Yes, Ngige Again: A reply to Levy Obijiofor, by Emma Agu

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Dr. Chris Ngige, Minister of Labour and Employment.

Levi Obijiofor writes with such passion and elegance that it is difficult to ignore him. From his days on the editorial   board of The Guardian, his contributions to national discourse have always been patriotic and seminal. It is only natural, therefore, that
any perceptive reader would be attracted to his opinion. This is made more compelling when the subject of his discourse is Chris Ngige, Nigeria’s minister of labour and employment. Ngige in his own right is a patriot, a sound administrator and an experienced politician of repute.
Not many politicians have navigated the murky waters of south  east politics with such dexterity and success as Ngige. On different occasions, he was elected and became governor of Anambra State for  thirty three months and  later, an opposition senator from Anambra State. By that  singular feat, he  became the only senator from an opposition party, the Action  Congress of  Nigeria (ACN), in the entire former Eastern Region (present  South East, Rivers  Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Bayelsa) in the Senate. As first  president of the  pan Igbo group of professionals, the Aka Ikenga, Ngige had the privilege of  leading the Igbo professional elite Think Tank in Lagos in  the eighties, going into the nineties, for about eight to ten years. That was
what earned him the  sobriquet: Igbo Leader!

I have given this background in the light of  some of the claims  made by Obijiofor in his article, NGIGE AGAIN? which appeared in The SUN of September 18, 2018. Obijiofor’s  ire was stirred by Ngige’s claim that had Muhammadu Buhari not emerged as  President in 2015, Nigeria would have been in a worse shape than it is presently. He also took exception to the fact that the APC-led federal government would still rationalise its performance on the tenure of President Goodluck Jonathan. He went on to accuse Ngige of lacking an understanding of the political behaviour, read “voting pattern”, of his south east kinsmen and women.
Obijiofor, a journalist and journalism scholar of repute and  a member of our industry should be the first to acknowledge that facts are sacred while opinion is free. However, may be there is a sense in which he has thrown caution to the wind in his said article. Let me state categorically that I share his position that the federal government or any level of government, for that matter, has no business perpetually bemoaning the performance of its predecessor and using it as an alibi for performance. There must be a limit to excuses. But to dismiss wholesale the performance of the government or to suggest that some inherited liabilities could be resolved in three years and a half is to place the facts on their heads. This is where reference to the past before looking at the present and projecting into the future becomes a necessity.

Consider this excerpt from his article: “Nearly four years in office, no one can say for sure the direction in which the APC-led Federal Government is headed in terms of mapping out a clear socioeconomic development policy, in terms of addressing law and order that has broken down, in terms of fixing decrepit infrastructure, in terms of improving quality teaching and research in universities, in terms of creating jobs for millions of graduates who are unemployed and have no source of income, in terms of enhancing agricultural production, in terms of injecting stability into the volatile energy sector, and in terms of promoting small to medium scale businesses.”

That is a clear overkill. I submit also that Obijiofor is guilty of the same allegation he leveled against Ngige when he said, and I quote: “I don’t usually hail government ministers such as Ngige who has developed a habit of inflating (emphasis mine) the achievements of a government he serves”. The facts on the ground suggest that Obijiofor has inflated the failures of the Buhari Administration. Let us not forget that in one of his letters, Nigeria’s outspoken statesman and former President Chief Olusegun Obasanjo did give some credit to the Buhari administration in the area of security. I believe Obijiofor will concede that Obasanjo should know about security!

Granted that the complex herdsmen issue has complicated the problem of internal security, it will be grossly unfair to dismiss the achievements recorded by our armed forces whose officers, men and women have fought gallantly, some paying the supreme sacrifice, to repel the Boko Haram insurgents, retake Nigerian territory which they occupied and restore hope to many displaced victims of the insurgency. To dismiss their feat and sacrifice simply because we want to deny the Buhari Administration any credit will amount to throwing the baby away with the bath water. If, like me, you have had the privilege of visiting Maiduguri and interacting with the officers, men and women of Operation Lafiya Dole, the code name for the counter-insurgency operation in the North East, you will be very proud of what our military has achieved, regardless of the unpredictable nature of the tactics in fighting insurgency.

