At the end of every month, my phone beeps. It is an alert from the bank next door. The message is not to wish me “Happy month end”. It is meant to convey to me that my bank has just stolen another N100 from my account.
Not for any other thing but as punishment for the current account I have with the said bank. It is not the Commission on Turnover (COT) which in itself is a dubious charge. It is not the Value added tax on COT that banks debit customers for, even when it is the bank that has earned commission. It is not the fraudulent maintenance charge that some banks forced on customers with ATM cards. This is another arbitrary charge, not known to the “CBN Guide to Bank Charges”, slapped on every current account holder with this bank. It is a monthly gift to the customer.
You might ask--why would anyone maintain an account with such a bank? But the thing is--what choice do we really have? Which one of them is without spots? Given the complexities of a life forced upon us by this caricature pretending to be a capitalist economy, one is better off with one than none. To get by, you definitely need a bank. The road is closing up on those who had placed greater faith in the strong-room under their pillow than in the bank across the road. With the ‘cash-less’ train moving around the country, one has but a little choice in the matter.
In case you are in doubt, the bank is an institution legally sanctioned to convert your money to its own use and make you pay VAT for the debit it foists upon you. It takes money from you at 4%, and turns around to lend you same money at 25%. The Nigerian bank is the best friend of the customer. It can smell your need from the distance, there to meet it, even before you ask. It offers you a loan for what you don’t need and denies you support for what you need. Ask for mortgage, it will rather you take a car loan.
The banks have scant regard for the regulator, they breach laid-down rules at will, pay the token fine, when caught, rare as that is. They reluctantly back down only when they have their backs to the wall. Of course, they bid their time and wait for the right time to throw whoever blocks their way under the bus, and carry on with business asusual. The field is littered with questionable loan deals, insider dealings, forex round-tripping, pilfering from customers’ accounts, capital market manipulation, cooking books and all the wonderful forms of abuse that banks with a strong desire for the growth of the real sector of a stuttering economy, such as ours, do.
Why should the banks bother? For years, the regulator was in bed with many of them. Some founders were so comfortable, they did not even bother with retirement plans. Just as some of the gods of the 90s did not foresee the coming of Abacha and the Failed Banks Decree, so did the Banking wizards not see the coming of Sanusi. Even when a lot of the rot had been taken out then, many of them are back. Those who stole ‘their’ banks blind yesterday are showing up today, claiming the banks were stolen from them.
We know that the capitalist is set out to make the most profit from the least effort possible. But the bank is not just another shop opened to milk the poor. Banking is at the centre of the economy. If you want to gauge the health of a nation, look closely at the state of its banks. There is a reason why different set of rules govern ownership, depositors’ funds, assets and liabilities of the bank. Without trust there is no banking. The government stands in gap by part-insuring deposits to guarantee fidelity of the system. That players in the sector have overplayed their hand, knowing that the government comes with a bowl to bail them out has made gods of bank chiefs.
The Nigerian bank is an island unto itself. The economy is on its knees, partly as a result of a disconnect between a prospering bank and a deprived people in an ocean of poverty. Those at the helm of affairs hardly see beyond themselves. The staff are not happy. The terms of employment for banking staff, often made to work under very difficult conditions, is inhuman. Most of the latter-day banks have cleverly ensured their staff are not able to form or be a part of any trade union. They deny the few in employment, scheduled promotion and sack staff at will – forcing many to hand in resignation letters, depriving them of hard-earned entitlements. A number of the people who slave away in the banking halls and their strong rooms are casual staff, not entitled to any form of defined benefits. Yet, they declare obscene profits at the end of the year. They are ever ready to outsource the work, while ploughing in the cash with both hands. They are socially responsible, we are told.
How our banks believe they can continue to thrive in an ocean of poverty baffles me. They completely ignore the informal sector, while feeding fat from a public sector drunk on the contradictions it is too blind to see. In the absence of governance, who is there to connect the dots? The banks are not ready to invest today in lifting up the class that might be the secret to its survival tomorrow. They think to themselves that this dance in an ocean of poverty will last forever. But will it? How the banks and their ‘owners’ believe getting rich at the expense of the customers, ordinary shareholders, and staff, while ignoring the community that birthed them beats my imagination. But what do I know?
Simbo Olorunfemi, a Brands and Political Strategist, works for Hoofbeat.com, a Nigerian Commmunications Consultancy.