- Post 01 April 2010
- Last Updated on 01 April 2010
- By Femi Segun
I had decided to change career in mid-stride, almost in midlife. It was not an easy decision to make but bitter medicine I had to swallow to ease my being. My reasons were both personal and official. On the official side, the Foreign Service was no longer the exalted Service it used to be and there was a lot of discrimination, stagnation and victimization going on especially if you were from the Southern part of the country. Missions were being starved of funds and the gravitas and rigor that previously attended Foreign Service promotions were no longer de rigueur. In the name of ‘Federal Character’ balancing, poorly trained and clueless officers were being injected right at the top levels and sent to sensitive posts to make nonsense of Nigerian National Interests and Career Diplomats.
Having been in the system and seen the worst of it all for eight years, I dreaded what was yet to come. I doubted that coming from Ogun State, a State considered ‘over-represented’ in the Federal Civil Service, after twenty years I would be anywhere near the coveted attainment as a career Ambassador. I was already feeling the pinch even in my post of Secondment, the Presidency. Officers that had served under me as Youth Corpers were being promoted regularly and off cycle, at least one above me because of vacancies in their own States slots. They were all of Northern origin and merit was not a consideration.
On the personal side, my much-publicized wedding to the daughter of an avowed anti-establishment crusader would affect my career as a diplomat. The security reports on me increased in quantum and I was under surveillance most of the time due to the proximity my job brought me to the President. My superiors at the Presidency did not overtly sanction me but the assignments dwindled gradually and finally trickled to a stop. I was desk-bound, no participation in the daily courtesy calls on Mr. President, no travels with him within Nigeria and definitely no foreign trips that brought in the much-coveted ESTACOD, the per diem dollar-denominated allowance. It boiled down to a choice between my job and my marriage, and I chose my marriage. Ours was a challenging match ab initio and I felt I had to make the marriage work by all means.
Added to these was an incident that occurred for which I was made to suffer despite the fact that I had no direct participation in it. I was just an observer. In May 1989, I was at home recuperating from the second surgery in six months when I was informed that upon resumption in the office after my Sick Leave, I was needed for questioning by the SSS. I made discreet enquiries and was informed that I it concerned a discussion on highly sensitive matters which had taken place in my office between two Youth Corper ladies and a male colleague who were serving in the Presidency about yet another of my male colleagues. Of the Thirteen Senior Officers in State Protocol, The Presidency, I was one of the only two southerners. Under Shagari, sometimes office briefings would be held in Hausa and I would be told my role by my colleagues thereafter. I digress, back to the current issue.
One of the Ladies was quite notorious in the Presidency and unknown to her was nicknamed C- Cubed (C3) a play on the fact that she had dated a Corporal, a Captain and a Colonel to everyone’s knowledge. She had been banned from entering the high security inner Gate of the Presidency on the instruction of the First Lady’s Office for some other misdemeanor. She had initiated this discussion and was the main reason for the harsh treatment that eventually ensued. The women had fallen apart shortly after the discussion and one of them had gone to tattle to the subject of the discussion who promptly made a report to the SSS. The matter got to the hearing of the First Lady’s Office and I was needed to help clarify ‘who’ said ‘what’ in the dangerous and indiscreet discussion.
By the time I reported to the SSS Headquarters, I had figured that the permutation of the matter would result in fallout on all of us at the end of the day. In that case, the two girls who had hitherto shown themselves to be quite resourceful in getting their way with the military would get off lightly while I would carry the can. The best option was for me to use the “Plausible denial” Option.
I do not recollect being there when such a thing was discussed. Even if I was there, I was not listening and do not recollect what was discussed. Even if anything of a nature constituting a security breach were discussed, I would not have participated in it anyway. Ergo, I have no knowledge of any untoward discussion whatsoever.
That was my story and I stuck to it. The SSS Deputy Director was furious at my stance and had us all detained indefinitely, off the record so that our names did not feature in any of the daily dispatches to the President. As one day dissolved into another, my incredulity as a seasoned and trusted Senior Officer at being detained by the SSS grew. This would not happen to any of my colleagues, I was so sure of it. Was it because I was from the South that I was treated so shabbily?
