bank

…in telling the banks to follow due process, the Labour minister might be right. Only that he is very late to the party. The train left the station way back. Too late in the day to be issuing directives to banks that had carefully guaranteed an emasculation of the workforce. What operates in terms of labour practice in many of the banks is barely different from what it was like in the sugarcane plantations of old.


“Even if you are going to lay off, there is a way to declare redundancy, there is a process. Section 20 of the labour act says it. You must call the unions and discuss with them. You don’t just treat them as slaves in their own country and you want us to keep quiet.” – Dr. Chris Ngige

So the banks have been laying off staff, in droves. Inevitable and predictable, one would say. Any attempt to clean up the financial system drunk on illicit funds, even at the macro level, and keep Nigeria to the narrow path will definitely rebound on a banking system whose substructure lies in quicksand. That is inevitable. Yet, we are only scratching the surface. Underneath, the rot lies much deeper. Predictably too, the cowboys, who lay claim to ownership of the banks have taken to the path of least resistance – send home staff whose wages, when added up, barely make any impact on the cooked bottom-line of these institutions.

In many of the banks, directors’ remuneration alone, not to mention other benefits and loans to entities in which they have interest, is more than the combined salaries and wages of all the staff. You would think that banks that are sincerely keen on cutting cost will look at curbing the waste at the top, and not in pushing out the already marginalised people at the bottom. But that will be where the banks care for anyone and anything but their own insatiable greed.

Understandably, the minister of Labour and Employment, Dr. Chris Ngige, last week intervened in a bid to keep the process of retrenchment, in line with the laws of the land. He was reported to have threatened a revocation of licences of the banks for violating directives he had issued. He is right, but also wrong. He is right to be concerned but is wrong to issue a threat that holds no water. If he had been properly informed, he would have realised that the rules he is throwing at the banks hardly apply to most of them. He would have realised the futility of his threat as most of the banks in question do not have in-house unions and are not bound by those rules. Indeed, that is the problem. That is what should be of concern to the minister. For without tracking back to the point where the rain started beating us, we would only labour in vain, in the present.

Apart from the institutionalisation of greed as official creed in banking, it ushered in the era of complete disregard for labour laws. All the banks set up from the late 80s ensured that employees were not allowed to form trade unions. Efforts made by staff members to come together to form labour unions, as provided for in the laws of the land, were fiercely resisted, with the movers blackmailed or forced out of the system.


Banking has almost, always, been borderline criminality. To put it mildly, what transpires in many of the banks, pretending to be legitimate enterprise, is bare-faced criminality. Indeed, it did not start today but it was never as blatant as it has been in the last two decades or thereabout. In the last week, in chronicling the sterling football career of the enigmatic Stephen Keshi, copious reference has been made to his football career with ACB and NNB. For those who might not know, ACB and NNB were banks – African Continental Bank and New Nigerian Bank. Those banks might have engaged in the elementary form of robbing in the name of banking, but those banks operated in an era where banks were more grounded and there was a stronger umbilical cord between them and the society in which they were operating. Corporate Social Responsibility might not have been well defined then, but the banks had a bit of understanding and concern which led them into sponsorship of Football Clubs.

No doubt that ACB and NNB were public sector investment vehicles, but even banks owned by the private sector – First Bank, Union Bank and others also had football clubs playing in the national football league. That was a different era, as even NEPA, the power utility company, Water Corporation, Nigerian Telecommunications Company (NITEL) and other public institutions had their own Football clubs, as well, while the banks and other institutions actively funded and supported other sports. That was when the banks still cared or pretended to care.

Fast forward to the late 1980s and early 90s with the liberalisation regime of General Babangida and the open-house banking system that came courtesy of the new-generation banks, things changed. With all the good brought into the system by virtue of competition and massive adoption of technology, there were downsides to new-generation banking. Apart from the institutionalisation of greed as official creed in banking, it ushered in the era of complete disregard for labour laws. All the banks set up from the late 80s ensured that employees were not allowed to form trade unions. Efforts made by staff members to come together to form labour unions, as provided for in the laws of the land, were fiercely resisted, with the movers blackmailed or forced out of the system. I was once accused of plotting a coup for calling a meeting of a certain category of Staff to discuss the state and future of a bank. So fiercely was any effort to come together as a pressure group resisted in our banks.

A million directives will not make a difference to a system rotten from the substructure. The banks simply don’t care about staff, customers, investors or the public. They only care about the books and how to cook them. Perhaps, soon, someone will make them care about what should really matter.


That is how we got to where we are today. That is how we ended up with banks who became laws unto themselves, in labour matters. That is how we ended up with banks, lacking in creativity and willingness to connect with the needs of the banking public, took to institutionalised prostitution as a tool of marketing. That is how we ended up with banks, in disregard of security concerns and the welfare of staff, institutionalised casualisation and outsourced staffing to third party agencies, to enable them fire at will, and without commitment to terminal benefits. That is how we ended up with banks running with employees with no allegiance to the institutions, as they can be forced to resign at anytime or forced out without benefits.
Yet, while the banks became more ingenious with means of short-changing employees and customers, ‘owner-managers’ perfected the means of rigging the system. In connivance with outsiders, a carefully-designed culture of insider abuse was designed to milk the system dry in the name of deals carefully packaged to go bad. In the early days, customers and gullible, petty investors were sold a lie, through an equally rigged capital market, to absorb the loss. Later, toxic ‘assets’ were passed on to the publicly-owned AMCON to wrestle with while cowboys smiled away on their yachts.

So, in telling the banks to follow due process, the Labour minister might be right. Only that he is very late to the party. The train left the station way back. Too late in the day to be issuing directives to banks that had carefully guaranteed an emasculation of the workforce. What operates in terms of labour practice in many of the banks is barely different from what it was like in the sugarcane plantations of old. It is only another face of the legalised robbery pretending to be banking in Nigeria, where profits, so-claimed, are privatised and losses, so-declared, are socialised – passed on to the rest of us, so the big boys can continue to luxuriate, while fashioning new means at legitimising rogue banking. The staff are simply pawns, housed in a concentration camp, let out into the rain at will, anytime those at the top are caught with more fingers than legally allowed in the cookie jar. A million directives will not make a difference to a system rotten from the substructure. The banks simply don’t care about staff, customers, investors or the public. They only care about the books and how to cook them. Perhaps, soon, someone will make them care about what should really matter.

Simbo Olorunfemi works for Hoofbeatdotcom, a Nigerian Communications Consultancy. Tweet@simboolorunfemi