by Ozimede Sunny Ekhalume
On the production line, he sighted one of the pickers tuck away sachets of powdered milk into the cups of her bra. This didn’t bother Tosan anymore knowing they would soon tire out. Some would go as far as stashing milk in their underpants. He knew it was muggles – new factory hands – who snitched milk that they would later lick dry inside the toilet or during their break time. It took a few days for them to realise their folly when their stomach would start to run from too much lactose. Nobody thereafter needed to warn them against pilferage. Of course, there was no way of them smuggling milk out of the premises. Each production staff was searched down to their briefs before they left the factory. Anyone caught with milk was dismissed immediately. So they were forced to consume any milk they pinched within the factory premises.
Tosan’s intercom beeped and he lifted the receiver. It was CEO calling for a meeting. He picked a pen and his diary, switched off his air conditioner and hurried out of his glass cubicle.
“This company is bleeding and the chairman has asked us to do something fast or we will all be fired by the end of the quarter,” CEO, seated behind a massive mahogany table, said to the five Divisional Directors in attendance. On the wall above his head hung the picture of a goddess with multiple arms. Despite the air conditioner, beads of sweat formed on CEO’s brow. His fingers quivered as he gesticulated. A cigar dangled between his lips. It was a no-smoking organization. But CEO exempted himself from the rule. He sipped black coffee from a cream teacup and wiped his bushy moustache. The coffee was extra strong, Tosan could tell, from the smell and thick-black color. The whiff of the cigar and the coffee gave the office an edgy atmosphere. CEO was an expatriate. He seemed to do the least in the company but earned multiples of what the highest paid Nigerian received. He was paid not for the value he added but for his color and “expatriate-ness.”
Many wealthy Nigerian business owners believed an expat was an expert. They believed expatriates were better than their compatriots even if they cost the company far more. Tosan was tired of seeing cheeky job vacancies that said, under qualification and experience, “Expatriates only” or “Must be an expatriate.” As though foreignness equated competence. CEO enjoyed fantastic perks which no Nigerian staff member was entitled to. This included a yacht which ferried him after work from Apapa to his house in Ikoyi so as to beat the evening traffic gridlock. He liked to bully the staff in a desperate attempt to retain his position and perquisites of office. He browbeat to cover up his incompetence. Since he took over three years ago, the company’s cash cow brand, Mamari, had seen its fortune nosedived. Mamari’s position as the market leader had been seriously challenged by competition. The brand’s market share had plummeted.
“What to do, I know. I will tell you,” CEO continued, bopping his head importantly. Tosan imagined that if one restrained CEO from gesticulating and bopping his head, he wouldn’t be able to express himself. His meetings mostly were not a discussion forum but a classroom where he, the teacher, passed instructions to his pupils. “We will have to increase ullage by dropping grammage for all SKUs of Mamari without reducing our price.” The Sales and Marketing Director, Duduyemi, seated next to Tosan, tapped him on the knee. The directors glanced at one another furtively from the corners of their eyes. They read shock and disapproval in one another’s faces. CEO cleared his throat, reclined in his seat and continued. “Top secret, this must be kept. So that it doesn’t get to the authorities. We will drop 20gm sachet to 19gm, 15gm to 14gm and 10gm to 9gm. But their original labels and prices, they will all retain. Our consumers will not notice the change. With that, from my calculations,” He crunched his calculator and squinted at the screen, “an extra N1.23b a month, we will be making.” He spoke in a thick accent, his “T” sounding like “D.”
Tosan couldn’t believe CEO was suggesting the company scam the consumers. The directors kept quite. By now they knew it was futile antagonising him. He had become blinded by desperation.
CEO’s mobile phone lying on the table bleeped. He said, “Excuse me. To my wife, I need to speak.” He answered the call, his voice demure. CEO was a henpecked husband. Tosan had witnessed an occasion where the wife talked down to him at the Ikoyi club. The wife spent her entire life socializing at the Ikoyi club and the Boat club. CEO had made the company spend millions sponsoring events at both clubs not necessarily because those events were beneficial but because his wife had insisted. On the phone, his wife seemed to be doing most of the talking as CEO mainly said, OK, OK. Yes, please. Thank you. Done, he hung up. He stood and strolled across the room with one hand in his pocket and the other clutching his cigar. He seemed to feel cool with himself as he continued his conversation with the staff. “This is an ingenious way to increase profit since we have not been able to grow our volume. Implementation must start immediately and there should be a seamless handshake across all departments. Tosan, the volume of all filling machines, adjust immediately. The production floor, tomorrow, I am coming to inspect.”
