There are gaps in the competing version of events proffered by Innocent Chukwuma, Chairman/Managing Director of Innoson Motors and the GTB Bank in their business transaction gone awry.
According to Mr Chukwuma, he obtained loans from GTB which he paid off but later discovered that the bank was still making “illegal” deductions. The bank agreed to refund the over-deductions, which ran into hundreds of millions of Naira. However while the bank was willing to pay an interest rate of 7 per cent on the “illegal” deductions he wanted them to pay 22 per cent – the same rate he was paying the bank for his loans.
GTB’s version (syndicated by one James Osaremen), is that the bank granted huge loans of over N2bn to Innoson in 2009 – both for working capital and for the importation of various goods, including motor cycles. Under the terms of the loan, GTB would be the exclusive owner of the imported goods, which would be released to Innoson upon the payment of 25 per cent of the value of each Letter of Credit. According to GTB, it came to its knowledge “sometime in June, 2011 that the imported Goods for which the Bank declined to release shipping documents to Innoson in view of its failure to meet the agreed conditions had been fraudulently procured by Innoson.”
There are several questions and issues raised by the two competing narratives:
One, GTB claimed in its version that it only discovered in June 2011 that the shipping documents for a loan granted in 2009 (which it had in its custody) “had been fraudulently procured.” There are a number of questions arising from this: Does it mean that GTB held these documents from 2009 when the loans were granted and never cared even to auction the goods to recover some of its debts as most banks would do? Before it discovered that Innoson had “fraudulently” obtained the original Bill of Lading in its custody was Mr Chukwuma servicing his loans?
At what point did the bank decide to get EFCC involved in the alleged forgery and what was its prayer to the EFCC?
Two, there are also questions for Innocent Chukwuma. While I sympathize with him as the weakest party in this triangular tango that also involves the EFCC, his version of events has not adequately addressed allegation by GTB that he “forged” the original Bill of Lading in its custody. Mr Chukwuma said he had never forged “tax papers.”
Three, the EFCC claimed through its Head, Media and Publicity, Mr. Wilson Uwujaren that it arrested Innocent Chukwuma because of “his refusal to honour administrative bail granted to him in a case being investigated by the Capital Market and Insurance Fraud unit of the Commission’s Lagos Office.” (Vanguard, December 20, 2017). Mr Chukwuma has challenged them to publish such invitation.
Apart from allegations of being used by GTB in what is purely a business dispute with its customer, the involvement of EFCC should be a good opportunity for conversations on EFCC’s mode of operation. Assuming (but not conceding) that Chukwuma did not honour its invitation, does it warrant the EFCC sending hordes of its operatives at the wee-hours of the morning to whisk him to Lagos like a common criminal – while he was reportedly wearing only shorts and singlet? Chukwuma is certainly not alone in the degrading, humiliating and crude treatment he received from the EFCC. It has become the agency’s modus operandi. Unfortunately such crude and primitive methods which will never be acceptable in civilized societies are often lauded as evidence of bold fight against corruption by those baying for the blood of their regional, ethnic and social class enemies.
Remarkably just a few days after the furore caused by the arrest of Mr Chukwuma, the EFCC quickly charged him to court. This raises its own questions: Does it mean that in a space of a few days the EFCC was able to conclude its investigation into the matter? If it had already concluded investigation, why was it necessary to go and whisk Mr Chukwuma to Lagos instead of just charging him to court? Or did the EFCC feel rattled by the furore and decided to quickly rope a charge around Innoson’s neck as some police men allegedly do when rattled? I believe it is time the nation entered into earnest conversation on whether the EFCC should be scrapped altogether or re-invented.
Four, the Innoson saga should bring onto the front burner ‘illegal” bank charges and deductions. Complaints against bank charges and deductions in Nigeria are routine so Mr Chukwuma’s allegation of “illegal” deductions and charges will resonate with many Nigerians. The banking or financial services regulator needs to move in.
In the United Kingdom, following complaints against banks for illegal charges, deductions and dodgy paper works, the Office of Fair Trading moved in to investigate and in 2014 uncovered widespread “errors” in credit, loan and insurance agreements by banks, including illegal deductions. As many as 17 banks agreed to refund their customers such overcharges which was then estimated would cost the affected banks about £149m – on top of least £370m that three banks – Northern Rock, Barclays and the Co-operative Bank – already repaid their customers. Today there are still several lawyers and groups approaching individuals and groups to help them secure refunds from their banks on ‘no win, no pay’ basis.
Five, an important dimension to the Innoson case is whether it was right to ethnicize what was clearly a business transaction gone awry between GTB and Innoson. Some who frowned at the ethnicization of the matter argue that even if GTB was guilty of “illegal” deductions and charges, what should have been mobilized was ‘citizen power’ rather than ethnic identity. In fact, a friend, reminded me that under Obasanjo Otedola was hounded by the EFCC without the matter being ethnicized. I explained to the friend that if the President at that time was not of the same Yoruba stock as Otedola, the issue would also surely be ethnicized – as we also saw with the ethnicisation of the June 12 struggle by the Yoruba political elite, the routine accusation that Stella Oduah as Aviation Minister had declared war against the Yoruba by sacking many of them in her ministry ministries – and so on and so forth. In the same vein when Professor Soludo began his bank consolidation, he was accused by some people in the North of plotting to economically destroy the North. Similarly when the former Managing Director of the Bank of North Mohammed Bulama was arrested for alleged mismanagement by the EFCC under Nuhu Ribadu, the Borno Elders claimed that Bulama’s alleged trial was an agenda by Obasanjo to humiliate the North. The same thing happened when Sanusi Lamido, as Governor of the Central Bank, began his bank reforms. Sanusi was accused of specifically trying to implement a “Fulani agenda” of weakening or taking over the banks from the Southern parts of the country. Examples are endless. The point is that ethnic card is a game routinely played by all ethnic groups in the country when it suits them. So the Igbos playing the ethnic card in the Innoson affair is in tandem with the Nigerian character.
The truth is that in a polarized environment like ours, where no individual or institution commands universal legitimacy across the fault lines, sustained mobilization often happens across religious or ethnic lines. So those expressing (contrived?) outrage at the ethnicisation of the Innoson affair are either ignorant of Nigerian history, merely want to mask their own partisanship or are trying to introduce ‘blackmail’ to Nigeria’s unique mode of resolving its disputes.
Six, while playing the ethnic card is not ideal for nation-building; it does have its own benefits in a fractious and polarized environment like ours. In such societies mobilizing the citizens across the fault lines on a sustained basis is often problematic. This is why for instance the same set of people who lauded the Bring-Back- Our Girls campaigners under President Jonathan are the same set of people de-legitimizing the group for wanting to continue the campaign under Buhari. Additionally, ethnic mobilization in a fractious society can force issues into quicker resolution. In fact I sincerely believe that without the Igbo mobilization, Mr Chukwuma would have spent longer time in EFCC custody than he did. I also believe that Dasuki and El Zakzakky would since have been released from detention if their ethnicities were anything but Northern Muslims or if the President was anything but also a Northern Muslim. More importantly because ethnic mobilization is countervailing (if the Igbos mobilize for Innoson, the Yoruba will counter mobilize for GTB), it ensures that no one version of events is allowed to dominate the public space, and through the competing perspectives promoted by this, the search for the truth is aided.