Date Published: 09/14/09
Understanding Nigeria's Banking Sector PART 1
The Soludo Era.
After the banking consolidation exercise reduced the number of Nigerian banks to 25, Professor Charles Soludo became a national hero. He was hailed as a practical genius who translated abstruse economic phenomena into reality, a man who easily vanquished the stodgy and connected grey eminences that had tried to resist his reformist agenda.
As the masses sang his praises, the canny bank chiefs who had succeeded in saving their institutions knew that they had to embrace him in order to protect their empires. To seduce him, they levied themselves 2 million naira each and hosted him a superlative 50 million naira “dinner”. He was initiated into the luxury life.
Soludo, the hyper-intelligent economist soon morphed into a dapper dresser who wore Savile Row suits and expensive Rolex watches. He became very close to a privileged group of bankers who became the de facto rulers of Nigeria’s financial sector. The tough talking regulator lost his sense of impartiality.
The Stock Market Boom.
General Olusegun Obasanjo’s decision to work with Bretton Woods economists combined with soaring oil prices to draw foreign investors to the Nigerian financial sector. In addition to hedge fund managers who invested a small fraction of their portfolios in the growing market, ordinary Nigerians joined the fray when they realized that banking sector reforms had transformed the stock market into a veritable cash machine.
Growing investor confidence quickly led to a sharp rise in stocks and attracted the hoi polloi. Small investors rushed to the stock market in droves and sank their money in “high growth stocks”. The snake oil bankers quickly read the situation and drew up plans to further increase their capital base.
In order to achieve abnormal returns, they enlisted the support of stockbrokers who brazenly manipulated stock prices with the tacit support of the leadership of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Nigerian Stock Exchange. A rash of public offers soon followed, leading to an exponential increase in stock market indices. Some states even compelled civil servants to buy shares, forcibly deducting the value from their salaries.
Clergymen told their congregations about the “miraculous wonders” of the stock market. As the unsophisticated “sheep” emptied their nest eggs into the Nigerian Stock Exchange, the bankers and their sidekicks got richer. Mid-level managers earned millions in bonuses as reward for ensnaring ignorant investors. The stock market became part of the national conversation. And there was no stopping the bubble as the new financial elite was born.
Greed and Recklessness.
As the money rolled in, the banks immediately went on a spending spree. South African brand consultants were paid huge sums to design new logos, Indians got millions for software and overpaid managers were poached from rival banks. In little time, the banking tsars became delusional and started a turf war. They commissioned ostentatious offices and hired buxom bimbos to reinforce their marketing departments. These “happiness” officers were given huge allowances for miniskirts, contraceptives and expensive baubles.
The battle assumed a personal dimension as nouveau riche bankers fought for prime real estate in Ikoyi and Victoria Garden City. Others rented Banana Island flats and joined expensive boat clubs where they flaunted their expensive curios. The gnomish Jim Ovia took over an entire street in highbrow Victoria Island where he built an imposing edifice and commissioned a flashy ATM galleria. His amazing architects delivered The Civic Centre, a ship-inspired building that came to define his expensive taste. He became a trusted confidante to Aliko Dangote and Femi Otedola, Nigeria’s richest men. Aig Imoukhuede, one half of the now infamous United Alliance, built a fortress complete with angry mobile policemen. Jeremiah Omoyeni, the banker cum politician, got a 450 million naira housing allowance for his short stay at the helm of the crisis-ridden Wema Bank.
Anthony Elumelu, Cecilia Ibru, Jim Ovia and Tayo Aderinokun commissioned private jets to take them around the world while Akingbola curiously started an FM radio station and announced that he would treat himself to a Rolls Royce on his 60th birthday. Prince Nduka Obaigbena, This Day’s flamboyant chairman became the cheerleader-in-chief as banks picked up the tabs for visiting global dignitaries at the newspaper’s exquisite “town hall meetings.” Vanguard raked in billions from its annual Bankers’ Awards.
Foreign praise singers also realized that there was money to be made and set off a craze for dubious awards. African Business, Business Initiative Directions, The Banker and EMEA Finance came calling, dishing out awards in exchange for cash. Renaissance Capital, led by the mercurial Stephen Jennings staked its claim and exchanged ratings for securities contracts.
As oil prices continued to spike, savvy local entrepreneurs became potential oil and gas traders. They drew up grandiose business plans and convinced bank chiefs to advance huge loans for the purchase of tank farms and refined crude. The bankers obliged and shared the “upfront” interest. “Oil and Gas” became the most important phrase in the lexicon of the Nigerian banker.
