Wednesday 8 February 2012

Opening a Bank Account in Nigeria

Last summer, I got a writing gig in Nigeria and it was a paying gig. The problem was I didn't have a bank account to cash the cheque. I asked around and the majority of people I spoke to said I should bank with a certain new generation bank.
"They're the best."
"Most modern."
"Most efficient."
 I don't know how comparatively onerous opening a bank account in Nigeria is but as I find all form filling challenging, I knew the experience was not going to be fun. I went to my aunt's office on the fateful day. She was opening a company account so she asked the two men handling that account to bring forms for a current account.

One of the men was dressed in a normal suit and tie get up, the recognisable uniform of most Nigerians who work in the higher end industries of banking, telecoms and petroleum marketing. The other, who would prove the more obnoxious, was wearing a dark blue sweater over his shirt and tie. I don't know why but this really annoyed me. In this heat, somebody was walking around Lagos in such a thick sweater? Rationally, I knew why most office workers in Nigeria dressed for an English autumn day. Often, the air conditioning in their offices was turned down to such goose bumpingly cold temperatures that most carried jumpers, pashminas and extra blazers to work. Why someone didn't just increase the air conditioning temperature has always been beyond me? 

Thus, I understood why this man might have felt the need to wear a sweater in his office. But he was out of that office and the room we were in had only one fan. "Aren't you hot?" I wanted to ask.

I was handed the form. Name: Chibundu Onuzo. DOB: easy enough. Then I got to state of origin and things began to get a little complicated. First of all, why does a bank want to know my state of origin? 
"Aunty S," I said, "Is it ok if I put Lagos?" I had consulted her before I filled most of the preceding lines. 
"No, I don't think so."
"You can't," the sweatered man said. "I've never heard of a Chibundu from Lagos."
I tried to explain to them that I had once heard Governor Fashola say that everyone born in Lagos was from Lagos. They were having none of it. I tried to point out that my Grandfather who hailed from Ijebu Ode originally, collected a National Honour as a Lagosian because he had lived there for so long. They were having none of it. I am sad to say that between my aunt and sweater man, I was cowed into putting Imo as my state of origin. In a way, it is my state of origin because it is where my father is from but then so is Ogun State because that is where my mother is from and so is Lagos state because that is where I was born. Surely I should be allowed to choose which I put on my bank form without interference? 

At some point, sweater man said to me, "You know you need a minimum of 50k to open a current account with us."
"50K are you serious? Isn't that expensive?" I had enough money, just with the skin of my teeth, but I was wondering how the average Nigerian could have such an account when the opening fee was so high.
"Some banks charge more," sweater man said as if to suggest that an opening fee almost triple the minimum wage was generous.
"But how can people who aren't rich afford it? That's too much surely?"
"Well it used to be free to open a current account. Then all these market women came and started opening accounts."
"What's wrong with that?"
"They'll just come to the banks and be making the place smell. They have their own co-operative banks they can use if they want to put their money somewhere."

I could not believe what I was hearing. Really and truly I was speechless. To disregard the informal economy of market women when in its entirety it was worth billions of Naira.  It's the kind of thing you suspect bankers are always thinking about the little fry that deposit small amounts but to here one actually say: we don't want their custom; they're not our kind of customer. He was unperturbed by the shocked look on my face so I went on filling my form in silence.

In the end, after all that wahala, the form bounced. I had failed to fill a section correctly and as I was travelling the next day, I never got a chance to alter my mistake. I'm glad. I want to live in Nigeria one day and I will probably need a bank account but I will try and steer clear of this new generation bank which is too proud to take the money of market women.

Funny video I saw first on Jeremy's naijablog.


  1. You need to understand that we have been in a long love affair with poverty in Nigeria.
    It has been going on for so long that people cannot even recognise it for what it is anymore.

    You are expecting too much from our bankers. They are essentially socially useless, the equivalent of synthetic CDOs in America before the crisis...which added no wealth but nearly brought the house down when that market crashed.

    Our banks are woefully inefficient that I assure you the next time they will be in the news is when one of them becomes insolvent and requires a bailout from the state.

  2. Hehe, I'm not so pessimistic about the banking system in Nigeria. After I heard some of Sanusi's proposed reforms I'm optimistic.

  3. The problem is an attitude one. I am not sure you can legislate for that.
    Besides SLS was one of them until he joined the CBN, not sure he did much for expanding credit to the underbanked while he was at First Bank.

    They need to get out more and read a few books.

  4. I actually support having several tiers of banking so as to capture and more appropriately service a wider number and variety of customers. However, the bank officer is obviously ignorant, or trying to impress you and your aunt with a sense of disdain for the lower class which is supposed to reassure you about the quality of his bank's services. SMH.

  5. I am women making the place smell?! People still say this stuff out loud?


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