TESSY IGOMU examines the travail of a bank customer listed as a debtor on the Central Bank of Nigeria’s Credit Risk Management System without his knowledge
The experience of a Lagos-based journalist, Azuka Onwuka, is a byzantine tale, which many bank customers might readily identify with. He is presently in a race against time to salvage his reputation, which he claimed was dented by an action taken by the United Bank of Africa, and to prevent likely further damage arising from it.
He alleged that the bank carried out “fraudulent, hidden debit” on his dormant account and branded him a debtor without his knowledge.
Onwuka claimed the action had cost him huge financial losses, emotional and psychological trauma.
A debtor in absentia
In April 2022, Onwuka clinched a multimillion naira business deal with an international firm but had to forfeit it after finding out that his name was uploaded to the Credit Risk Management System of the Central Bank of Nigeria, an online portal with comprehensive details of individuals owing banks across the country.
He explained that when such an action is taken, the integrity of the individual involved comes into question.
Onwuka noted that the person’s name would always pop up as a defaulter when a background check is carried out by a potential employer or business partner. “That was my ordeal. UBA left a dormant account that I had with them and used my details to open another one without my knowledge and debited it progressively and cumulatively, leaving a debit balance,” he alleged.
Fallout of 2005 Bank merger
Onwuka told PUNCH Investigations that what started as a regular background check on an account he left in 2006, turned into an ugly experience that deprived him of sleep and loss of productive man-hours channelled into the exchange of correspondences between him and UBA from February 2022 to May.
Onwuka recalled that it all started with a salary account he opened with the defunct Standard Trust Bank that merged with UBA.
In 2005, due to the need to strengthen the operational capabilities of the banking sector with to increase waning public and global confidence, the CBN instituted a reform that led to the merger of 89 banks in existence at the time.
With STB merging with UBA, all customers’ accounts, including that of Onwuka were transferred to UBA.
The embattled man said a year after the merger (2006), he stopped banking with UBA but left some money in the account with hopes to have it reactivated one day.
Onwuka, a writer and columnist, noted that he continued to receive monthly statements but at a point, noticed that the account had been wiped out, leaving him with zero balance.
Emergence of international business deal
Onwuka said in February 2022, an international business opportunity came up and knowing full well that the organisation usually carries out credit checks on its partners, he decided to find out the state of all his accounts, including the dormant one.
The man said he was shocked to discover that another account was opened in his name and that a debit had accrued on it.
Onwuka recounted, “I requested for a statement of account from UBA, but received two instead of one. The balance on my dormant account was zero, while that of the strange account created by UBA in my name without my knowledge, and which had been debiting progressively and cumulatively since 2006, had a debit balance of N48, 882.05.
The bank statement made available to PUNCH Investigations on the new account showed a debt that accumulated from January 2016 to February 2022, and UBA maintained a 19 per cent interest rate on it.
Ordeal with UBA customer service
Disturbed by the development, Onwuka sent a mail to the Customers Fulfillment Centre of UBA, requesting a detailed explanation on the new account and the accumulated charges
Three days later, UBA acknowledged receiving his mail and gave an assurance that he would be attended to within seven days.
“One week later, I sent a reminder to the email through which I received a reply, but got an automated response, asking if I have heard about the new UBA mobile App,” he added.
Onwuka said to get more clarity on the matter, he contacted his account officer via WhatsApp on March 8.
Screenshots of the chats, which he shared with PUNCH Investigations, showed that Mary, who initially promised to attend to the complaints, suddenly stopped responding to Onwuka’s chats.
Onwuka said when he realised that it was taking the bank a long time to address the issue, he paid the sum of N50, 000 into his dormant account to offset the accrued debt, so that his name can be cleared.
“After making the payment, I was told that the money should have been paid into the strange account. I was asked to send a letter of authorisation and indemnity for the money to be moved to the strange account. I was later contacted to pay an additional N1, 900 because charges on it had accumulated, bringing the so-called debt to N51, 900,” he said.
The writer claimed that despite following UBA’s directive to the latter, the financial institution had yet to take steps to remove his name from the CBN’s CRMS.
Losses, double trauma
Onwuka claimed that aside from the inconvenience and extra burden that came with paying an unauthorised debit, he lost a big business deal due to the debtor tag allegedly attached to his name by UBA.
The writer said having basic knowledge of how the CRMS works and its attendant negative implications, made him stop further business discussions with the international firm.
He said, “I had to make that decision because I value my name more than money and would not want any negative report that would brand me as not being credit-worthy. It would be a dent on my integrity as a person. I lost that international business opportunity.”
I ended up paying UBA for a debt that I didn’t know its history and wasn’t aware of its existence. It will be hard to quantify the mental and psychological trauma UBA put me through from February when this strange debt was discovered to be hanging on my neck, till date.”
Like Onwuka, any individual whose name gets uploaded to the Credit Risk Management System of the CBN would be flagged by any financial institution as a debtor or defaulter.
The CBN on its website explained that the portal was created because the late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed rising non-performing credit portfolios in banks that significantly contributed to the financial distress in the banking sector.
The apex bank also said the initiative was based on the existence of predatory debtors in the banking system whose modus operandi involved the abandonment of their debt obligations in some banks only to contract new debts in another.
It added that the use of status enquiries on bilateral basis between banks was characterised by weaknesses, adding that status enquiries were regarded as business courtesies to which some banks either didn’t respond to or gave vague replies. CBN stated, “In spite of the systemic weakness, many banks continued to extend fresh facilities to customers who already had hardcore and un-serviced debts with other banks and financial institutions. On the part of the regulators, the paucity of credit information had inhibited consistent classification of credits granted to certain borrowers and their associated companies.’’
On April 5, a frustrated Onwuka went public about his ordeal and the bank’s alleged evasive responses.
He, however, said before taking the action, he informed the financial institution.
He provided PUNCH Investigations with copies of email correspondences with the bank’s Customer Fulfilment Centre.
Onwuka claimed that after the social media post went viral, he received a mail from a UBA employe, identified as Abolaji A, formally notifying him about the conclusion of a probe into his complaint.
The mail read in part, “Kindly be informed that investigations have been concluded and the recommendations have been sent to the management level for the requisite approval to implement them. Please permit us to renew the turnaround time and revert to you with a conclusive position on or before April 20, 2022.”
Onwuka claimed that he was not contacted on the promised date and was surprised to get a call from the bank requesting an additional one week.