Some of the oil traders were not satisfied with their bulging bank accounts. Since real estate is the Nigerian’s true barometer of wealth, they went back to the bankers and drew up plans for an African Dubai. The bankers obliged and doled out more cash. Deals were sealed in posh country clubs as huge loans were given with utter disregard of risk management processes.
Foreign credit lines and unnecessary forays into the capital market meant there was just too much money to spend. Banks soon decided to have a taste of the apple and incorporated subsidiaries to market “luxury estates”. Lekki, Ikoyi and Abuja became the new Hamptons. Even foreigners began to complain about the skyrocketing prices of Nigerian real estate. “Expatriate Only” signs soon became de rigueur.
The Early Signs.
When the subprime mortgage crisis ballooned into a full scale economic meltdown, the foreign bankers knew they had to run. After all, the global banking system was on the brink of collapse. Indy Mac had disappeared and fabled Wall Street institutions such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers had imploded.
The Nigerian banks had no chief economists and were blissfully ignorant of the implications of the crisis. Akingbola, Okereke-Onyiuke and Soludo all publicly declared that the country’s financial system was isolated from the rest of the world. Most Nigerians continued to buy stocks not knowing that Peter Ololo and his fellow stockbrokers were using cheap money to prop up the stock market. This made it easier for foreign operators to exit the market at a premium. Firms such as Actis, the private equity fund, dumped its shares in UAC for 50 naira. By the time, the stock market went into a tailspin, it was too late.
Deconstructing the Fallen Five.
Some staffers of Intercontinental Bank have accused me of bias, claiming that I have personal scores to settle with Dr Erastus Akingbola. This is untrue. I have always believed that Erastus Akingbola was a crook and I owed the Nigerian public a duty to expose him. It is now clear that he was an exceptionally talented huckster who used his avuncular mien to shamelessly manipulate the public.
He frittered away the bank’s money on questionable “CSR” schemes designed to influence politicians and lay the groundwork for a future political career. In the week before the August 14 temblor, he instituted a 50 million naira scholarship scheme for Katsina natives in a clear attempt to lobby the president through Ibrahim Shema, the governor of the president’s home state. Akingbola also instituted a similar scheme in his home state, Ondo, where he was rewarded with the chancellorship of the state-owned university in a clear case of quid pro quo. As part of his national “save me from Sanusi” tour, Dr Akingbola finally ended up in Sokoto where his attempts to lobby an unsmiling Sultan fell flat.
He didn’t show up for the historic August 14 meeting. Three days later, he had vanished into thin air. Nobody can underestimate the danger still posed by the highly influential Akingbola, who has been in the industry for thirty years. His case is not just an error in judgement. In any serious country, he would be the subject of an international manhunt.
Long before the stock market correction and the rapid fall in global oil prices, Cecilia Ibru had inexplicably shackled Oceanic Bank to a bilateral 175 million dollar five year loan from Merrill Lynch. This transaction was packaged by Osaze Osifo, a financial consultant and business partner of Andrew Alli, a CBN debtor who is currently at the helm of the controversial African Financial Corporation. A former chief executive of Oando, Osifo had made a killing in Nigeria’s GSM licence auction before joining the Oando triumvirate of Jite Okoloko, Wale Tinubu and Mofe Boyo.
The Slick Osifo had cultivated a friendship with Oboden Ibru, Mrs Ibru’s son and heir apparent, who doubled as the bank’s executive director and chief executive of Oceanic Capital. Osifo, Alli and four other principals needed additional capital for their investment boutique and through Oboden, Osifo’s company Travant Capital Partners was selected as the financial consultants for the transaction.
Oceanic Bank mismanaged this loan. In addition to heavily betting on real estate and petroleum marketing, the bank lent vast sums to the Delta State Government and other firms with ties to the powerful James Ibori. The bank also perfected numerous ways of diverting money through imaginary companies. One of such transactions involved lending millions of dollars to Meggitto Clothing for the purpose of exporting fabrics. This money vanished into thin air. We now know that there were other shady transactions such as the incomprehensible 19 billion naira loan extended to Nigeria’s most famous nanny.
Insiders say that the dim-witted Cecilia Ibru was hopelessly out of her depth at the helm of the bank. Surrounded by lackeys and relatives, she signed documents without reading them and gave loans based on her personal judgement. She relished being a mother figure and even though her staffers have kind words to say about her, they acknowledge that there was too much laxity with respect to management issues.
