For First Bank of Nigeria, 125 years is not just a number
- Continued from last week.
It goes without saying that the British managers of the Bank had easy access to the colonial administrators from the rank of District officers to Lieutenant-Governor and Governor/Governor-General. They belonged to the same exclusive social clubs e.g. Ikoyi Club (which was previously known as the European Club); and enjoyed special medical facilities e.g. “European Hospital” (now Military Hospital) while the General Hospital was for “the natives”.
All over Nigeria, the Bank worked the same hours as the colonial government officials.
Government offices and banks would open on the dot of 8 o’clock in the morning and close at 3 p.m. which left plenty of time for lunch and siesta followed by golf, tennis, squash racquets or billiards at the club.
Cocktails and dinner either at club or at each other’s homes were regular features of the day and night. At the weekends, cricket, beach parties/picnics, boating, fishing, swimming and horse-riding were generally available for the expatriates.
As for “the natives”, they had to make do with whatever leisure activities they could rustle up by relying on their ingenuity. Entrance to the exclusive clubs and residences of the expatriates was only through the back door or the kitchens. The only leveller was the scourge of malaria and diarrhoea which ravaged West Africa with vicious frequency. It provided the colonial officers and British bank managers with a ready excuse for the consumption of large quantities of gin and tonic, with whiskey and soda as the alternative to be chased with brandy and cigars. Champagne came much later.
As if to ape their colonial masters and British bank managers, “the natives” took to smoking cigarettes and pipes stacked with imported (or local) tobacco. In addition, they made do with beer and football.
Even in the Churches, the front row was reserved for the colonial government officers and British bank managers. Right here in Lagos, the Church that was within shouting distance of King’s College was “christened” the Colonial Church (European Church) and it was exclusive for prayers to the Almighty by Europeans. Thankfully it is now known as St. Saviours Church.
It would be unfair to heap the blame on white officers of the Bank who only swam with the tide. In any case, it is too late to demand reparation.
Instead, we should focus on the three critical areas that circumscribed the matrix of the Bank and galvanized its strategic thrust into the fabric of its society:
- Customers and
Rather than conclude that, that it is “The Heart of The Matter” going by Graham Greene’s experience in Freetown, we should rely instead on Peter Drucker’s declaration:
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
In order to put matters in context, it is of utmost importance to appreciate that one hundred and twenty – five years is a really long stretch. In the Netherlands, any organisation that has lasted one hundred years is automatically conferred with the honorary title “Koninklijke” or “Royal” which it may apply to its name. A case in point is Royal Dutch Shell. Other examples are Feadship Royal Dutch Shipyards, KoninklijkeLuchtvaartMaatschappij[KLM] or translated – Royal Dutch Airlines.
Also, we must not forget that 1894 to 2019 straddled two World Wars from 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945. It says much for the resilience of the Bank of British West Africa in war and peace, that it maintained its duty of care to its people (staff), customers and culture. In the event of a Third World War, the Bank has its template for survival ready. There would be no need for underground bunkers or tunnels.
It is to the credit of the Bank that it kept meticulous records of its staff who perished during the wars that had little to do with banking.
Without oversimplifying matters, the temptation to shift our focus on how the Bank survived the spate of bank failures and financial meltdown/economic disasters is overwhelming.
Perhaps it was the formidable combination of people, customers and culture that provided the robust defence wall, safety net, survival moat and ballads.
Within the expatriate community, every now and again, there were rumours of wife swapping and husbands snatching. Sometimes, the predators were the bankers while the colonial government officials were the victims.
However, more often than not it was vice versa (the other way around). We shall have to dig the records of the Bank in order to extract how such delicate matters were dealt with.
However, what was well known is that some of the bankers strayed into forbidden territory to sample the “local content” and ended up fathering babies. Nine months later the half – caste son and daughter would emerge leaving little doubt as to who the father was considering that there were only one or two white people in vicinity. For some reason, the “native women” of Calabar, Sapele, Warri, Jos and Kaduna who had a reputation for being sultry, seductive and willing were fair game.
However, brazen cases of financial misconduct, violent behaviour, mental instability or outright insubordination by managers of Bank of British West Africa would leave the Bank with no option other than to swiftly book a passage back to England on the next available ship for the offender.
Bashorun J. K. Randle