Nigeria: The Private Agony of Dr Chris Ngige

15 September 2021

A huge relief came the way of Dr Chris Ngige last week. As a hapless nation resigned to bear the brunt of another paralysis in the health sector, a sudden truce was announced. The Joint Health Sector Unions (JOHESU) and Assembly of Healthcare Professionals had on September 3 threatened to embark on an indefinite strike if after 15 days the Federal Government failed to address some grievances. The countdown began. Then the lucky break came as Ngige announced that both parties had reached an understanding.

For the Minister, the breakthrough may be short-lived. The two-month old strike by the National Association of Resident Doctors (NARD) is still ongoing, while the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA) is considering joining the fray in solidarity with the resident doctors. A meeting on a separate discussion on hazard allowance, for which N37.5 billion has reportedly been budgeted, is being planned.

The cycle, symptomatic of Nigeria's Russian roulette, captures the fate of a trapped nation, consistently in motion without movement.

Getting into high office in Nigeria, especially political positions, does not come on a platter of gold. It demands strong connection to the power elite, powered by your ethnic origin, religion and selfishness. The fact that we assassinate, consult oracles and perform rituals, as well as observe an occasional fasting, underscores the importance and/or desperation for such offices. What is the reward then?

When the lists of potential political appointees are being compiled, there could be as many as three of such lists, depending on the number of interest groups or power blocs in play. And there is no certainty about the names that will eventually make the final cut. So, a huge measure of prayers and rituals is not unusual. Those are the high stakes to scale in order to secure political appointments. And because of the huge returns tied to such positions, the jostling seems vindicated.

After securing the approval of the power blocs and the candidate is eventually cleared to appear before the Senate, the nominee is assured of confirmation, unless being promoted by a weak or disunited clique, who may misgauge the influence of Ghana Must Go in political lobbying in Nigeria. Merit and competence are secondary considerations in this clime.

So, when Dr Chris Nwabueze Ngige, a medical doctor by training, appeared before the Senate for screening and confirmation as a Minister of the Federal Republic of Nigeria in 2015, his confidence was understandably high. He was a former Senator and still wears the sobriquet. So, he only bowed and left.

But being assigned a portfolio is a different ball game, a decision that resides with the president and his inner circle. Unwritten considerations come into play at this stage. Nonetheless, everyone craves to be posted to a lucrative and powerful ministry: Petroleum, Defence, Finance, Works, Power and Transport, among others. These ministries command huge budgetary allocations and oversee revenue-generating parastatals that shirk accountability. In a deeply corrupt country, these agencies guarantee instant accumulation of personal wealth through massively inflated or ghost contracts, or just by brazenly dipping hands into the till. To augment, the civil service reeks with opaque accounts for siphoning funds. With such cushioning, the political appointee is more than sufficiently motivated to face the challenges of his office. Note that in Nigeria, politicians are normally richer than business people.

No one will joyfully accept posting to a Ministry of Labour, Health or Education where upheavals are eternal and offer very minimal underhand financial returns. In any case, the funds are not even available. The Labour Ministry, for instance, will generate enormous visibility for the supervising minister, something a typical politician would normally embrace. But in this case, the visibility is often engendered by endless altercations with activist trade unions.

Well, Dr Ngige found himself as the Minister of Labour, Employment and Productivity, a portfolio that is at the heart of fundamental human rights and economic development. At the onset, several scenarios would have played in his mind, most of them quite discomforting. The mere thought of such acronyms as ASUU, NLC, TUC, PENGASSAN, NARD, NUPENG, and NMA evokes anxiety and anger. Their calling is anchored on the fight for the protection of the fundamental rights of workers, which, in the Nigerian case, is trenchantly breached by employers. The enforcement of such rights naturally leads to disruption in the ecosystem.

Today, Ngige's consternation has fully unraveled. Hardly does any quarter pass without an upheaval triggered by organized labour for the breach of one right or another of the workers. A huge measure of the minister's troubles emanates from serving in an enormously unpopular and despotic government which in the past six years has displayed utter disregard for human rights and democratic tenets.

I have no doubt that Ngige and others in troublesome and non-profitable ministries would be continuously dreaming of a cabinet shakeup, a wish hinged on the hope of being transferred to 'better' ministries. But the danger of praying for a cabinet reshuffle comes with the risk of being dropped completely. Two ministers lost their jobs in a minor shakeup earlier this month. So, it would seem preferable to remain where you are and deal with the dynamics of your portfolio.

It is unknown from my position how these incessant labour upheavals are affecting Ngige. But speaking from a psychological standpoint, he would not be a happy man. He lives under permanent pressure, so to speak. I may be wrong though. He may actually be someone cut out for the job. As a trained medical doctor, he definitely knows what medications are required to keep his blood pressure stable. And then, if there is a correlation between height and hyperactivity, then I would say from a layman's viewpoint that being diminutive, Ngige may actually be operating in his natural environment. In that case, Ayuba Wabba and co have only been availing the Anambra state-born politician the chance to ventilate.

With hindsight, it may be that the previous experience of being forced into a toilet by a godfather, even while serving as a sitting governor, would have hardened Ngige like a Taliban. Also, his longevity in Nigeria's perfidious political space, speaks of a cat with over a dozen lives.

Nonetheless, 2023 would look like eternity for Ngige to exhale, especially if Buhari does not reshuffle his cabinet again. But Ngige may not be transferred elsewhere if that happens. So, he hangs in there, carrying a cross he would rather offload, while hoping that something keeps distracting labour from issuing another strike notice. Poor fellow!

Nwachukwu can be reached via

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