Tosan cleared his throat and said tentatively, “CEO,” The CEO had insisted he be addressed not by his name but by his job title. “that would be a criminal offence. You want us to short-change the public?”
Duduyemi whispered, “NAFDAC will seal of the company if they find out.”
CEO laughed and said, “This is Nigeria. Give me a break. NAFDAC won’t find out. And if they do, we will settle them with an honorarium.” In his warped mind, a bribe was an honorarium. He plonked on his seat and flicked off ashes from his cigar into a tray. He took a long drag and puffed out a plume of smoke. “Guys, I did not call you for a discussion. You either implement or your resignations, you hand me.”
Tosan found his courage. “CEO, I will neither implement nor resign.”
Duduyemi said, “Me too.”
The other three directors were silent.
CEO sprang up and banged the table. The coffee spilt leaving dirty-brown blotches on the white papers on the table. Wagging a finger at Tosan, he said, “If you cannot implement, your subordinates, I will get to do it and you, I will be firing.” He sucked in air loudly through clenched teeth. “I am not liking this. Meeting dismissed!” The skin on his brow turned white. His entire frame shook. He went to the door, flung it open and beckoned to the directors to leave. He held the door ajar as they filed out quietly. He banged the door after the last person.
Tosan ruminated over the events of the past few days as he drove. CEO had bypassed him to carry out the fraudulent scheme. His immediate subordinate, the Production Manager, had been too willing to lick CEO’s boot. A staff member told Tosan he overheard CEO promising the Production Manager his position – Production Director. The first batch of the under-filled milk had been shipped to the market the previous day.
Tosan slammed on the brake to negotiate a pothole on the pitted road. Bumping from the opposite direction was a now familiar car, a black Toyota Camry. As the vehicle drew close, Tosan turned his face to peer at the lady behind the wheel. The woman locked eyes with him briefly fluttering her fake eyelashes. Almost on a daily basis on his way out of his estate, Tosan ran into this woman who unlike others never averted her eyes at his gaze. Her boldness was becoming uncomfortable for him.
Tosan was on his way to see the chairman. He had sent a text message to him requesting a meeting. He didn’t get a reply until three days after. The chairman had scheduled to meet with him today. He had not discussed his move with his colleagues. He didn’t trust them. Someone might snitch on him. He was determined to report CEO to the chairman. He would go it alone.
CEO summoned the directors to a late meeting – 7:30 pm. He had just returned from the chairman looking subdued. He wanted to know who reported him to the chairman. Everyone including Tosan kept a straight face. He lit a cigar and plopped on his chair. He gazed at the ceiling and shut his eyes for what looked like eternity. After a while, he opened his eyes and spoke in a conciliatory tone explaining that whatever decision he took was to save the business and everyone’s job. He said the chairman had ordered that the grammage reduction be discontinued immediately and all stock sold to the market be withdrawn. He announced that the meeting would continue the following morning to discuss in details the withdrawal plan. “Does anyone have anything to say?” he asked. “Otherwise the meeting has ended.” Tosan said, “CEO, that was not the way to go. There are several ways we can improve this business without defrauding the consumers.” Others nodded in agreement. “It’s OK. Tomorrow, come up with your suggestions. Tomorrow, we see,” CEO said and turned his attention to the screen of his computer, indicating that the meeting had ended.
Staff members gathered in groups on the corridor and in their offices to celebrate the exit of an inept tyrant. CEO had just been matched out of his office by a bevvy of stern looking security men. It happened during the Monday management meeting while Tosan was making a presentation and battling with the overpowering whiff of incense burning in a small crucible lying at a corner. The men burst into the meeting without knocking. The tallest of them all confronted CEO, “Are you Mr Sharma Balachander?” CEO replied in a trembling voice, “Yes, yes,” shaking his head. CEO shook his head when he meant yes and nodded when he meant no. The men, apparently acting on the instructions of the chairman, asked him to pack his belongings. Tosan and others looked on astonished. The men thereafter escorted a jittery Mr Balachander out of the premises. As the news spread around the company, there was a wild jubilation. The rhapsody was like that of the day, some years ago, when the late maximum ruler, Abacha dropped dead.
Ozimede Sunny Ekhalume is a pharmacist and an author. His fiction has appeared in The Missing Slate, Kalahari Review, African Writer, Café Aphra, Poetry Pacific, Winamop and Africa Book Club. His storybook for children was shortlisted for the 2016 Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) Prize for Children’s Literature. Ekhalume is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.