When Oceanic Bank started having problems, Mrs Ibru embarked on a number of questionable projects to raise money for her bank. These included an unethical 400 million dollar football reality program and a shady raffle in partnership with the Suru Group. It is a pity that the United Nations Global Compact did not do a thorough investigation before they named her to its committee on corporate governance.
Only a powerful witchdoctor could have known that Union Bank was in trouble. Long criticised for its horrendous customer service and aversion to technology, its chief executive was neither ostentatious nor publicity-hungry. As the oldest bank chief, he had a measure of gravitas which turned out to be a mask for incompetence.
With the benefit of hindsight, one should have guessed something was wrong with the big, strong and reliable bank when last year, in response to a campaign to force its chief executive to resign, the board moved its AGM to Maidugri, effectively disenfranchising the bulk of the bank’s shareholders.
Union Bank also stunned analysts when it agreed to underwrite half of Afribank’s overpriced public offer. Now it turns out that the dour Ebong also gambled heavily on high risk sectors. It is now clear that years of mismanagement had turned the bank into a corporate cadaver. So far, Union bank’s loan recovery efforts have yielded little fruit when compared to Intercontinental, Oceanic and Afribank. The authorities must also investigate how the trio of Nike Akande, Jite Okoloko and Festus Odumegwu ended up on the bank’s board of directors.
Many analysts believe that Afribank’s current problems stem from its long standing relationship with African Petroleum. The bank was also heavily involved in financing Femi Otedola’s takeover of the petroleum marketing company and the huge debt added to its woes. Adigwe, who represented Afribank on AP's board worked with Osa Osunde, an alleged front for Lucky Igbinedion to ensure that Femi Otedola's successfully acquired a majority stake in the oil marketing company.
It appears the real power was wielded by Osa Osunde who is widely rumoured to be a front for former Edo state governor, Lucky Igbinedion. Osunde eventually became the Vice-Chairman of AP and Chairman of Afribank. Apparently, the effete Adigwe was a figurehead who pandered to the whims and caprices of the bank’s powerful backers. A few weeks to the CBN action, Afribank took out paid advertisements congratulating Ogbueshi Uche Luke Okpuno on the completion of his imposing Abuja office. However, Ogbueshi Okpuno shockingly made an appearance on the CBN's list. How interesting.
FinBank raised more than 100 billion from its public offer and invested heavily in the oil and gas sector. The bank clearly had no long term strategy and one wonders if Mr Nwosu believed that oil prices would hit 400 dollars. A week before he was sacked, the suave Okey Nwosu approved a loan to Jevcon Oil and Gas. It was widely celebrated as a testimony of the bank’s devotion to indigenous operators in the maritime business. Amazingly, Jevcon shows up in the CBN list of debtors. Dr Onyung, Jevcon’s chief executive, has not issued any public statement to counter the CBN’s claims.
What was Mr Nwosu smoking?
Ndi Okereke Onyiuke and Musa Al-Faiki
Ndi Okereke-Onyiuke is an amazing creature, a corpulent buffoon who somehow clawed her way to the zenith of Broad Street while earning a dubious professorship. It is hard to understand how she kept her job after she publicly claimed that CNN and the Internet caused the stock market crash. While the NSE is a privately-owned organization, it is now clear that Okereke-Onyiuke has no business at the helm. For years, she has allowed the Exchange to be controlled by compromised acolytes and highly-placed insiders.
The case of Mallam Musa Al-Faiki is a cautionary tale. The former SEC DG was hopelessly out of depth during his five year tenure and did little to stop the widespread abuse in the market. Part of Mallam Al-Faiki’s problems was that he owed his position to Madam Onyiuke’s friendship with President Obasanjo. The vacillating SEC DG clearly did not want to offend his benefactor and when SEC staffers like Charles Udora, leaked their critical views to the press, he was always quick to issue a quick retraction.
The Talented Peter Ololo
Two years ago, one of Okereke’s aides told me about Peter Ololo, whom he simply called “Falcon”. The aide was starry-eyed as he described the powers of this mythical “Falcon”, who could effortlessly double the price of First Bank stock within a month. Today, Peter Ololo is in EFCC custody. He owes 88 billion.
Like every smart businessman, he filled his firm’s board with power brokers such as Senator Tunde Ogbeha and Senator S.A Otegbola. Unfortunately, the indolent Nigerian press has not really scratched the tip of Ololo’s schemes. In addition to Falcon Securities, the disgraced accountant also controlled two active publicly listed companies, DEAP Capital Management and Trust and DVCF Oil and Gas Fund.
These companies were empty shells whose complex schemes were powered by insider trading and exploitative business models. If Mrs Waziri’s EFCC is serious about sanitizing the sector, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to question the chief executives of these two “fund management” firms.
