Bank Debtors: Other People’s Money By Steve Nwosu

nairaI spent the whole of last week, and good part of the last two days too, scanning through the lists of chronic debtors published by different banks. I’m still in shock. My name was not on the list. It was just the name of one ‘big man’ after the other. The one that had the name of a debtor company always had one identified rich man as director.

So, how come my name is not on any of the lists, despite that I’m owing about three banks a whooping N2 800,000? Or is it that my total exposure amounts to ordinary ‘change’? Well, this is the era of CHANGE.

If you doubt me, ask Buhari and APC!

In fact, I was already two months in arrears of repayment and had been expecting the worst all of these past six weeks that the banks had been threatening. I would suddenly wake up in the night completely covered in sweat (despite the relatively cool weather of this period). I’d have been having nightmares. I would be dreaming of bank debt collectors using those their ominous ribbons and sticky tapes to cordon off my apartment, arresting my relations and holding them as collaterals for the N136,000 that I’m owing one particular bank. And I would heave a sigh of relief as soon as I realized it was a dream after all.

Then I would begin to wonder how all these debtor ‘big men’ move about without a care in the world. Or is that why some of them suddenly die of ‘brief illness’?

A few years back, I was interviewing one billionaire when the issue of the annual Forbes list of world’s richest people came up. He dismissed it with a wave of the hand. I thought he was just being his flippant self, but he shocked me with his next statement: “Look, in Nigeria, the only rich man is Adenuga (Dr. Mike Adenuga Jr.). all the rest of us are just owing banks and spending other people’s money. Only Adenuga is spending his money”.

Incidentally, Adenuga was not listed by Forbes that year. But that statement has remained in my subconscious ever since. Of course, I wouldn’t know how much of that utterance was informed by the envy of my billionaire interviewee’s not being on the list.

Again, a few months ago, I represented my MD at a gathering of some entrepreneurs when the issue of bank facility came up again when a businesswoman whom I respect so much revealed that she had never as much as taken an overdraft from the bank before. She had a way of cutting her coat according to her cloth and had never owed her workers salaries of failed to meet her statutory tax obligations. But her colleagues, many of whom were in areas of as much as five months of unpaid salaries and tax remittances, had a good laugh at her. How did she expect to have a credit history with her bankers? As if that amounted to better business acumen!

Yes, they say the world is run on credit, but must we borrow for the sake of borrowing? Is it not this joke that some of our governors have taken too far? Is that not why a state that earns less than N3 billion monthly (in both IGR and federal allocation) would be contemplating a N50 billion and N100 billion bond? Even when it is clear that it would take no less than 60 years to pay back the principal sum, let alone the interests?

Now, when I remember that people like Attahiru Bafarawa, Ibrahim Shema and (until his last year) Aliyu Wammako ran their states without borrowing a kobo from anywhere, I became baffled. But, I guess, that is why I had the anointing of F9 in mathematics and have never understood ‘balance sheet’ beyond placing sheets of paper on the table and they stay balanced, without tumbling over. Of course, it’s not that my teachers at the LBS did not try. They tried. It’s just that I’m blessed with a thick skull. Of course, even that has its own advantage: when robbers shot at the head a few years ago, the bullet bounced off.

But, back to the bank and their debtors. Is it not instructive that it’s one big man after the other that are putting up rebuttals and denials? Saying they are not owing anybody any dime? Well, the banks can come for me. I’m owing. They’re free to publish my name. but I know they won’t. I’m just an ordinary plebian, and there are different rules for the rich and the poor.

When a poor man owes, they would come after him like bloodhounds. Of course, they would come for everything – including your pot of soup, raw foodstuffs, half-empty crate of beer, your tokunbo fridge, kerosene stove, half-upholstery chairs, Formica-covered centre table, side-stools, turntable, stylus player, radio/cassette recorder, rubber carpets, spoon, cup, plate, empty pots and window curtains. But that would not be all: the would also have their eyes on the old Dotson car you’re probably using for Kabu-kabu to put food on your family’s table. They won’t spare the sewing machine your wife got as wedding gift from her poor family when you wedded some 15 years ago. The same fate would befall the ‘family mattress’ your father in-law proudly presented to you ahead of your honeymoon with his daughter. God help you if your children’s school bags are in sight, they would carry those ones too. And despite having taken away every pin that you own, they would still use some giant padlocks (reserved for maximum security prisons) to lock and seal up the apartment, not minding that it is actually a rented apartment and, therefore, your landlord’s property. The visit of the bank debt recovery team has always meant trauma for the poor, honest man.

And then, you suddenly remember all you had to go through to secure the loan in the first place. You remember that the banks had demanded that you go get the birth certificate of your great grandfather and also fish out the marriage certificate of your grand parents. They’d also asked you some very annoying questions – like if madness runs in your family or whether your great grand uncle died of diabetes. After that, you would then have to fill triplicate copies of some 15 or more forms, and sign authorization card after authorization card, until your signature becomes glaringly ‘irregular’. Yet, they would not allow that you thumbprint. But that does not still mean that they would give you the meager N200,000 loan you’re looking for. And if by any stroke of luck they give you, they would send consultants to help you do the spending. Of course, you’ll also pay the consultants from the loan. Incidentally, if anything goes wrong (like an unforeseen flood sweeps away the farm on which you invested the money), the consultants would never put in a word for you. At best, they would excuse themselves from the team that would come to fife your belongings – but you can be sure that they would be in the background telling the debt recoverers that you still have a family land that was not captured in the original list of collaterals. And even if they sold everything that belongs to you on this earth, they would still cook up the books in such a way that the amount realized would still fall short of the N200,000 you borrowed (which, by the way, they would have padded up to  two or three million naira – in some mind-boggling compound interest abracadabra).

I have been an indirect victim of this banking evil. A few years back, one near-distressed old generation bank almost sold our family house in Kwara, a property comprising three modern bungalows. Reason? There was some N250,000 left of an old N2 million loan on a failed project, on which the bank had served as financial advisers.

Incidentally, when we rallied round and liquidated the debt, the bankers still came up with another trick: there was a pending N70,000 insurance premium still hanging on the house, and for that, they reactivated the bid to sell. Not one, but all three buildings. It was curiosity that made me dig deeper into the matter. And it turned out that someone inside the bank already had his eyes set on the choice property. And he wanted to take it for virtually nothing. That is the cross of the poor man.

This CHANGE will sure have to trickle really down!