My ‘Godfather’ ran around and pressed all the buttons he could and got the attention of the President who was incensed that I had been detained over the gossip of two Youth Corpers. I was released on the 12th day of detention after being summoned to the Office of the Director of the SSS, a military Colonel. He apologized for my detention saying that they did not know I was Senior Officer. He then consoled me that military men are customarily locked up in the guardroom and when they are released, they return to their work as if nothing happened. He counselled me to return to my work as usual and to explain to the person who ordered my release that they were really sorry for the mistake they made. The matter would be struck off the record and would not affect my promotion. Indeed!
However, I was not a military man but a Diplomat, and neither the Guardroom nor Detention Center featured in my work description. I was extremely upset as my male Northern colleague who actually took part in the discussion but later on went to report to the SSS when the ladies discussed him as well as soon as he left the room, was not detained. As it was, I felt it was time to leave the Presidency. The manipulations, discrimination and ruthless compromise that began to emerge with the Babangida regime and are at full sail in the Yar Adua government were present then, and I had had enough of them.
I decided it was time to resign from the Foreign Service and start a new career. The question then for me was what career I could start afresh in, in my early thirties that would afford me the opportunity to rise quickly and make up for lost income, prospects and prestige. The booming industry in the early 1990s was the Banks. The boom was just starting and people were opening up new Banks frequently. Yuppies as they called them then, moved from Bank to Bank attaining the heights of Top management in the short run. Banking therefore became my choice.
I applied to be de-Seconded from the Presidency back to my home Ministry, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There I was appointed the PA to the Assistant Director-General Asia and Pacific Department, from where I applied to attend the Foreign Service Academy. The Course was approved and I executed my strategy of using the extra time afforded by the Course, which ended by noon each day, to job-hunt.
The choice of which Bank I would apply to was easy. I had heard it rumoured that Oceanic Bank belonged to a famous Nigerian business dynasty. It was recruiting and was due to open its doors to the public on 1 June 1990. Using my connections to one of the Scions of the great founder of the dynasty, I made contact with one of his wives who was then heading up the Administrative Department of the Bank as General Manager. She insisted that I sit for the normal employment examination to enter the Managerial level of the Bank. I had no choice in the matter, and prepared for the examination as if I were going for a war.
By this time, my marriage was on the rocks due to several factors, one of which was the unfair pressure I was getting from the office. We were separated and I had to deal with the stress of a broken marriage as well as a Career change. Since I had accommodation as a Civil Servant in Official Quarters, a change of job would also mean a search for new living quarters. I was facing the three major human stress factors at once and I knew I had to win the battle for a new job or bust. There was no going back. I had to pass that exam incontrovertibly.
I enlisted the help of two of my friends, identical twin sisters and Chartered Accountants. They were so alike; it took me months after knowing them to be able to tell them apart. The elder had worked in the old Nigeria International Bank (NIB) in the past and had all their past question papers for employment tests. NIB then was the industry Standard for American –style modern Banking. The younger or the “Taiwo” had collected her appointment letter for Oceanic Bank and it was from her I originally got the news of the upcoming Bank.
The Twins grilled my ‘Kwango’ old head nonstop daily and thoroughly for the next three weeks before the test using the old NIB papers and some GMAT books. They also warned me that the first few pages of the question paper had the hardest questions. The easier ones were inside. Part of the objective of the test was to see how imaginative you were in problem solving. People generally never finished answering all the questions because they were delayed earlier on in the exam by this trick. We worked out a good strategy for tackling the paper so I would finish.
Thanks to the twins, on the day of the exam I sat for it hotter than I had ever been for any exam at any previous point in my life. Half of the questions were drawn from the past question papers that had featured in my revision. I answered all the questions and passed the exam in flying colours. The bank’s Administrative Department confirmed that my score was 30% higher than anyone else that ever came for the exams, including PhDs in Mathematics. This got me an automatic interview with the MD and the GM Admin. My friend who had introduced me to the Bank was so proud of me.
