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Be Very Nervous (BVN), Nigeria Banking Population By Sonala Olumhense

Do you operate a bank account in Nigeria?  

If you do, it is a safe bet that you have obtained a Bank Verification Number, introduced by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in 2015 allegedly to make banking simpler in the country.  

If you have not, you probably live abroad, in which case you have the next few days to do so. 

I am not very proud to say I have obtained one. Not only do I lack the confidence that the number sent to me makes me safer in the banking system, I am perturbed I gave away too much personal information.

So should you.

In a way, Nigerians who registered in the homeland with their financial institutions are probably safer than those in the Diaspora, but the danger is exceedingly broad.  

The basic question is: how safe is the data we have each parted with?  Who has it, who has had it, and who have they shared it with?

Remember, the Nigerian banking system is one of the most corrupt and inefficient, which is how we found ourselves swimming in the sewage in the first place.  And we managed to achieve that without any structured information about who is banking with whom, and to what extent.

Now, all of that information, and about families, neighbors and friends, is available to faceless and untraceable people at the click of a computer mouse.

The second question: if the Be-Very-Nervous number is an honest system, how is it that not one siren has been heard in Nigeria’s banking system, given that its most profound contribution is to link up all the accounts belonging to the same individual?  

Why have neither the police nor the EFCC nor President Muhammadu Buhari burst into tears in public as they are confronted with immense scandals unearthed by the BVN magic?

I know some people will say I am being dramatic.  Perhaps, but listen to this story, especially if you are registering, or have registered abroad.

The CBN chose one mysterious consultant, Online Integrated Solutions (OIOS), to carry out the non-Nigeria BVN job.  

Now, OIOS, which also claims to be able to process Nigeria passports and visas, is almost a ghost.  I would have expected only a security company, or one with an https address, to be chosen for an assignment as sensitive as this, but the CBN picked a ghost company with the capacity for cure that is far more dangerous than the diagnosis.  

Regular companies take advantage of the convenience of the Internet to advertise information that is essential their work.  Not OIOS.  For such a high-profile consultant, it works hard to stay in the shadows, repeatedly deploying the words, “Content is currently being updated. Please check again soon.”

I am not saying the company is dishonest; I am saying it makes no effort to reassure anyone that it is honest.  You click on a link about the company and it replies: “Content is currently being updated. Please check again soon.”

About OIOS?  Benefits of using OIS?  Passports?  Visas?  You guessed right: “Content is currently being updated. Please check again soon.”

Any human being, Nigerian or otherwise, who has tried to process a passport or a visa in a Nigerian diplomatic outfit knows that it is a painful, convoluted task that nobody can perform for you.  But OIOS professes to be able to procure them.  

Unable to say “who” OIOS is, I tried “where”?  

OIOS’s response?  “Content is currently being updated. Please check again soon.”

I finally learned—from a Customer Relations letter signature with a New York address at the top and New Jersey at the bottom used in an email to me—that OIOS is probably located in London.   That would be interesting, given that its website now bears the New Jersey address of its BVN operation.  In addition, Nigeria does not have a High Commission in the United States.

How do you get the all-important BVN through OIOS in a dozen countries?

According to the CBN, NIBSS and OIOS itself, you make an appointment on the OIOS website, and then show up with your documents.  

I made an appointment, but two days after the fact, something came up and I knew I not keep it, so I returned to the site to change it.

No way would the website allow it.  For three weeks—and even after the date of that appointment—every effort was halted by the words: “You already have an appointment.”  Phone calls were even more frustrating because nobody ever answered their phone, and their voicemail was always full.

Finally, after some 50 calls over those weeks, someone did answer that phone.  It was a young man with a calm demeanor, and he acknowledged there was a problem with the website, adding that I did not need a new appointment despite many clear openings on the site.  

I didn’t?

No, he said.  All I had to do was show up at any time during the workday, armed with a printout of my previous appointment.  That evidently meant that the “appointments only” arrangement didn’t work.  If I showed up moments ahead of your scheduled interview, your appointment was invalid.  

I showed up, fully documented, only to discover that an appointment was not the only thing you didn’t really need: you didn’t need that form OIOS swore you should download from their website and complete.  You had to fill out a fresh one in front of them.

And then you parted with more information: a valid identification (my passport); fingerprints; addresses. And despite bringing along the required passport photo, they took another one of their own.  

All of that was scanned into the computer in exchange for the magic BVN, which they said would arrive in five business days.  It didn’t.  In fact, I had to plead by email, and finally received mine three weeks after registration!

This is not a reassuring experience.  The NIBSS had bragged that once enrolled, the system would confirm the application within 24 hours and generate the BVN.  OIOS did not do mine in five business days or 15!

What does the BVN mean?  Its ‘validity’ throughout the Nigerian banking system means that at any location—including overseas, and including the Internet—all an official or privileged individual has to do is click on that number for all of the information about its subject to tumble out: pictures, fingerprints, addresses, bank accounts, addresses.

In principle, this protects the customer, but will the principle be the practice?  Into whose hands has this awesome database been put, and what protection has the innocent BVN owner?  If the BVN is aimed at protecting customers’ accounts from unauthorized access and fraud, who is to protect him from the kind of authorized or unauthorized access banks and their officials are capable of?

The NIBSS website was last week showing 23,030,269 BVN enrolments as of January 17, 2016.  That is a massive database of bankable Nigerians, but nobody is saying how secure it is.

And now that it is clear to the Nigerian banking establishment who the big thieves are who banked and deceived with different names in different banks and locations over the years, why has the BNV enrolment not unmasked them?

That is a good point from which to provide the public with some reassurance about the true value and validity of the BVN, just like the multiple-registering Big Men in INEC’s electoral register.

Nigeria banking public: Be Very Nervous.  

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Twitter: @SonalaOlumhense