Jide Akintunde, Managing Editor/CEO, Financial Nigeria International Limited

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Subjects of Interest

  • Financial Market
  • Fiscal Policy

Adaora Umeoji and gender in Nigerian banking leadership 12 Apr 2024

Adaora Umeoji
Dr. Adaora Umeoji

Not a few Nigerian social commentators were excited by the appointment, last month, of Adaora Umeoji as Group Managing Director (GMD) and CEO of Zenith Bank PLC. The appointment was celebrated for being the first time a woman would be appointed to the exalted position at the bank, Dr. Umeoji’s possession of a string of academic and professional qualifications, and for her being a beautiful woman. Diluting the generally emotive, celebratory reactions were few comments that tended to unnecessarily sexualise Umeoji. We wish her success.

From a gender point of view, it is noteworthy to have a woman leading one of Nigeria’s biggest banks. According to the World Economic Forum, Zenith Bank is among Nigeria's largest banks by tier-1 capital, with over $24 billion in assets and shareholder funds of over $3 billion as of June 2022. Indeed, many Nigerian banks – including those in the league of Zenith Bank – have female CEOs. Access Bank, GT Bank, FCMB, and others are being led by female bankers of respectable academic and professional pedigrees.

In the statement announcing the appointment of Umeoji, Zenith Bank was quick to mention that she will be the first female GMD/CEO of the institution. Such highlights are usually not only informational but also for competitive purposes. While it cannot claim to be the first Nigerian bank to appoint a female CEO, Zenith Bank would definitely like to show that it is keeping pace with the competition on gender inclusion in the top executive leadership of the institution.

Nonetheless, this raises at least two concerns for the leadership of Nigerian banks. The first is the “overselling” of sustainability, which has gender inclusion as a core principle. Overselling sustainability describes a situation where discrepancies between communication and practice are purposed to benefit the reporting institution. For instance, although Zenith Bank now has a female CEO-designate, only 25% of its current management are women.

The second concern is whether men are having to take early retirement to make way for the emergence of female CEOs of the banks. Again, in the case of Zenith Bank, its current CEO, Ebenezer Onyeagwu, is by regulation eligible to two terms of appointment, totalling 10 years. But he will leave his role once his first term of five years expires at the end of May 2024. There are no indications that he has not done well in leading the bank.

Uncritical and sensational public response to the appointment of a “beautiful” woman to the leadership of a Nigerian bank is not new. When Aishah Ahmad was appointed as a deputy governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in 2017, her appointment was greeted with public enthusiasm, with her physical attractiveness, youth, and stellar professional qualification wildly celebrated.

But precisely because of the overwhelming public approval of the appointment, I was concerned about a probable oversight amid the adulation. In my subsequent article, entitled, “Why the Senate should not confirm Aishah Ahmad as CBN deputy governor”, I observed that if she was confirmed she would be replacing a female economist from the North Central geopolitical zone of the country, in the person of Sarah Alade, on the Board of Governors of the CBN. Whereas the gender and geopolitical zone of the retired deputy governor of the CBN for economic policy were considered, the most pertinent qualification for her replacement on the Board, which in this case was the academic discipline of economics, was overlooked.

Since it would be obviously inappropriate to have a non-economist heading the Economic Policy Directorate of the CBN, I thought there might be some shuffling that would see Mrs. Ahmad head the Financial System Stability Directorate of the reserve bank (which was what actually happened). But this, I also thought, was not without concerns, including stretching her guts as a regulator of her former senior colleagues in the commercial banks from where she was appointed, the ability of a former private banker to crack down on abuses by big bank customers, and disrupting the designations of the collegiate leadership of the CBN at that time.

In the spirit of public accountability, which should be something demanded not only from public officials, the social commentariat should be interested in knowing if it got it right the last time when it gave an incautious approval to the appointment of a “beautiful” female leader of a Nigerian financial institution. Without singling out any one of the last members of the Board of Governors of the CBN, that cohort was evidently disastrous, failing in all the core mandates of the central bank and morally.

Incidentally, the leader of that regime as CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, was appointed from his position as the CEO of Zenith Bank. While the performance of Mr. Emefiele at the CBN should not be taken to represent the ethos of Zenith Bank, it should nevertheless be an unsettling development for the commercial bank.

Female leadership of financial institutions, the preeminent operators in the Nigerian formal economy, is quite important and should be celebrated. Women have come a long way in a society that is traditionally patriarchal, where women are denied access to economic and career opportunities. Nevertheless, the criteria for viewing gender inclusion in women leadership should be more inclusive. They should be broadened and focused more on the percentage of women in board and executive management positions of the institutions, rather than simply the CEO position. Afterall, with some of the financial institutions having been reconstituted into holding structures, the real executive leadership is with the CEOs of the holding companies to which the banks are subsidiaries and unofficially with the founders.

Jide Akintunde is Managing Editor, Financial Nigeria publications and Director, Nigeria Development and Finance Forum (NDFF). NDFF 2024 Conference will hold on 8-9 May, at Transcorp Hilton, Abuja.