Thursday, March 06, 2008

Nigerian Banks, ATMs and Customers: Matters Unending

The edited version of this article was published in the ThisDay Sunday newspapers commentary on Sunday, 20th January 2008.
The evolution of the Nigerian banking sector as a result of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) reforms within the last couple of years with particular reference to recapitalisation was welcomed by Nigerians with motley opinions interlaced with a lot of cynicism and goodwill. The (re)capitalisation exercise which was just one of the various items of the reform agenda as spelt out by the professor at the helm of affairs of the Nigeria’s apex bank, generated a lot of moots (I think capitalisation was it because it could not be said that a lot of ‘banks’ were capitalised in the first place).

Debated arguments ensued from all facets and sectors of the Nigerian public as both professional and recreational economists were all assaying to outperform one another in demonstrating their (un)reasonable persuasions to buttress their stance and to buy the inexorable party over. The unfortunate Nigerian who could not get any opportunity to and/or did not participate in the squabble (either due to his ignorance, nonchalance, dispassion or total disbelief in the Nigerian system) so as to advise from his ‘wealth of experience’ notwithstanding, hoped for the best either way the pendulum of the recapitalisation exercise swung.

About 3 years after the process was initiated, 25 banks evolved either from mergers, acquisition, reconsolidation, repositioning, realigning, et cetera (the list of the recapitalisation patois is endless) out of over 80 banks which were adjudged to be a conglomerate of finance kiosks. With all the arguments and counter-arguments that characterised the recapitalisation exercise with its resulting resurgence of the 25 banks, the customer should be better for it. Irrespective of any school of thought about the new face of the Nigerian banking sector I believe both proponents and opponents of the reform and even the banks ultimately want to make sure “the customer is king”. The underlining fact that should inform any posit with respect to the CBN’s reform agenda is to enhance credibility of the banking sector, increase customers’ satisfaction, empower businesses at all levels, buoy the Nigerian economy at large even as the robust banks serve as the engines to drive the emerging economy.

While it is obvious that the banks have benefited immensely from the process they were reluctant to be a part of initially (going by the robust capital assets they have acquired by mopping enormous funds from the public), alas! much is left to be desired with regards to their corporate responsibility both to the Nigerian economy and their customers, as above-mentioned (Please read Ijeoma Nwogwugwu’s ‘My Mercedes is Bigger Than Yours’ published in ThisDay newspaper, 26th November 2007). The banking sector continues to dominate activities at the Nigeria Stock Exchange. One would naturally expect this to translate in tangible and visible economic developments and empowerment of businesses; however this is not the case. This can be explained by the continued stunted growth in the manufacturing sector. It goes without saying that until the growth in the manufacturing sector is considerably at par with that of its banking counterpart, ours will not cease to be a service-oriented, rent-seeking economy. The Nigerian banking sector lags behind in its responsibility to provide core banking services. Our banks today are witlessly still deposit-driven while they are ever-reluctant to take even the minimum of risks to empower the smallest scales of business, not to mention the lack of professionalism, etiquettes, and work ethics a lot of them still portray. This remains a discourse for another day.

The use of the Automated Teller Machines popularly known as the ATMs is not a new technology. This has been in use in most third world countries many years back. All thanks to the banking reforms which brought the use of ATMs to the doorstep of Nigerians. The use of these cash dispensers wherever they are being used in any country of the world is always a win-win situation both for the bank offering the service and the customers that make use of the machines. However, this is not the same in the post-reform Nigerian banks.

An obvious advantage of the use of ATMs is the decongestion of banking halls. Customers can withdraw cash and know account balances without having to enter their banks. I schooled in the Netherlands for almost 2 years. Throughout my stay I entered my bank only on three occasions. The first occasion was when I had to open the account; the second was necessitated to effect a change in my residential address for onward receipt of my account statements and other correspondences; while the third afforded me the opportunity to close my account. All transactions (purchase of groceries, shopping, cash withdrawals, local/international inter- and intra-bank funds transfers, et cetera) were done via my debit card and electronic banking. Cash deposit was even made possible using the ATM!

While I am not asking Nigerian banks to deploy this “state-of-the-art” technology at this point in time (because I am sure the response will be “…Rome wasn’t built in day, bla bla bla”), the salient point being made here is that the use of ATMs play a big role in decongesting banking halls while waiting to effect the least of all banking transactions. This is to the benefit of both the bank and its customers. The customers and the banking staff are afforded the opportunity to face more pressing businesses, withdrawal/cheque slips are hardly used (which saves both the bank and its customers money) and an atmosphere of credibility, effectiveness and professionalism is created, among other things.

