Travails in the banking hall

Patrick Dele Cole. Credit: The Guardian

By Patrick Dele Cole

I arrived in UBA 2:15 pm in the hope that at the utmost I would be out in 30 minutes. The girls manning the tellers were polite enough. I brought out my cheque book which immediately meant I was antediluvian (old fashioned, out of date, no understanding of the digital revolution in banking). Cheque book in 2022? Who does that in Nigeria? The lady asked me if I had no UBA card. I did not. I wrote out the cheque and my travails began. She played on the computer dashboard for a few minutes and told me that my account was dormant. She directed me to a desk where two young men sat- looking extremely busy as if the problems of the world have been dumped on their shoulders. I stumbled along to their domain, where more forms were brought out.

The forms were designed as an obstacle course in obfuscation. It had all these myriad squares, the letters of your reply was to fit in each box of the forms, no more no less. If it spilled out of the box you started again, your letters must fit in neatly within the squares to make them machine readable. “I was told at over 80 years, my form filling ability was now obviously questionable. The letters I filled into the squares were all over the place, like jazz dancer, the letters had a tendency to dance wherever it suit them. After a number of fruitless attempts, some kind soul decided to help me. After filling the form, I was told to “sign here”. My signature again spilled out of the allotted spot like those girls dancing for FELA and his music.

Nevertheless after a number of tries, some semblance of an acceptable endeavor was reached. “I.D”, says the Youngman; I duly presented my passport, and he took it, photocopied it and then asked for my “utility bill”.

At first I thought he was joking. (Old age plays havoc with your hearing). The last place anyone asked for my utility bill was in the UK where they do have utilities that worked and for which you must pay. But utility bill in Nigeria?

I thought we were always complaining about failure of NEPA for whatever Disco purgatory your house might have been allotted. I said I beg your pardon? Utility bill, I have none. In that case we cannot rouse your sleeping dormant account. “Where do you live sef?” the young man asked me, I said Victoria Island, then you must have a utility bill, why do you not have a bank card? he further asked. If you had one, none of these problems will arise, he concluded.

I then asked for my account balances, they could find only two; current accounts, domiciliary account, but no deposit or investment account- it does not exist, the chaps assured me. I insisted I had a deposit account. He brusquely told me that, I had none. If I had one it would come up in the monitor of the computer.

I then started doubting myself, you never can tell what old age can do to you. Do I really have an investment account in UBA? What to do now? Ok you have found my domiciliary account, can I draw against that. Ah we do not have cash, you cannot draw from this branch, and if you want to draw from the domiciliary account you have to go to the head office branch of UBA, where you will apply for forex cash. So I get ready to go to the head office when my helpful friend at the desk told me that I cannot draw from my domiciliary account since my naira account was dormant!! A perfect catch 22!!

What to do now? Do you have your NIN? No! They looked at me as if I was a night soil man or something dropped in from Mars- an alien. I then remembered I opened the UBA account in Abuja. I called the manager there who immediately started apologizing, I asked her why are you apologizing, she said I would not be calling her unless it was serious. I said it was, what are my balances? She told me. So why can’t I draw against any of these accounts? Why are the accounts not connected- at least I was earning interest on the deposit account. But I was wrong again. The fact that I have an interest bearing account, a domiciliary account, somehow still does not qualify me to draw out money on my cheque book if my account was dormant.

My Abuja manager speaks to various people at the bank. At last they say I could draw on my cheque book. But first they wanted my finger prints. Now, many of you may not know this: as you grow old many of your faculties no longer work. Yes, apart from the obvious one! The ridges on your finger disappear and you can no longer produce a recognizable finger print! So that did not work. Ok, said these intrepid young men- we will capture your face for identification. I told the young man that I am an old wizard from the Rivers whose mug cannot be captured by Victoria Island computer cameras! By this time it was 4:45pm. They were unable to capture my face in their computer. I left the bank.

Postscript: the supervisor persisted, asked me for my address which I gave him. He cleared my check and escorted by two other officials, brought my money to me! I don’t think I will be going to the bank anytime soon, at least not before I have appeased the gods Wike and myself worship.

The UBA jingle on our TV contains profound statements about what UBA can do for you. (I nearly called Chief Elumelu, but for a trifle few naira, NO!)

UBA claims to be the only African bank with a US license allowing it to operate in the US. I leave it for your imagination. If UBA would talk about dormant accounts, capturing your image etc. in its branches in the US.

What was their reasoning- when I have a BVN (Bank Verification Number), NIN, etc?
I was told that these precautions were for my own benefit. That there was a large number of bank frauds in Nigeria, and those procedures somewhat mitigated them. That they not only mitigated them but that they knew that a large number of the fraud had inside help within the bank. I do not doubt the assertions. Surely there must be a simpler way than this antiquarian method of waking a dormant account through my utility bill.

Post, Post Script:
I thought my ordeal with UBA had ended. I issued a cheque of N50,000 to buy some items, the goods were delivered but when the cheque was presented, it was marked again return to drawer. I was apoplectic with rage when UBA returned my cheque. I started the process of unveiling what was wrong this time. It turned out that what I had received earlier was a temporary relief. The disabilities suffered earlier were still in place, no finger print, no photo id, no utility bill. Now they wanted new ids, my passport was no longer enough. They wanted a second identification, i.e. voter’s card or PIN number or some such exotic identity.

What remedies exist for a bank customer for such scandalous behavior? In most countries, including the one UBA is so proud to have an operating banking license, there is an official complaints commission or agency to which you could apply. There is zip in Nigeria.

The banks still complain that despite all these precautions banking fraud is extremely high in Nigeria. How often do you hear of accounts being wiped out within a few moments when yahoo boys get hold of your particulars?

I really do not want to close my accounts with UBA for personal reasons, the owners are my friends, and the chairman is another friend. What should I do? Fry their ears!!

*Dr Cole (OFR) is Nigeria’s former Ambassador to Brazil.