Fit and Proper Person Test
Nigerian regulators must adopt a system of screening bank executive directors to ascertain that they are of sound mind and body. Private investigators should be hired to pry into their backgrounds and their educational and analytical skills must be evaluated by an impartial panel. People should not be appointed to highly sensitive positions because of ethnic politics and tenure. I believe that such as test would have shown that Mrs Ibru, Mr Akingbola and Mr Ebong were not suited to the task of managing their respective financial institutions.
The Case for a Financial Services Authority
Perhaps the CBN, NDIC, SEC and other agencies should seriously consider the idea of establishing a Financial Services Authority to supervise the financial sector. The head of this agency must be chosen through a transparent recruitment process that has nothing to do with ethnicity, religion and other petty considerations. If the head hunters conclude that no Nigerian is suitably qualified, the government should consider foreigners for the post.
During the stock market bubble, a shocking thing happened. Pyramid schemes, commonly known as “wonder banks” sprouted in droves and earned the patronage of even highly educated bank managers who allowed greed to cloud their judgement. While they were eventually closed down, the SEC and the CBN has still not resolved the matter. An effective FSA could have nipped this development in the bud.
Vanguard and the Northern Agenda.
Unbelievable!!! In what must be a contender for this year’s most stupid argument, Vanguard has backed its campaign against Sanusi with an article it published in March detailing a supposed plan by “anti-consolidation” forces to take over five Nigerian banks. I don’t understand why the Nigerian public is taking this rag sheet seriously when Sam Amuka-Pemu’s “tissue paper” newspaper does not even qualify to be called a tabloid.
Let’s look at the timeline. Vanguard published the article on March 23, 2009. At the time the article was published, those five banks were already heavily indebted to their peers at the inter-bank market and there were already concerns over their financial health. In fact, Dayo Coker was already on the trail of Erastus Akingbola and had released his findings to the press.
Their chief executives must have suspected that Sanusi would be a tough cookie and quickly dispatched their PR strategists under the aegis of ACAMB to plant the story. Of course, Vanguard’s moronic journalists played along and concocted this baseless story to distract the new governor. The article was meant to preempt Sanusi and force him into making a compromise but he refused to buckle under pressure. The Nigerian public does not understand that Vanguard newspaper is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the corporate malfeasance that pervaded the Nigerian banking sector. For years, the “newspaper” made a killing from the Vanguard Bankers Awards where a table for eight went for a whopping five million naira.
From a logical standpoint, this “northern agenda” argument holds no water. As the CBN Governor has pointed out in newspaper interviews, some Nigerian banks are controlled by nominees who are hidden behind legal documents. One does not have to be a chief executive to actually control a bank. It is possible that there could be individuals from the North that have designs on the banking sector but it makes no sense to speculate that a Northern “movement” is keen on hijacking the banking sector. And if Sanusi is a Fulani supremacist as his detractors have argued, then it is likely that non-Fulani Northerners are unlikely to support this purported plan.
Opinion and Analysis
I doubt that Sanusi Lamido will be successful in ridding the financial sector of the crooks that call the shots. My pessimism stems from the experiences of other reformist crusaders that have tried and ultimately failed to change the status quo in this dystopian conundrum called Nigeria. His job will be made harder by his colleagues at the central bank. They understand how the system works and may not be committed to his disruptive agenda.
Sanusi’s dalliance with the EFCC might reap short term dividends but anybody who understands the workings of Mrs Waziri’s EFCC knows that the agency is simply using this God sent opportunity to con Nigerians into believing that it is serious about the anti-corruption war. We must also consider the legal angle. Senior lawyers have told me that it is difficult to prosecute debtors when there is no evidence of fraud in the loan disbursement process. This explains why hardcore debtors such as Ike Okolo’s Aquitane Oil and Gas have ignored the EFCC and opted to hire legal heavyweights to defend them. In spite of the EFCC’s public relations blitz, other notable debtors such as the imperious Peter Odili have also headed to court.
The CBN “name and shame” tactic is yielding some results. The composition of the debtors list shows that there is a serious problem with Corporate Nigeria. Some of our most respected business leaders showed up on this list. I’m surprised that Alhaji Aliko Dangote and other respected Nigerian businessmen could brazenly decide to connive with these banks to short-change small investors and depositors. What if the banks had collapsed? The banks didn’t help matters with their dubious interest charges. They basically gave these millionaire debtors a good reason to stall.
Ms Yeside Solanke,
On behalf of