The tension in the banking hall was palpable. People had moved quickly away from the epicentre of the brewing volcanic eruption. Nigerians, the wicked and enthusiastic spectators that we are, were already angling for vantage positions from where they could observe the unfolding drama without anything obstructing their view. The only thing missing was the popcorn and Coke. The Soldier, a Sergeant, was gesticulating wildly, stabbing the air at the Teller with his index finger. His voice rose and a closer look at his face revealed white specks at the corners of his mouth. “Are you mad? God punish you you! If you don’t give me my money now, somebody will die here! God punish your father. Look at this small girl!” The ‘small girl’ (who was physically about twice the size of the soldier) looked terrified. She stuttered an appeal to the irate soldier: “Please Sir. Calm down. Can you fill another form for a lower amount? You don’t have enough in your account to cover the amount you have tried to withdraw.” Soldierman reached across the counter and tried to grab her throat. Ms. ‘I’m a Banker’ stumbled backwards and silently thanked the Holy Spirit for insisting on fresh underwear that morning as she went over head over heels. Branch Manager rushed out in time to prevent further mayhem!
The genesis of the drama was the return of the Soldier from an ECOMOG posting where he had gone to fight Charles Taylor’s Army. He had gone to the bank to draw the N5000 he left in his account when travelling 2 years earlier only to be told by Madam Banker that he had less than N5000 in his account. Some of his money had been deducted for sundry bank charges and he no longer had that much in his account. This was not music to the ears of the Sergeant who had just come back from fighting a war. Long story short, the Branch Manager had to intervene quickly and give the Soldier the money from his (or the Bank’s) funds to avert what was likely to be a very painful day for, not just the immediate culprit but all the Bank staff, some of whom had begun mingling with customers to escape attention by this time. The saying goes that “the wise cripple does not wait for the war to arrive the town before making good his escape”.
Though I cant remember how much of the above story is factual and how much I imagined, it succinctly captures the essence of the brigandage that passes for the banking profession in Nigeria. The Banking industry in Nigeria is not only the primary enabler of corruption in the country, it does not discriminate in its thievery. It steals from the country and steals from the citizens. I recently saw a video of an interview granted to a TV Station by a former member of the Lagos House of Assembly, Mr. Babatunde Ogala, in which he made very profound observations on the role the banks in Nigeria play in aiding and abetting corruption in the country. As a matter of fact, they actively initiate the corrupting of public officials in addition to providing the avenues for plundering public funds. He recalled how he was approached by four different banks with offers of credit facilities of N100m each. As a Member of the House of Assembly, he was on a salary of about N700,000.00 per month. His total remuneration for the 4 years in office would come to roughly N32 million, yet Nigerian banks were ready to provide him with N400m in unsolicited credit. How was he supposed to pay back if he took them up on the offer? He was being suborned to commit crimes. One bank even presented him with a Credit Card with a $20,000 limit. Is it any wonder that they have conspired with the Central Bank to ruin our Currency?
This is going on in a country where the Banks don’t lend money to businesses and when they do, they impose rates and fees that are almost designed to strangulate the business. You cant get a loan without a collateral that is at least 200% the value of the loan you seek, no matter how viable the project or business is. The collateral must include the Certificate of Occupancy of your building, Shares Certificates, or Cash in some other fixed account or other convertible instrument, but they are eager to offer a politician unsolicited access to money they know he can only repay by stealing. Directors of the Banks are however giver unsecured loans running into billions that eventually cripple the banks when they default. You may run an account profitably with a bank in Nigeria for 20 years without ever being in the red or defaulting on anything and yet they will not come to your assistance if you require an overdraft to bridge a cash shortfall for a few weeks, no matter the consequences the shortfall may have on your business or your life. In other places, you are offered overdrafts without you asking for it.
I remember when a nephew in the U.K. was finally able to open a bank account when he got into Secondary school. He was so proud of his name on his Debit Card that he took it everywhere, even when he didn’t need it. He ended up losing the card at the rate of almost one every other week. Anytime he lost one, he would be on the phone before you knew it, reporting the loss and requesting a new one which would arrive in the post within a few days. No long story. No questions asked. No penny charged. Nigerian banks charge their customers for ATM cards which the customers are compelled to have when they open accounts, even when they decline the use of ATMs. The Customers are also made to pay a Card Maintenance charge. You pay a charge for receiving SMS from your bank. You pay to get account statements printed out. The Customer keeps paying and gets nothing from the bank. You cannot even speak to Customer care on a toll-free number!!! It is sheer robbery that is condoned by the Central Bank. This is no surprise since the heads of the Regulator come from the ranks of the regulated.
Nigeria pretends to have laws that guide the banks and the industry. Aside from Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, I struggle to remember any other Central Bank Head who made a genuine effort to hold the banks accountable. As Mr. Ogala pointed out in the interview, the corruption in the public sector would be impossible to perpetrate without the active participation and direction of the banks. How many of the bank CEOs have been brought to book? How many of them have actually done jail time for the abuse they allowed in their Banks? Cecilia Ibru, for all her crimes, was allowed to spend a few months in a high-class hospital and allowed to go home. We are not a serious country. The rot in the banking industry cuts across the entire spectrum of the workforce. From the young lady manning the teller to the Chief Executive of the Bank and the Board, those that are not crooked in one form or the other are in the minority. I have always wondered how it is that working in a bank in England or America is not considered a high-profile job but an entry-level bank staff in Nigeria is classified as an elite. How are Bank CEOs in other climes not automatically amongst the richest in the society but in Nigeria are only slightly below Dangote and Otedola in the pecking order?
The introduction of the Biometric Verification Number (BVN) was designed to reduce, if eliminate, the abuse going on in the banks. With the BVN in operation, it should be possible to track and trace every penny that finds its way into the banking system. It should be impossible for any ‘unknown’ to run a Bank account. We have however seen from examples like that of a former First Lady who opened up accounts in the name of her housemaids and used them for laundering billions of Naira, that, with a willing Banker by your side, nothing shall be impossible. Until those in the banks who help public officials and other criminals move and hide the proceeds of their criminal enterprise begin to do real jail time and lose all they have gained through their shenanigans, the country will never make any headway in her struggle for a better society.