Gone are the days when Boko Haram hoisted its flag on Nigerian territory on a landmass compared to the size of Belgium. If anybody is persuaded to deny Buhari credit for these achievements, the person is perfectly entitled to that opinion, if it makes him or her happy but then we should be wary of inflicting more torture on the families, the orphans, widows and widowers whose gallant members made the supreme sacrifice to keep us safe and our country intact.

I have no doubt that Buhari’s publicists are competent enough to defend his track record. That notwithstanding, I make bold to say that there has been demonstrable improvement in the agricultural sector where the various policies of government, including those inherited from the Jonathan Administration, have made many families to migrate from other forms of businesses to farming. I may not have the facts at Obijiofor’s disposal. But assuming he is back from Australia, he would have noticed that more people are now engaged in fish farming, snail farming, pig rearing, cassava farming as well as growing vegetables and fruits not to talk about the numerous rice farms in almost all states of Nigeria. Any critic will be right to say that the new farmers were driven to these areas because their previous occupations were no longer lucrative or due to the loss of white collar jobs. But that is the nature of economies. In fact, a plank of the Economic Recovery Growth Plan (ERGP) of the Buhari Administration is geared towards steering people away from white to blue collar jobs. And that is agriculture.

In spite of our prejudices, there is no denying the fact that government incentives have released the creative geniuses in Nigerians some of whom, in all probability, constitute the eight million new jobs Ngige was talking about. If we are inclined to deny Buhari credit for that, we should not forget the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN
that has been instrumental to the phenomenal increase in rice production through its Anchor Borrower’ Scheme. So let’s forget Buhari and Ngige and give the credit to the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele and the CBN! But I will think that a labour and employment minister is in a vantage position to know what the employment statistics says-those losing their jobs and those entering other jobs, etc. Ngige’s statistics should have come from the department of the CBN responsible for giving out loans and recovering same from the farmers, the National Bureau of Statistics as well as his labour field officers in all the states of Nigeria. Now, I must leave the achievements of Buhari to Lai Mohammed and our colleagues, Femi Adesina and Garba Shehu to do the rest. The same goes for the Lion of the Niger Delta, the Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi who has been saddled, as in 2015, with the task of delivering Buhari in 2019.

I now return to Obijiofor’s characterization of Ngige as someone who does not understand the voting behaviour of his people. I will again say that nothing stops Obijiofor from holding his position. However, it would have been helpful if one understood where Obijiofor was coming from. Now, if a politician of Ngige’s standing, a former governor and senator, a medical doctor of Igbo extraction who rose to the position of a director in the federal civil service, the first president of the Aka Ikenga, a former deputy national secretary of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) on which platform he became governor of a state and later the only elected senator from the opposition from the south east, does not understand the voting behaviour of his people, I wonder who else would. Perhaps Obijiofor should be reminded that Ngige won election in Anambra Central Senatorial District in 2011 against the indefatigable Amazon, the late Professor Dora Akunyili, to become the only senator from the former Eastern Region in spite of the fact that she was backed by the federal government, then Anambra State Governor Mr. Peter Obi and the national chairman of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) at the time. Could those victories have been achieved by a politician who did not understand the “voting pattern” of his people? Pray: what did he tell the people of Anambra that made them to listen and give him their votes?

There is a sense that Obijiofor has unwittingly thrown up, for scrutiny, the vexed issue of Igbo political behaviour. Perhaps, this is the time, just before the 2019 elections, to subject it to some rigorous scrutiny. In doing that, there is need to caution that positioning one’s group, for effective participation in Nigerian politics, should be devoid of emotional tantrums or sanctimonious posturing. Some years ago, the highly cerebral and straight-talking Ojo Maduekwe was hounded and vilified when he said that agitation for Igbo presidency was idiotic. Over fifteen years after that debacle, can the south east zone honestly claim that it has been able to device a Modus Vivendi with other stakeholder groups in Nigeria? But Maduekwe’s voice was drowned in a cacophony of voices. Unfortunately, rather than dispassionately subjecting Ngige’s position to scrutiny, we are again getting bogged down by the same emotional outbursts that have left the South East running on the same spot.