Following an interview with “Madam” herself, the Bank offered me an appointment as the first Public Affairs Manager with the Caveat that I would move to the Marketing Department upon my confirmation six months thence. Thanks to God through the twins, I had a new lease of life! I would have started with Oceanic Bank on the day they opened the doors to the Public. I opted to start a month later as I had first to resign from the Foreign Service giving at least a month’s notice.
The Die was cast! My colleagues in the Foreign Service thought I was crazy. Some of the older ones hinted at ‘goodies’ I would ‘access’ on postings as I rose through the ranks. Postings alternated between four years abroad and four years at home. Diplomats lived like kings for four years and then scrimped for another four years. Those who did not live penuriously on their return had most likely done some ‘side deals’ at their post. In addition, there were about one Hundred and forty-eight Officers in my Cadre and at best, only sixteen or so of us would become Ambassadors in the correct promotion ratios. Others would mark time, stagnate, have their colleagues and juniors from ‘less advantaged states‘ leap-frog over them, and become their bosses.
I also foresaw a lot of the mayhem that occurred in the Foreign Service under Tom Ikimi when the Architect-turned-Foreign Minister labelled some officers as ‘NADECO’ officers, implying they were sympathetic to the validation of the June 12th Elections and as such saboteurs to the cause of the Military government. He retired them or victimized them in other ways until they resigned in frustration. In this way, The Nigerian Foreign Service lost most of its excellent Southern Officers. The Foreign Service practically imploded and Nigeria’s reputation was at its Nadir when the announcement came of the judicial killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the ‘Ogoni 7.’ Today, Missions are underfunded, Salaries are not paid on time and allowances are almost nonexistent. Looking back at the employment situation of my colleagues, I have never for one moment regretted leaving the Foreign Service when I did.
Nothing had quite prepared me though, for the ‘cultural’ shock of the Banking system. My dismay had several aspects to it. The one that took me the most difficulty getting used to was the informality that reigned supreme. Whereas in the Foreign Service, an assistant Clerk dared not call a full-fledged clerk by name, speak less of a Career Diplomat, modern banking was different. The MD was “Sam’ to everyone, the GMs were Fred, Reginald and Funsho. Coming from, ‘Your Excellency’ and the apogee of bureaucratic “red-tape”, the Foreign Service, it was a rude shock to me for all and sundry to call me by my first name. I got used to it eventually. One exception to this rule was Mrs. Cecilia Ibru, we called her “Madam”.
Another shock was that I had to erase completely any elements of arrogance in me. In the Presidency, I interpreted for Heads of State, told Service Chiefs and top Generals what to do in Presidential Meetings, gave instructions to Governors about State visits when I went in advance and was on back-patting terms with Generals, Admirals, Air Marshals and Inspectors-General. I was somebody. In banking, I was nobody, a neophyte! I, who for years had not time to spare for anyone less than a Minister, had to look up and kowtow to a Bank MD who of course shivered before Commissioners, CBN Governors and other ‘hoi-polloi’ I had little regarded before. It was a hard lesson for me, but I had to learn it. I reported directly to the General Manager but that was still a far cry from what I was used to.
The final thing I remember that was shocking to me apart from etiquette and reduced status was the lack of proper attention to detail. In the Presidency, one could not afford to make a mistake. If you made a mistake, you surely lost your job in a second. Each day, there were several opportunities to lose your job. Your Simultaneous Interpretation and your Translations had to be perfect, your Position Papers had to be well researched and flawless and your State Visits and Commissioning had to be perfectly coordinated. It was a different training in Banking. There was a lot of “laissez-faire” attitude that could not exist in an environment where different ethnicities were vying for the few available promotions each cycle. I had to lower my standards considerably to be able to cope. The Foreign Service Training is past compare.
