One of Nigeria’s contemporary bright minds, Ayo Sogunro, once wrote that “everything in Nigeria will kill you”. While one tries to take in the import of his statement, one hears something like “life is already hard; why make it simple”. The two quotes combined, paint a gloomy picture of a Nigeria that is designed to make things as difficult as possible for Nigerians. Sadly, this is a daily reality for many Nigerians.
This is one of those articles inspired by events that want to make me rant. However, I realize that even though the internet seems to provide ample room for ranting, alongside hitherto unimaginable amplification, a saner, more coherent approach is better, something akin to responding, not reacting. So instead of an unguided rant, I sit, gather my thoughts, and try to make sense of the consuming madness around. Let me now describe two incidents that have made me think about the needless hoops through which Nigerians are forced to pass.
Walk into any Nigerian bank to open an account, and the odds are that you will be asked to provide a utility bill as part of the required documents. The only exception that I am aware of is for students opening accounts with banks domiciled in university campuses. While the request for a utility bill may seem a no-brainer in developed societies, in Nigeria, the only form of utility bill available to “most” is for electricity. If we then consider that only about 40% of Nigerians are reported to have access to electricity, we would see one of the factors behind low financial inclusion in the country.
So I visited a bank to open an account, and I was asked to provide a “recent” utility bill. Do I have electricity? Yes. Do I have a utility bill? Not exactly; the problem being that my family uses a prepaid meter, so we don’t have a “conventional” bill. Whereas those with post-paid meters, and those using estimated bills gets utility bills each month, for prepaid customers in Rivers State, it is different. Although I am not certain about other states, I can certainly say that what prepaid customers in Rivers State get when they buy electricity units is a small piece of paper that contains the appropriate token number, but no house address. Put in mind that the reason banks ask for utility bills is to verify that one lives where one claims to live. In a society where a utility bill can determine financial inclusion, a utility company decides to disenfranchise some customers.
I approached an official of the utility company to explain that I needed a utility bill to present to a bank. This was my pitch: “I am a prepaid customer. Can I get a document that identifies me as a customer, and that has my registered house address on it?” The employee said I would have to write a letter to the customer service manager, and if all works well, the letter “may” be ready the next day. This process seems simple enough until one considers that the situation should not even exist in the first place. Why do I have to go through stress over a utility bill?
Knowing that “recent” usually means “in the last three months”, a letter of this form gotten in January would be unacceptable in May. So if one applied for this letter in January for a bank transaction, and wants to do another such transaction in May, one has to repeat the procedure to get a fresh letter. This repetitive stress is over an issue that has an obvious solution—include house addresses on prepaid slips. Seems the utility company is okay with putting prepaid customers through unnecessary stress in lieu of using more paper and a little more printing ink.
After spending four paragraphs describing the utility bill hoops, I still have another hoop to describe, so let me get down to it.
I recently walked into a commercial bank with a simple request—change my registered phone number from one to another. Having already done this in another bank where I have an account, I assumed it would simply require me to fill a request form and submit a valid identity card. To my horror, the bank’s customer care official looked me in the eyes and told me to bring a police report. “What did you say?” “Bring a police report to change your phone number”. “For ordinary change of phone number!” How can a bank send me to Nigeria’s loving police for a police report? Knowing how friendly the police is, I was certain it would cost me at least ₦5,000 to get such a report. In essence, my physical presence in the bank, alongside my national ID card was not sufficient to get the bank to replace phone number X with Y.
As a Nigerian with whom change begins, I decided to hold my peace. Then I made another request. “I’ll like to register for email alerts on transactions”. For this request, I was asked to write a letter to the branch manager, and attach a photocopy of my ID card. Now, if I can write this article, it can be safely assumed that writing a letter would not be a problem. What I could not understand was why the bank would make me write a letter when other banks simply give customers a request form, collect their ID cards and make the photocopy for the customers. I just wasn’t ready to jump through this hoop, so I walked away. Good enough, the affected account is not an important one, so I will return there to clear out the little change in it. Then I’ll neither need phone nor email alerts from that bank.
Every day, millions of Nigerians face ridiculously positioned hoops. For things as “simple” as registering a business, getting a driver’s license, clearing goods through customs, paying taxes, etc., the path is littered with frustrating hoops. A Nigerian adage says, “Na condition make crayfish bend”. Hence, these hoops provide ample reasons for Nigerians to bend rules. For example, instead of sweating over a utility bill, some Nigerians would simply take from their friends, submitting another’s bill as theirs. While this is clearly wrong, it is also clear that the system creates the conditions for such wrongs.
Nigerians are not the worst people on earth. If we were, one would have said the hoops are the punishments for our crimes. What we need is a government that truly cares for Nigerians and would work on simplifying life for Nigerians. If consumer protection rules are diligently enforced, many hoops would disappear. It’s already hard being a Nigerian; making life more difficult is plain wickedness.
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