To reiterate, this new development in the Nigerian banking sector should benefit both the bank and its customers and if there are any costs to be borne in the deployment of this service, both parties should knowingly, consciously and agreeably bear the costs. Nevertheless, this is not to bear on the Nigerian banking landscape. I will give some instances.

Intra-bank ATM transactions in all Nigerian banks attract a service charge of N100 (almost one US dollar!) for every withdrawal. In simple terms, if I have a UBA debit card and I want to withdraw money (no matter how small) from, say an Oceanic bank ATM, the sum of N100 will be deducted from my account. This goes vice-versa for all the banks and for every withdrawal I make at any time, intra-bank using the ATM. This, I consider to be indurate and insensitive of both the banks and the service provider. During my sojourn in the Netherlands, intra-bank ATM withdrawals attracted no inordinate costs (if there were at all) to the customer. There was only a ceiling pegged to a daily withdrawal, using ATMs. Even if Nigerian banks are to charge their customers a la intra-bank reconciliation costs, interswitch service charges and other banking argots, I think N100 for every withdrawal is way too much for an average Nigerian customer to bear vis-à-vis the student, the market woman, the hawker et cetera who needs almost every penny to survive. It is mind-blowing to fathom the volume of transactions carried out daily via the ATMs. I hope an ignoramus like me will be spared details of rocket-science explanations that might follow this article.

Still on the cash machines matter, aside the intra-bank charges as above-discussed, some of the banks have taken a step further in the effrontery against its unsuspecting customers’ goodwill and appeal. These banks charge daily or monthly fees for ATM withdrawals. They likewise without conference to their customers knavishly charge for unsolicited SMS’s notifying their customers of any transaction actioned on their accounts.

While it is well understood that banks are not non-profit making outfits, banking should albeit be practised in a very professional and idealistic manner. Nigerian banks should desist from continuously devising means of ripping their unsuspecting customers of their deposits in trickles. Competent and professional banks make profits from core banking services and not from cunningly excogitated service charges. I wonder what happened to value-added services. If service costs are to be levied, they should reasonable, low-priced and the customers’ consent should be solicited for some of these services.

Let the real and proficient banks arise!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Fire on the Mountain - A Mind of Your Own

The advent of this enigmatic young lady musician gave hope to many of us that have been worried about the trend Nigeria-brewed music is taking. In the last few years, what we've had is a lot of hype, hoopla and high-sounding rhythmic beats with an assortment of sweet nonsense called lyrics. Every new musician on the block caught up with the fad offering the up and downtown Nigerian some ballyhoo to wriggle their bodies to but absolutely nothing to cerebrally agitate on.

The tomboy artiste has carved a musical niche for herself in the Nigerian music hall of fame alongside with Lagbaja, Beautiful Nubia, Age Beeka, etc. This is not about preferring a type of music to another but whatever the type, music should be of good quality while it physically and mentally engages the listener with its scintillating beats and provoking meaty lyrics. These individuals have consistently shown what good music ought to be. They've demonstrated that the message of love, social reform, public conduct, patriotism, family and community life, hope for the future, relationships, morals and what have you can all be interwoven into one good blend of entertaining music.

Enter Asa, the Tracy Chapman of Nigerian music. It will be dim-witted not to appreciate the works of Asa who landed on the Nigeria music shores a couple of years ago. Listening to the France-based Nigerian performer sing can't but captivate an individual. It's only a poor fish that will listen to "Asa [asha]" (her first album) that will not treasure this coalescence of good music. This is not a eulogy about this inspiring lady (although she deserves it) but to focus on one of the tracks in her maiden album - Fire on the Mountain. The lyrics of this track read thus:

There's fire on the mountain
And nobody seems to be on the run
Oh! there's fire on the mountain top
And no one is a'running

I wake up in the morning
'Tell you what I see on my TV screen
I see the blood of an innocent child
And everbody's watching

Now I'm looking out'my window
And what do I see?
I see an army of a soldier men march
Across the street

Hey! Mr. Soldier man
Tomorrow is the day you go to war
But you're fightin' for another man's cause
And you don't even know him

Uuh! What did he say to make you so blind?
To your conscience and reason
Could it be love for your country
Or for the gun you use in killin'?



