By Owei Lakemfa
BERNARD LONGE as Managing Director of the First BankÂ was to the employees what Saul was to the early Christians.Where Saul put the believers to the sword, Longe killed the dreams of many workers; sacking them, imposing unholy policies, violating their fundamental and constitutional rights.
Like Saul, he was quite powerful and seemed untouchable. Then like a thunderbolt, the First Bank dismissed the almighty Longe. It dawned onÂ the man of power and influence that inspite of all the trappings of his office, he was essentially, an employee of the bank.
In disgrace he stumbled about and was rehabilitated by theÂ Transnational Corporation of Nigeria (TRANSCORP), a company with dubious ancestry. Just as Longe was breathing a sigh of relief and settling to his new high profile job, his First Bank past caught up with him; he was sent on compulsory leave â€œpending investigations of circumstances leading to his exit from First Bank of Nigeria PLCâ€.
This move, TRANSCORP claimed, was â€œ to ensureÂ compliance with the Nigeria Stock Exchange (NSE) directive that, indicted and/or dismissed CEOs of quoted companiesÂ will no longer be allowed to occupy executive positions in another company listed on the stock exchangeâ€.Â It was another disgraceful end for Longe. He must have known that he could not return to TRANSCORP whose Board, including its Chairman, Dr Ndidi Okereke- Onyuike , the NSE Director General, knew precisely why First Bank sacked him.
The Bank had thrown Longe outÂ following losses it sustained in granting a $131.7 million loan to a company, the Investors International London (IIL) to buy 51 per cent shares in the Nigeria Telecommunications Limited (NITEL)Â The money was a non-refundable deposit. Following the companyâ€™s inability to follow through the NITEL purchase, the deposit was lost.
The angry bank accused Longe of granting the loan without following due process and sacked him. In the haste to sack him, the bank did not ensure that every director, including Longe, the accused, was adequately notified of the board meeting at which he was dismissed.
It was on this technical ground Longeâ€™s honour was restored by the Supreme Court whichÂ ruled that his ignominious sack was â€œwrongful, unlawful, invalid, null and void, and incapable of having any legal consequenceâ€. There is no doubt thatÂ this judgement will further enrich the industrial relations system in the country, especially as it relates to job security, arbitrary decisions by employers and the need for corporate organisations to obey their own rules and procedures.
Longe got from the courts what his leadership at First Bank denied the staff: justice. The main violations of workers rights in the bank under Longeâ€™s leadership was in 2001. They were incorporated in four policies. First was the mass sack of staff who were not â€œcoreâ€ bankers. The management pushed these workers to shylock employment bodies that were free to re-engage them to work for the bank. This logically led to the second anti- worker policy; the casualisation of permanent work.
But by far the most satanic act of Longe was the introduction ofÂ a retroactive policy which made it a gross offence for two First Bank employees to be married. So, couples that were married in the bankÂ before the new policy was made, were given an ultimatumÂ to go home and democratically decide who should resign, the husband or the wife. It meant that if married couples in the bank do not divorce, one of them must divorce the First Bank job and enter the unemployment market. As for two lovers in the bankâ€™s employ planning to get married, they were better advised to perish the thought unless one of them was willing to resign. AppealsÂ Â to Longe fell on deaf ears. Some of the staff even claimed that Longe himself met his wife in the bank. These type of pleas did not move the then Czar of the First Bank.
Another Longe policy was to deny the staff the constitutional and fundamental human right to freely associate, including the right to belong to a trade union. He was â€˜smartâ€™ enough not to just proscribe the two unions in the bank which have been in existence for decades and are backed by the labour laws,Â Section 40 of the Constitution and Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. Taking advantage of the weakness of the unions and the rise of his cronies, Longe organised a management-supervised â€˜referendumâ€™ in which the staff were to vote whether they want to remain unionised or not.
The First Bank staff knew that the Longe clan was trampling on their rights but they seemed helpless; they were like victims of a very strong and powerful rapist. The Labour Movement, then led byÂ Mr Adams Oshiomhole knew that if the bank, being the biggest and largest in the country was allowed to so violently violate workers rights, other banks would soon copy its bad example. On the other hand, it realised that if the insensitive First Bank and its arrogant management were forced to reverse their anti-human policies, it would send a strong signal to other employers that Labour was ready and capable of defending workers rights.
Since the bankâ€™s workers had been cowed, the unions could not count on open support from inside; the action had to be a solidarity action from outside by other workers. When a few thousand workers were sent to picket the bankâ€™s headquarters and branches in Lagos, Longe used armed policemen to harass them, andÂ then got an injuction stopping the pickets. Labour responded by allowingÂ deregulated campaigns which shutdown First Bank branches across the country.
Having run out of options, Longe sued for peace which was initially rejected. His management agreed to roll back the policies, especially those barring couples from working in the bank and that against unionisation. The next year, Longe got the boot. We all cannot but be happy that he got justice. The advice to him is that he should go and sin no more against subordinates.