East Igbo are interested in the president of Nigeria, they should identify with the ruling party, which is APC of which Mr. President is the leader, the flag bearer and captain. For him, he’s facing his work. For those who want to politick, it is too early. But if you want to, go ahead, God bless you; but you’re on your own. It is democracy. But I keep on telling the Igbo that they have to join the train that is moving on smoothly. For them to make impressionable mark, that they should be ready to be counted; they must start with Anambra, because it’s the next election. Anambra is the only state to conduct election in the South-East before the next general election.
Igbo must believe in one Nigeria and one sure way of doing that is by voting massively for the APC in 2021 in the Anambra election knowing full well that the ruling party in the state, APGA, has performed abysmally poorly and therefore no grounds to ask the people to give them another mandate. The people gave them the mandate in 2012 for Peter Obi to do a 2nd term and after that, he brought a successor in Obiano. But the people of the state are now looking at those periods and comparing it with 33 months I held sway as governor. These people’s 12 years plus have not even gotten to the level of development I had in two years and nine months under my leadership as governor of Anambra State. About coming back as governor, you’re right because people have been approaching me to have a look at contesting. They say if you are not interested in coming to rejig the place, give us somebody who you think you have mentored or can vouch for or guarantee that can play this game and administer the state with the template you left. Of that template, the only thing that has not been destroyed is the payment of salaries. They said I was non-partisan when I was here. I was a neutral religious person because I believe religion is in the mind depending on how you practice yours. I have a work I’m doing for now. This is not the right time to talk about politics. I have serious assignment given to me by Mr. President who genuinely loves Nigerians and wants us to live some indelible footprints.
But is the search going on?
Yes, but I will search for a good person. They have said to me; if you don’t consider us as making sense to come and run, please don’t forsake us. Search and give us a credible person who will be industrious and adopt the same template you have adopted here. I in turn, I’m telling them that they need to come into APC before making all the demands. You don’t stay outside the pitch to score goal. It’s not possible; it’s important they come in. Otherwise, other Nigerians will be afraid of us because they will believe if they give us that power, we will use to go for separation. Igbo must show to other Nigerians that they are our brothers. Once they do that, they will be surprised that others will say ‘let’s go to the South-East and pick a president of Igbo extraction.’ If not for anything else, I know of some northerners and westerners who say that whenever South-East is given the slot, they will lay permanently the ghost of the Nigerian civil war; it would have been buried for life. All the acrimony, bitterness, suspicion would have been buried once and for all and I believe that.
You mean the Igbo should drop the MASSOB and IPOB interest?
I didn’t say so; rather they should de-emphasise it. They should lecture them as I was doing when I was the governor. I was lecturing them, giving them food, jobs for those who were not employed, and they were happy and selling their currencies which I can’t stop them from doing. Even their flag is a memento, something they use to remember the past. This is my take on that. I’ll be criticised, but I don’t care as far as I’m saying the right thing we have to agree with Nigeria on the other side.
Tell us your take on zoning
My take on zoning is very simple. If you go to the Nigerian constitution, you will not see it. But if you go to the political parties, especially the big ones, you will see it. Sometimes, they call it rotation of power along the major ethnic group, along the senatorial zones; they are all in the party constitution. There are even those who don’t have it in their own constitution, but have an unwritten agreement. When we started in the PDP, we didn’t put it in our constitution. But we have it unwritten between the North and South. It was an agreement reached at the caucus meeting and reflected in the minutes. That was how OBJ and Alex Ekwueme came out. Rimi that came out from the north was told to drop by the party, and he did. But later the constitution talked about rotation. I was one of those who amended the PDP constitution while I was still there as assistant national secretary. Rotation is even a part of constitution of the Federal Republic; but more explicitly said that in appointments and other things you must reflect the diverse nature of the country in terms of appointment or election, that’s indirectly insisting on balancing. If you come down to Anambra, we have three senatorial zones, but you don’t have any senatorial zone where the people are homogeneous.
If you go to the south senatorial district, you have people of Nnewi, Ihiala, old Aguata Union. If you come to central you have people of Idemili, you have Awka north and south; you have people from Dunukofia whose customs resemble that of Anyamelum Omambala of the north. If you go to the north, you have people of Anyamelum, Omambala. If you come to the centre of the north, you have Onitsha Ado. You go up, you meet Ogbaru. There is no homogeneity. Therefore, we use it as a module for sharing things, including power. In Anambra as we speak today, the people of south have governed the state; we have had people like Ojukwu in charge of Biafra, we have Ezeife, who was the pioneer civilian governor. We also have Mbadinuju who was the 3rd republic pioneer governor. You also have people like Etiaba who stood in for nearly one year for Peter Obi. You come to central – you have people like me who did two years nine months and Obi who did eight years though partly interrupted by Etiaba. Go to north, you have Obiano who’s completing his eight years.
But some people want to be funny, citing Zik. Ukpabi Asika did for 67-75, eight years. This is the scenario you can’t run away from. There are three situations. It is a truism. So, for me, the way Anambra is going now, we need a credible person. We need somebody who can bring Anambra back on track. The state has derailed, the governance system has derailed. You have to look at all these before you talk strictly about zoning. However, because the three zones have tested it, it will look incongruous if you go and pick another person from the north immediately after governor Obiano. That is my take.
Who is the leader of APC in South East?
Our party constitution doesn’t make any provision for leadership in the zone. A leader emerges. It is the people who will say who their leader is. We’ve not sat as a group now to say this is the leader of APC. What we’re doing when Okorocha was governor was what we call collegiate leadership. We had Okorocha as the only governor. We had Ogbonnaya Onu who was former governor and former chairman. You had me, who was the ACN leader and former senator elected on APC platform in the whole of former Eastern Region. So I became the leader automatically. I was also a former governor. So we had a collegiate type of leadership as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t make any meaning for me that they say I’m the leader. The leadership evolves and naturally that is what it is. The meeting at Ogbonnaya’s Onu’s house where he was announced leader was not a statutory meeting. It’s only statutory members of the zone that can decide that they want to elect a leader. That issue has come up before when Okorocha, as governor of Imo state two years ago, brought a former senator and my friend Ken Nnamani and said he was the leader of APC in South east; of course we told him no. I brought out the party constitution and told him we don’t have to elect anybody that is not in our agenda and the meeting supported me. So we jettisoned it. Even Nnamani said he was a new entrant into the party, only one week old and he had read the constitution that there’s no place in the constitution a leader is mentioned.
So it’s you people that want to over-flog the issue and create chasm between leaders of the party in the zone. I don’t think it’s anything we need to break our heads over. If you want to summon a meeting, the zonal chairman must be informed. He’s the highest person in the party structure. If you want to look at it strictly from the constitution, the zonal chairman, (Emma Eneukwu), is the leader in the zone.