Hey! Mr. Lover Man
Can I getta chance to talk to you?
'Cause you're foolin' with a dead man's corpse
And you don't know what you do

Et cetera

I will like to cull out a part of the lyrics which is the spotlight of this article:

Hey! Mr. Soldier man
Tomorrow is the day you go to war
But you're fightin' for another man's cause
And you don't even know him

The foregoing lines capsulate for a lot of individuals what their lives have turned out to be. A lot of people do things without recourse to their minds or conscience. In a nutshell, you can count individuals who really have a mind of their own. People have been enslaved by other people's cause, belief, religion, ideology, etc. While it's not erroneous to advocate (or even probably die for) the cause of another man, it behoves the individual to ask himself if he "knows" and "believes in" the cause he is ready to die and kill for. He should ask himself "What's my opinion on the issue at hand?"

To reiterate, a lot of us live by what other people (family, friends, colleagues and society) expect of us. We have been so wont to mainstream persuasion that our minds are no longer active to personal and active reasoning. What makes it worse is that we are not even convinced of these "ideals" the society or other people want us to live by.

This is not to ferment rebellion or unintelligent antagonism against generally-accepted and well-proven ideals, social conduct and authority, however it will be noteworthy to mention that people that have made meaningful impacts with their lives have always gone against mainstream opinions and persuasions with a good deal of intelligence, reasoning and most importantly personal conviction. These are people that could be said, they do have a mind of their own.

No invention (great or little, past or present) or social/national rejuvenation ever originates from one who has no personal conviction which most times will contradict conventional belief.

What shall I say of Galileo Galilei, Ahmadu Bello, the Wright brothers, Martin Luther King Jr., Nnamdi Azikwe, Mahatma Gandhi, Tai Solarin, Mother Theresa, Thomas Edison, Nelson Mandela, Alex Harley, Sir William Wallace, Lieutenant Andrew Summers Rowan, Obafemi Awolowo, etc? These great individuals did not become icons just by what they did but by what convinced them - the personal ideologies that fed their passion to stand for what they "knew" and "believed in". On the other hand, it was what they knew that personally persuaded them to become trail blazers.

I tried to summarise in the following punch list, questions that might guide us daily as individuals to live with personal beliefs and convictions:

a. When was the last time you said 'No'?
b. Do you always agree with every other person's point of view?
c. When was the last time you came up with your own idea on an issue?
d. How often do you partake in a constructive argument?
e. How often do you participate in discussions at work?
f. Do you look on in every discussion?
g. When was the last time you were convinced about an issue?
h. Have you always been able to stand your ground (with facts) even against constituted authority?

I hope these guideline questions will spur us to living lives of purposeful achievements, against all odds.

Dare to be different. Have a mind of your own - at least for once!

The Pangs of Guilt

Timeline: Saturday 1st March 2008, 1708 hours
Location: On my bed, somewhere in the quiet small village of Ikpetim, southern Nigeria.

I just had a short knap after having a stint of work at the site office writing my weekly report. I closed early from work today not necessarily because it is a weekend but my colleague had not been feeling too well. Hence, we decided to retire early so everyone could ‘hibernate’.

I woke up from a bad dream which really terrified me (details of which I’d like to keep private). It’s been long I had a siesta not to mention dreaming! After taking sometime to ease my mind off the memories from my journey into the ‘land of the subconscious’, I decided to do something constructive with the remaining part of the afternoon.

It’s been five days I resumed work here and over a year I updated my blog. My mind kept going to an issue I’ve tried avoiding for almost a year – updating my blog! Each time I thought of this abandoned task, great pangs of guilt seize my heart. I felt so much guilt for the death of many thoughts, ideas and unwritten articles that never found their way to the pages of this blog within the last 9 months. Well, I could aver I’d been busy but I can’t but ask myself – “What about those short spare times?” The pangs won’t go when I also remember a couple of individuals I had spurred on to start a blog and how well they’ve fared with this duty. I can’t imagine the disappointment they might have felt each time they tried to look up my blog to read nothing but musty – “What’s the use of visiting a news stand where all you get is stale?” I cast my mind back to the mails and phone calls I received from friends and colleagues in the past requesting I update my blog. The frequencies of these have reduced over time i.e. if there are even any more of them.

I scrolled down to a similar “bounce back” article I wrote when this same blog was “off air” for a period of time (see Bouncing Back ). It read familiar. Albeit, I decided to let these pangs of guilt to resuscitate my dying blog rather than knock me down completely. It’s better late than never. To a lot of individuals I’ve let down by not updating this column I offer my apologies. To a lot more that have stopped visiting this once vibrant news stand I say, the long-awaited change has come!

I’m bouncing back and this time around I’m bouncing back to stay!