One person whose standards I could not fault though was Chief Mrs. Cecilia Ibru. She had impeccable taste and exacting standards of finish in everything she did. As the Officer of the Bank responsible for the research, sourcing, charting and execution of the first identification steps of the bank, it was hard going. Pioneers always bear the brunt of the initiative. Mrs. Ibru learnt the ropes very fast. For many years she hardly went on leave for more than a weekend and was carried physically to the office and propped up in her seat with pillows even when she was ill. She was an indefatigable worker, and the Bank owes not just its emergence as a force in banking to her, it owes its survival during the collapse of Banks in the mid 90’s to her tirelessness, innovation, resourcefulness and Self-sacrifice. It is a pity that the whole playing field looks so muddy today. Dr. Mrs. Ibru really worked hard to make the Bank what it became.
Oceanic Bank started up well and soon became the talk of the town. The Bank seemed to be one of the few Ibru Empire assets to be performing profitably and the start-up loan, which was reportedly obtained from a Banking pioneer Otunba, had to be repaid quickly. The amiable aristocrat usually sauntered in casually on a Friday evening in his stunningly white Agbada to say ‘hello’ to the MD and the GM until the loan was paid off after about six months. The Bank hit the ground running and despite a few stumbles in the early months , stabilized and quickly became a force to be reckoned with.
I got permission from the Bank to present a weekly breakfast magazine programme on NTA called “Morning Ride”. Its founder, Danladi Bako had discovered me during the PMAN Awards and invited me to be the Anchor. It was good exposure for the Bank and it also allowed me the opportunity of expressing the artistic side of me, which had first come to light during the 1991 Performing Musicians and Employers Association of Nigeria (PMAN), Nigeria Music Awards - the Nigerian answer to the American Grammy Awards.
Tony Okoroji, the irrepressible President of the Musicians Association had asked me to anchor the Awards, which were organized in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Culture. The Culture Ministry had to write to the Foreign Ministry for permission to enable me operate in that office. To everyone’s amazement, the normally stuffy Foreign Service agreed to let me host a Musician’s Awards! That in itself was a wondrous thing, but I knew my day in the limelight would probably turn to a nightmare in the service. It did not matter much since I was already on my way out. I could probably leverage on the popularity sometime in the future. The TV Show was the first step in that direction.
Bank work was tedious and you never seemed to be able to catch up. I also had to do a lot of research for my programme. I had to stay up at least three nights a week to study for the programme. My mentor Danladi had called me at the beginning and guided me on creating a TV persona.
“My brother, you have to choose a persona. You are witty and light, serious and sober or savant, knowing something about everything.”
I chose a combination of two of them. I chose to be witty and ‘Savant’. It meant that I had to do a lot of research on the subject matters I was to discuss, sometimes three widely divergent interviews in which I should not look like an *****. I soon had to hire a researcher to go through the weekly papers and dig out what I needed to know for each interview, be it on Fiscal policies, Agro-Allied Industries, Engineering, Medicine or Entertainment. There was no Internet then. Internet makes TV presentation research a cinch now. Still, it was a lot of fun and I have a lot of memorable pictures of different dignitaries and the not so important that I interviewed.
The one memory that stands out for me in my Oceanic days was the afternoon the Bank Headquarters was first robbed. I hear it has been ‘visited’ a number of times, but this was early in the life of the Bank.
I returned from marketing rounds one afternoon to find a deserted car park with two cars carelessly left in the middle of the driveway, deviating from the normal neat parking arrangement. There were no Security men or Parking attendants in sight. Strange! I got out of the car and curiously approached the front car, a Volkswagen Santana. I could see the silhouette of the Bank’s driver seated in it, but his head seemed to be at an odd angle.
How could he be asleep? Incredible!
I moved closer to the car and bent down to look at him closely. I saw a bullet hole in the side of his head and another one in his chest. Time ground to a halt. This was surreal! My mind ticked over slowly and then suddenly shrieked into action.
Bullet holes meant armed robbers, empty car park could mean the robbers had holed everyone up in the main bank and could be coming out at any moment. Evidently, they had killed already!
