Distressed banks, distressed people

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By Josef Omorotionmwan

QUITE often, it takes a single person to ignite what eventually grows into a large revolution. Revolution is not a tea party. It is bitter. Sometimes, the revolution bearer could embark on mass destruction. For instance, he could take a cutlass or any other weapon of mass destruction and kill a whole generation of persons. And sometimes, he could bring grave hurt only to himself.

What readily comes to mind here is the Arab Spring, which is still ravaging the entire Arab world. It started in Tunisia, with Mohammed Bouazizi (1984-2010), a brilliant Tunisian young man who took out a first class degree in computer science at the university.

On graduation, he couldn’t get a job. He struggled to procure a wheel barrow with which he started hawking fruits and vegetables. While vending on the street, he was, on December 17, 2010, accosted to come and pay tax, which he did not have. The tax officials confiscated his wares. To him, it was the end of the world. He reached for a bottle of petrol, gave himself a good bath with it and struck a match on himself. Efforts to save him ended in fiasco as he died before getting to the hospital.

Bouazizi’s act became a catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring, inciting demonstrations and riots throughout Tunisia, the rest of the Arab world and beyond. Apart from the loss of thousands of lives and the wanton destruction of property, the Revolution also swept then President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out of office after 23 years. And the question still remains, why should people glue themselves to power and wait for the use of force before they act?

Ordinarily, it is advised that whoever is genuinely interested in separating a fight should first seek to prevent a quarrel for, the moment a quarrel sets in, what necessarily follows is a fight. We thought that by now, we should have stopped agonising and started organising but each time you are led by a group of people without conscience, you find you have embarked on a journey to nowhere. That’s the situation with Nigeria.

Most of the matters arising from the banking consolidation of 2005 resided within the social safety net where government left people with lots of vague promises. We have always been concerned with the fate of thousands of workers of the non–consolidated banks. The CBN consolidation guidelines merely stated that the workers “will be compensated by the consolidated entity… The CBN will work with the Bankers’ Committee to assist the staff that will be disengaged to access the SMIEIS to set up their own SMEs and consequently create jobs and wealth”. Besides, any worker is deserving of his end–benefits.

Yet, it took Mr. Olubiyi Odunero, 53, former employee of Hallmark Bank Plc., one of the 14 banks that were unable to meet the consolidation requirements, going on hunger strike to draw the attention of the world to the fact that more than seven years after they were forced into unemployment, the former staff of the non–consolidated banks have had their end–benefits unpaid. Hear Odunero: “This struggle is not only about me; it’s about the right of 14,000 ex-workers of non–consolidated banks…”.

There is this nasty insinuation that these ex-workers could be left without compensation as they were an integral part of the distress process. It is rather unfortunate that people must look for excuses to justify the denial of the rights of others.

Retirement has become the moral equivalent of death sentence and many are known to have collapsed and died on the agonising pension queues. A close check will probably reveal that many of the 14,000 members of the Association of Ex–staff of the Non-consolidated Banks are no more.

Having tried every available prayer point and every measure of persuasion without success, Odunero embarked on an indefinite hunger strike on November 12, 2012. He located himself at a garden on Mobolaji Bank Anthony Way, Lagos. His strike was to remain indefinite for as long as the Federal Government and its agencies have failed to take serious steps to pay him and members of his association.

Corruption remains the bane of our society. As has often happened with the pension funds where, from time to time, staffers are dispatched to the regions on some unending verification exercises, much of the money meant for the payment of the ex-staff of the non-consolidated banks could as well be smiling in the personal accounts of some few individuals.

Evidently, corruption supports corruption. Realising the hostile world that awaits him at retirement, an otherwise honest staff could resort to self-help by dipping his hands in the public till now put in his care.  The end still justifies the means.

Mr. Odunero was on hunger strike for two weeks (November 12-25, 2012). With the intervention of the Lagos State Government, his strike has just been suspended for two weeks. Coming directly from the strike experience, his words are inspiring: “I might be physically weak but I am psychologically strong and I remain focused and undaunted. I would never be tired and I am not even afraid of death. A man does not die until he dies. It is my belief that a man only dies when he keeps silent in the face of tyranny. My intention is not to commit suicide but if I die for a just cause, I will be honoured in my grave.”

We can only ponder why governments must first foot-drag even on issues they must eventually confront. We cannot agree any less with the conclusion of Odunero himself: “This is an ample opportunity for President Jonathan to prove to the whole world that he truly cares for the soul of every citizen of this country. He should pay us our entitlements and give the over 14,000 employees of the 14 failed banks a new lease of life.”

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