I must admit that, like many people of South East extraction, I have had cause in the past to doubt whether Buhari was the right person to support, particularly during the 2015 election when the zone supported “our brother”, President Goodluck Jonathan. No hard feelings; but it was a support borne more out of emotion than the kind of concrete variables that Obijiofor would want to see. If you have any doubt about the emotional (I will not say, idiotic) content of South East political behaviour, you only need to read some of the vitriolic posts being spewed on social media against Buhari because of the state of the Enugu-Port Harcourt dual carriage way. You begin to wonder if these critics were away to the moon when the road received peremptory attention during the five years of Jonathan’s reign; you want to know what federal legislators from the zone did during the period. Did we not see farming on parts of this road? The same goes for the Ikot-Ekpene Aba Road that was overgrown with not just weeds but thorny shrubs. What about the Owerri-Elele federal road that became a death trap and a lucrative operational belt for kidnappers? The roads were recently reconstructed by the Buhari Administration.

This is not a critique of President  Jonathan’s Administration. Like any other human being, he had his strengths and weaknesses; he is a good man with his own record of successes. Those who insist that he did not achieve anything should return the university he established in their zones; if they are from the northern zones of the country, they should close down the almajiri schools. But I will not allow advocate closure of the strategic Abuja-Kaduna rail link which Jonathan started, took to over 40 percent completion before it was completed and commissioned by the Buhari Administration. I am sure Jonathan will be proud of his brother, the Rt. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi, Buhari’s Minister of Transportation, who ensured that the project was completed in record time. On the two occasions that I took the service to Kaduna, I got more convinced that societies work better where there is consensus on national priorities, where there is continuity on settled issues no matter the person or party in government (not power!); I saw the promise and prospects of a greater Nigeria. I look forward to the completion of the rail projects in other parts of the country so that, rather than tearing apart, we achieve greater integration of the country.

When I talked about political or voting behaviour, I warned against being emotional. The issue at stake is not about Ngige; like any other mortal, someday, he will bow out of the scene. Within the context of a united Nigeria, the zone must interrogate its past political behaviour, situate that behaviour within the existential reality of its people and question its fate in the hands of those who have claimed to be its leaders over time. In this respect, I want to leave us with some posers. Poser one: would the zone have fared any worse if it had supported Buhari to become President on the two occasions that he picked his running mate from the zone: the late Senator Chuba Okadigbo in 2003 and the late Speaker Edwin Umezuoke in 2007? Poser two: In politics, does the south east zone possess the elements of power that can conduce to stacking all its eggs in one basket as was the case in 2015? Poser three: What would the zone have lost if it had allowed the federal government, led by President Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria, NPN, to construct an airport in Owerri as it planned between 1980 and 1983? Poser 4: Should the apex pan-Igbo Cultural organisation, Ohanaeze Ndigbo that is supposed to be “father” of all, including Igbo in Rivers, Delta and other states, take a partisan position instead of playing an advisory role, in electoral matters?

To me, these are some of the substantive issues that should engage our attention, albeit dispassionately, as we approach the 2019 elections. I do not dispute the fact that individuals and what they do or do not do, matter a lot in politics. On that, in response to Obijiofor’ poser, I enthusiastically affirm that Ngige is one of the trusted sons of the South East zone who wouldn’t take any position unless he thought it was good for the zone and for Nigeria. That is why I say: Yes, Ngige Again.

*Emma Agu, a fellow of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, NGE, is Managing Consultant of Gavinta & Associate Ltd and publisher of Zest Traveller Magazine.

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