For First Bank of Nigeria, 125 years is not just a number

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The combination of One plus Two and Five – making eight has significant implications amongst magicians, tarot card readers, fortune tellers, snake charmers and Pentecostal preachers of prosperity, who insist that it is supercharged with spiritual dimensions. Regardless, we must abandon metaphysics and concentrate instead on heartily congratulating our nation’s oldest bank on its 125th Anniversary.

It comes at a price – to remain silent or to rewind the tape going back to its conception; impregnation; midwifery and deliverance at the inaugural meeting of shareholders at the Colony Hotel, London in 1894.

It was not by pure happenstance that in attendance at the birth was my grandfather, Dr. J. K. Randle. He did not need to wear his surgical gown and gloves. He was there as an investor in pursuit of a grand vision which would leapfrog in 1898 when according to the archives:

“As far back as 1898 Dr. John Kehinde Randle; Dr Akinwande Savage; and Joseph Ephraim Casey Hayford (of the Gold Coast) the founders of the National Congress of British West Africa had begun to agitate for the independence of Nigeria, and the rest of West Africa.”

Hence, when the promoters of the Bank christened the baby as “Bank of British West Africa” it was a profound confirmation that the Almighty had divined a holy convergence of the respective interests of those who were advocating independence for West Africa and the institutional promoters of the introduction of banking as the lubricant for trade and finance in the region.

It was not lost on my grandfather and his colleagues that their “Business Model” which was anchored on Health and Education as the precursor to Independence, needed to be rejigged in order to include water, sanitation, waste disposal and roads as the minimum contribution to the basic needs for survival in a challenging region. They were not day dreaming. They sought to replicate on the native soil of West Africa what they had witnessed during their sojourn as students and professionals in Britain.

To put matters in context, perhaps we need to remind ourselves that the Bank was midwifed at a time when all over Nigeria and the rest of West Africa, the common currencies were cowrie shells which were subsequently replaced by the manilla!! The only other alternative was trade by barter or countertrade

When the Bank opened for business at 35 Marina, Lagos its next-door neighbour was none other than Dr. J. K Randle who lived in grand style at number 31. There was no other building separating them as “33” was considered unlucky by the soothsayers.

The history of the Bank became intricately intertwined with the narrative of what preceded what we now call Nigeria and beyond – to the rest of West Africa. It is the prerogative of the Bank to remind us of the rapidity with which it firmly established itself as the banker to the colonial government and the local/native/national entities that were sprouting all over West Africa. As there was no Central Bank at that time in Nigeria or any of the other British colonies in Gambia, Sierra Leone; or Gold Coast (Ghana), the Bank was not only the banker to the government with responsibility for the collection of taxes and duties as well as payment of salaries of civil servants, it was also financing trade between the colonies and primarily Britain. As we are not compelled or obliged to go into the nitty gritty, it is sufficient to record that the colonies in West Africa exported raw materials – cocoa, cotton, groundnuts, palm oil, rubber etc. to Britain in exchange for finished goods. There is no evidence to provide confirmation that Nigeria exported coal from Enugu to Newcastle in England!!

If we are somehow able to persuade the Bank to surrender the keys to its vault and archives, we shall most certainly find convincing evidence of gold bars (and silver) stored in the vaults when the currency had to be backed with gold (in accordance with the “Gold Standard”). The gold had to be checked first thing in the morning and at the end of the day before the doors were shut. If there was any discrepancy, nobody could go home!!

We leave it to the discretion of the Bank to avail us of records of mundane matters such as the recruitment of staff from Britain and “amongst the natives”. We can skip the delicate issue of salaries paid to expatriates versus what was paid to local staff. Regardless, they worked happily together towards the accomplishment of a common purpose.

We can take it for granted that the Bank kept comprehensive records written with old style pen and ink in cursive – tellers, mails, telegrams, ledgers, transfers of staff from one “station” to another, disciplinary matters, and of course marriages as well as obituaries of staff. It there were any financial or sexual scandals, the records were kept under lock and key in the safe (with combination code) of the General Manager/ Chief Executive of the Bank.

The current chairman of First Bank of Nigeria, Plc, Mrs. Ibikun Awosika and the other ladies on the Board – Ms. Olusola Oworu and Dr. (Mrs.) Ijeoma E.Jidenmaare probably aware that right from its inception the Bank discriminated massively against women. Now, it is payback time!!

To the best of my knowledge, the Bank did not recruit any women from Britain to manage any of its branches in West Africa. This was regardless of whether the women were single or married. The role of women was confined to the category of “accompanying spouse”. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that the first woman to be appointed a manager was Mrs. Odedina (nee Agbaje). This was at a time when her father Chief J. K.Agbaje was an Executive Director of the Bank.

In this regard, it would be unfair to single out the Bank for chastisement. The policy was anchored on the belief/perception that West Africa was a hardship area and the expatriate men were encouraged to leave their wives and children behind in Britain while they strove to survive in the heat. Their domestic lives were at the mercy of loyal cooks, stewards and drivers. The delicate matter of mistresses will have to be consigned to later chapters.

Perhaps we shall need to devote an entire chapter to the snail’s progress of women who rose through the ranks before assuming higher responsibilities at the levels of manager, Executive Management, or Non – Executive Director. So far there has been no female Chief Executive of the Bank!! When Mrs. Bola Adesola and Mrs. Remi Odunlami were appointed as Executive Directors, there was intense speculation that one of them might make it to the top as the Managing Director/Chief Executive of the Bank. Alas, it did not happen. I am however obliged to confess that I am not an entirely unbiased umpire in the matter as Bola (nee Lardner) is the great – grand daughter of Dr. J. K. Randle. She may not have disclosed this to the Bank. Her later father Mr. Harry Afolabi Lardner SAN, who was a brilliant lawyer was my first cousin as well as the executor of the Estate of Dr. J.K. Randle.

Regardless, we must give kudos to the Bank for the zeal and commitment it devoted to what we now label as “financial inclusion”. Its long reach and vast network which covered the nooks and crannies of Nigeria and other parts of British West Africa was as extensive as it was formidable. Even missionaries, soldiers and policemen in far flung places were within the radar of the Bank which ensured that their stipends (for missionaries), salaries, travelling allowance and other benefits were promptly paid.

Bashorun J. K. Randle

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