I scuttled behind the Generator House so fast, my feet hardly touched the ground, followed closely by my driver. I found other people hidden there who whispered that I just missed the armed robbers by seconds. They had just left! I thanked God for my delayed arrival and came out of hiding once more to assess the situation.
As I came out from behind the generator room, I saw other people coming out cautiously from the main building. They quickly gathered around a shouting figure seated on the floor. Some had their hands on their heads, others had their chins in their hands, and all were hissing with pity. Apparently, as I found out when I moved near, the driver of the second vehicle had spotted the armed robbers, had abandoned his car and taken to flight. One of the robbers had shot at him, hitting him just above the ankle and severing a major artery. There was a pool of his blood thickening around him where he sat in the gravel and he was shouting,
“Na look una dey look me, na die I dey die go so O!
He was right. Someone had to show presence of mind. I realized I would have to do it, as no one else seemed to be able to gather his or her wits together. I was not in shock as I had not been present when the robbers came. I quickly took the Tie off from around his neck (why use mine when I could use his Bank issue tie) and tied a tourniquet above his calf to stop the gushing blood. I then asked for the keys of the car he had abandoned. They were still in the ignition. I instructed the onlookers to carry him into the vehicle and told one of the other drivers to rush him to the nearest Bank hospital, which was down the road at the 1004 Estates. The Doctors took charge of him immediately and he quickly recovered to resume his work a few weeks later. He was always full of effusive thanks whenever he saw me.
On inquiry, the story was that the armed robbers had targeted the Volkswagen Santana car that was usually taken to the Central Bank of Nigeria to collect money. They obviously had prior information about the cash movement. At the early stage, the bank had not yet acquired a bullion van. This day however, a Staff member had sent the driver to get her some food and so another car was used for the CBN run. The armed robbers were not to know that, and they had parked across the street from the Bank on Ozumba Mbadiwe Street waiting for it to return. When they saw the Santana drive in they had walked casually across the Street shooting into the air to stop cars on both sides of the Avenue. On getting to the car and finding that the car did not have cash either in the body or in the boot of the car, they had shot the driver dead. The robbers had gone into the Banking Hall and cleared out all the cashiers’ tills. They could not access the vault because the vault was on a time lock and they had left as casually as they had come.
It was important to make a report to the police so they could cut off the escape routes from the Island. It was mid afternoon and traffic was quite heavy coming in and going out. I jumped in another car with the Manager of Admin to rush to make a report at the Bar-beach Police station. At the Police Station, the police galvanized into action, issued out rifles to its men and jumped into our car to dash out in pursuit of the armed robbers who were last seen heading towards the Lekki Peninsula. Emeka, the Admin Manager declined to enter the vehicle because he did not want to be shot by the armed robbers if there was an exchange of gunfire. I was so Gung – Ho about going after the robbers, I had not thought that far. I quickly descended from the car to the laughter of the police officers who left with a description of the Blue Peugeot 504 saloon car the robbers had brought. They reported to the bank an hour later that they had not been able to locate the fleeing robbers.
Unfortunately at that time, the Bank did not have a major policy for the death of it contract staff and the paltry sum that was released to the driver’s family in addition to the bank footing the burial cost was a topic of disgruntled muttering by staff for some time afterwards.
I left the Bank after four years, having headed Public Affairs, Marketing, Local Treasury, International Services, Debt Recovery and Abuja Branch. Thanks to my contacts in government I won several awards for Funds Marketing, being responsible at one time for 10% of the Bank’s total Funds portfolio. I was also President of the Bank’s Staff Club and undisputed holder of the club’s Best-dressed Staff Award for three years running after my main rival, Akin left the bank.
I resigned from the Bank because as a member of Senior Management, I felt Management had lost focus and I did not want to be caught in the trap when it sprang. I had had enough of detention. Shortly after I left Banking, the industry experienced its second ever collapse after the first of the mid 1950s. Oceanic Bank barely survived the “Earthquake” but went on to become the Banking behemoth that is so much in the news today. The trap however was only sprung in the Bank’s 20th year with the recent exposure by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), of the incredible wealth of Banking MDs.