By Emma Esinnah
In my nearly 17 years spent in Fidelity Bank, I had the unique privilege of working directly with the first two CEOs of the bank: the founding CEO, Mr. Nebolisa Arah (1988 to 2003), and his successor, Mr. Reginald Ihejiahi (2004 to 2013). The two, between them, served the bank for 25 years, out of its 33years of existence, and four CEOs to date.
Not just within Fidelity only, but in the Nigerian banking industry, there is an acknowledgement that Mr. Nebolisa Arah within his 15 and half years in the saddle, laid the foundation of integrity and professionalism, upon which Mr. Ihejiahi, in the subsequent 10 years , built a bold and visible institution that Fidelity is today.
I worked as special assistant to both CEOs, while doubling as head of marketing communication division, before I went to regional banking towards the twilight of my stay in the bank. Being close to them, I came to the conclusion that Integrity is not an adjective that describes a noun. It is a verb – a doing word; a life that is lived daily. And it is a self-sacrificing and costly life. But it is one worth living. Ultimately.
Today, my focus is on Mr. Nebolisa Arah, who turns 70 on this 8th day of August 2021. This milestone in his life affords one an opportunity to talk about him from the standpoint of one who worked with him for five and half years and have remained close with him for the past 23-years. You must concede to me that I know a thing or two about the man that the rest of mankind don’t.
Yes, many people who know Mr Arah admire him as a man of integrity. But not many people know at what cost that reputation has been achieved. In this piece, I will give some insights into what it could cost to remain on the straight and narrow way, especially when you have an opportunity to call the shots, with only few, if any, being in a position to question you. And this not to humuor or canonize Mr. Arah, but to encourage those who are so minded that a of uprightness is still possible in the market place, though it come at a cost.
Sacrifice of personal comfort for the sake of the institution: Corporate Nigeria is filled with people who preach skim and drink full cream. They talk about cost control measures which deny the staff everything, including, sometimes, work tools. Meanwhile, company is funding their lavish lifestyle. Not Mr Arah. At some time that the bank’s numbers were not looking good, Mr Arah began to take only economy class tickets on all local flights. On one occasion, he was to travel to Abuja with another senior staff. That one brought two business class tickets for both of them. He gave me Mr. Arah’s to deliver to him.
When I got to Mr. Arah, he took the ticket, saw that it was business class. He asked me how much it was. Of course, the fare was on the ticket stub, so he could see it clearly. But I told him. He asked me the fare for economy class, I told him. He knew, anyway. Then a new dimension was introduced to the discussion. He asked if I saw the last quarter result of the bank.
I answered in the affirmative. He asked, “was it the best we could do”. I answered, “ no, sir”. He said to me: “go and tell Mr…., if it was his own money, would he pay three times for a one hour flight to Abuja, when his business is not doing well”. He continued, “Emmanuel, look at it. I am not saying people should not take a business class. We are all entitled to it. But when our income is lean, we cannot afford to live fat”. Long and short is that we still got him an economy ticket and applied for a refund on the business class ticket.
A life that preaches: Mr. Arah never liked to handle office money. On the rare occasions that he took a cash advance for a trip, he would do the retirement before getting to the office. On getting to the office, he would hand it over, with whatever change he brought back, even before entering his office. He did not need to preach about discipline in handling office money.
Family members cannot be your contractors: Mr Arah’s close relations never worked in Fidelity and none did a contract job for the bank, while he was there. An incident happened around December, 2001. The then head of corporate services, Mr. Dele Adedeji, also a very disciplined and God-fearing man, had awarded the delivery of year-end staff gifts (including rice, fresh chicken, tomatoes, etc). There was a competitive bid and the woman won it. Mr. Arah was not aware. But one morning, as he arrived for work, he invited me into his office. He asked, without any niceties, “Emmanuel, you guys awarded the delivery of Essenco (short for essential commodities, as we used to call the items) to my sister-in-law? Well, everybody is going to learn the hard way.
Please, call her now to come and take away the items, and know payment must be made to her”. Though I was not part of the process that awarded the job, I mustered the courage to ask him “including the chicken, sir? ” . He answered, Yes. “Next time, you people won’t do it”.
Indeed, if the people that gave the job thought he would not find out, they probably forgot that any amount beyond a certain threshold must be signed off by the MD. Anyway, that was it. Needless to say how much loss the woman incurred. But the lesson was clear. “No relation of mine does any job here”. I make bold to say one of his brothers, Peter, was one of the best furniture makers in Lagos at the time.
He made the ones in Mr. Arah’s home. But Mr. Arah never allowed him to do any job for the bank. Peter only worked for Fidelity when Mr Arah had left the bank and didn’t even know Peter got the job. What happened was that in 2004 , when Mr. Arah had left, we needed someone to give a facelift to the MD’s reception area. All the quotes we got were too high. I told the then new MD, Mr Ihejiahi about Peter. Peter was invited. For one third of what others were quoting, he delivered a marvelous job.
Another relation, Ernest, was employed in Fidelity, after Arah had left. Mr. Arah didn’t even know Ernest applied for the job.
He is not avaricious: Mr. Arah does not live to impress others. Arah was the CEO of Fidelity Bank for 15 and half years. By the time he left office in December, 2003, he was still living in a rented house. He only began to build his own house in April, 2004!
Truly a self-sacrificing life: When I joined the bank in June , 1998, Mr. Arah’s two official cars were a Peugeot 504 Station Wagon and a Honda Legend. When the 504 was fully depreciated, it was replaced with a Honda CRV. And the Legend was replaced by a BMW X5, which was bought second hand. The car had done 5,600kilometres in Nigeria before it was bought for a bank MD. Who else would take that, but Mr. Arah? At that time, GMs in other banks were already driving ” proper” 4Litre engine SUVs.
Unknown to many, Mr. Arah retired from Fidelity a poor man, after 15 and half years as a CEO!
In life, it is good if people acknowledge your goodness. But whether people do or not, God does. And He is a rewarder of they that diligently seek Him. Writing in the Bible, David made a remarkable statement “once I was young, now I am old. I have never seen the righteous forsaken, nor his children begging bread”. God did not forget Nebolisa Arah and his sacrifice for a greater Fidelity. In addition, many people in the banking industry also know about his integrity. So, when in 2009 the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) took over some banks for poor governance and management, and needed people of integrity, Mr Arah’s name topped the list of those for the rescue operation. So, five and half years after retirement from Fidelity, Nebolisa Arah was appointed MD of Afribank just acquired by the CBN. And a few weeks after, he was in addition, appointed by the Federal Government a Member of the Governing Board of the Central Bank of Nigeria. He has since retired from those offices, but has also got more and more appointments.
Mr. Arah’s exemplary life is appreciated by his staff and colleagues. As he turns 70 today, the 8th of August, 2021, we all rejoice with his family. Of course, being who he is, he has discouraged his family and friends from organizing a birthday party. Instead, the occasion is being used to publicly present his memoir called Becoming By Grace, which is the story of his time in the banking industry and journey through life.
Mr. Arah, may the nation have more people like you. And may you live long and healthy.
former Deputy General Manager and Regional Bank Head, Fidelity Bank Plc