By Charles Kumolu
This is the story of the National President, Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance, and Financial Institutions, ASSBIFI, Mrs. Oyinkan Olasonoye. With her deep knowledge of the workings of financial institutions in Nigeria and their peculiar dynamics, she talks about unionism, banking and the social relationship between employers and employees. She spoke with Victor Ahiuma-Young & Charles Kumolu
YOU got famous through activism. How did a core financial expert like you become this entrenched in activism?
I came into unionism by accident. I so much believe in fairness and dignity of a workforce. I worked in the Account Department of an insurance company having studied Business Administration. I did a report for my boss in 1996 which he took to the board of our organization. Unfortunately, it was an era when an ordinary employee did not have access to the board.
So, while presenting the report the late Air Vice Marshal Muazu, who was a Director with the board requested to know the identity of the person who did the report. The then Comptroller of Finance of the organization said he trusted the judgment of the person who did the report and subsequently asked if he could call me.
Trusting the judgment of the person
When someone was sent to call me to the boardroom, I went there in the funny attire I was putting on because of the cold in the office. When I got there, the company secretary wondered why someone who was working there could be in such attire, I said sorry that I didn’t have control over the air condition and had to resort to the attire.
She wondered why a bloody civilian could dress like that even when we were being given tea allowance but I said that the allowance was not enough. At that point, Air vice Marshal Muazu asked why I arrived at the decision I had on the report.
I responded and he was impressed with my response. From that day, the Tea Allowance was changed from N300 to N1,200 and the entire staff insisted I join the union. It was at that point that I became a member of the union in my office.
In 2001, I won election as a treasurer of the union. When our President and deputy decided to participate in politics in 1999 and the Secretary was also sent to open our branch in Calabar, I was the only person left among the executive members, I became an acting President. Something also happened that made my Managing Director tell me to ensure that I am always at the top of anything I am involved in. It was that advice that inspired me to join the national body. I later became a national officer. I served as Trustee and Deputy President for two terms before I became the first female President.
The incident that prompted you to become a unionist happened during the military era, were you not nervous about becoming an activist then when the limitations against free speech and freedom of association often landed unionists into trouble?
No! I was active in the June 12 struggles as a member of ASBBIFI and I have always been part of ASBIFI. So, I don’t feel intimidated on issues that dwell on justice and equality. When I was coming into full-time unionism, my husband asked me two critical questions. He asked if I was prepared for being locked up in police cells. He also asked if was prepared to pay the supreme price for what I believe in. After asking those questions, he said I should think about my decision again. He said if I could respond to him confidently, he would allow me and I did that. I am not someone, who likes to be seen which is why people call me a kingmaker. There has never been anyone who has been ASBIFI President since 1993 that I have not been instrumental in the process. I don’t like the perception of some people to the effect that unionists are riffraff. I have never been intimidated by anyone even though I don’t like being in the limelight. I am someone, who does not want to be seen but to be strong behind the scene.
You became President when there was a mass retrenchment of your members as a result of recession, how have you been coping with that?
Since 2002, I have been a member of the Redundancy Committee of ASBBIFI. And from 2009 to 2016, I was the chairperson of Collective and Bargaining Committee. Since 2007, I have been dealing with organisations on the issues of redundancy and collective bargaining.
So, it is something I have been doing. That was why I had a clear understanding of the situation. In as much as we operate in the financial sector, we are not into production, we are into financial services. If there is any issue of somersault of fiscal policy, definitely it will affect my members more than any other category of employees. Our employment is based on the ability of our primary assignment which may be a bank, insurance or any affiliated financial institution to survive. Since we at the level of ASBBIFI are not employers of labour, unfavourable fiscal policies would always affect our members.
What we normally do where we cannot prevent job loss, is to negotiate the number of job loss. But where we cannot totally get what we want, we make sure we put up a deal process. We don’t always have a permanent agreement on retrenchment. Each agreement we sign today on every job loss is one-off.
Most of the jobs we are losing in our sector are not because of the organizations we work. It is because of the fiscal policy of the government of the day. For example, the Central Bank of Nigeria is asking Banks to close down branches that are not making profits but they are not allowing the banks to transfer the staff to profit-making branches.
With such policies, the employees of the bank would go. So, what we do is that if it is five members that are not making profit, we will sign an agreement that will ensure that only that five will go. If tomorrow another 10 are not making profit, the same number will go. So the policy of the Federal Government concerning my sector is like giving with the right hand and collecting with the left hand. Now, ASBBIFI is between the CBN and the Ministry of Labour that asked banks not to lay off staff. The thing is that if we are saying that a percentage of workers who are not contributing to profitability will not go, it means we will get to a situation where the whole staff will go for a company to survive.
Integrity of being employees
Before TSA majority of us that have people in government organisations easily manage the accounts of those parastatals and by so doing some of my members stopped doing core banking business because of targets. For instance, when someone brings N4billion from a customer, he demands to be made an AGM after two months he will take the money to another bank and demand another top position.
Such practice that was encouraged by the desire to meet targets was wrong and was killing the banks. ASBBIFI complained about it but they said it was blackmail that we didn’t want our members to be promoted. In that process, we were losing the culture of core banking and losing the integrity of being employees.
Culture of core banking
I am explaining this because I am explaining how we lost it. There were instances where someone will be moved from an Assistant Manager to AGM. Such persons don’t have the experience to be AGM and lack the ability to perform as an AGM.
With specific examples how was your rise to the top possible?
I believe so much in trust and loyalty. One of my principles is that when you are subordinate, the person should learn to be a chameleon. The person should change his character and his purpose to suit his or her leader for the survival of any organization. I am also a student of grace.
Whatever I have been able to do is by grace. Because of that, I believe that in everything I do, I will be held accountable for that. When I was being brought up by my grandmother, she taught me four principles which I thought were fallacies. But now those principles are guiding me. When people who are older than us will maltreat us and we decide not to greet the people again, my grandmother didn’t accept that.
In my home then, we don’t just say good morning but good morning sir. I was trained to know that humility will take anyone to the end of the world.
Being humble does not take anything away from anyone.
It only adds value to anyone. In everything I do, I try as much as possible to be humble even though I am a vocal person who is straight forward. When I am guilty, I am always willing to come back to say I am sorry even if the person is my subordinate. I so much believe that in everything I am gaining. I am never a loser. At the end of this interview, I will ask myself what I have gained from the interview because you must have said things that I will find valuable. I have learned that whatever I gain from any encounter will always be useful to me. I have learned that everybody is wise, everybody has wisdom and therefore, must be considered important. It is only certificates that everybody did not have.So, my guiding principle is that I can learn from anybody including my driver, house help, and any other person. That is why I practice management by roaming about. I interact with my staff so that I can gain from their experience and also make them feel comfortable to relate with me anytime.