Stemming Northern marginalization: In defence of Sanusi
By Shehu Abubakar
THERE is no sphere in Nigeria that clearly evidences the growing loss of relevance of Northern Nigeria as much as the banking sector. And it is a rude shock that many Nigerians of whatever persuasion - Christian or Muslim, southerner or northerner - do not appear to note the danger in this strange imbalance in a country in which all sections are supposed to develop at par. Even our "human rights activists" do not appear to be concerned with the fact that with ownership of banks and financial institutions so skewed to one section of the country, the associated long-run economic disempowerment of the other section is not only unjust but could spell economic doom for the entire country. In this regard, it is difficult not to see Charles Soludo's bank consolidation exercise as a deliberate ploy to marginalise the North.
There is a building in central Kano. Known as the Ahmadu Bello Building, it is, with about 12 storeys, the tallest building in all of Kano. That building used to be the head-office of Bank of the North. All of its floors were busy, occupied by executives rendering a core service to various sectors of the economy. If you visited the Ahmadu Bello Building in the '80s after its commissioning and even down to the last 10 years, it was a beehive of activities. You would see hordes of bank workers and customers.
Today, that building is nothing but a relic of the past. Only one or two floors are in use and close to 80 per cent of what ought to be prime property occupied by one of the most vibrant economic growth drivers of northern Nigeria is in a sorry state of decay. Indeed the building erected at great cost in 1980s is slowly coming to ruin. Its elevators when they manage to work are death traps and lack of maintenance is taking a serious toll on what used to be the pride of every resident of Kano, indeed every northerner. The Ahmadu Bello Building is only one victim of the recent banking consolidation exercise of former Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Charles Soludo. Today, in forcefully merging Bank of North with several other strange bed-fellows, the CBN has deprived the people of Kano and by extension, northern Nigeria of the extensive benefits that this regional bank used to provide.
Bank of the North never aspired to be anything other than a regional bank. Its sphere of influence was very clearly defined and in our constitutional democracy was very legitimate. It existed clearly to help propel people from the northern part of our country from the fringe to the very mainstream of economic development. And all the state governors in the north subscribed to this and invested accordingly in this bank. Does it not amount to a breach of the rights of the people of the north for such a bank to be forcefully decreed out of existence as the CBN under Soludo did?
It is doubtful how much of its very clearly defined and articulated goals are understood by Unity Bank the quasi-national institution which Bank of the North was forced to metamorphose into. It is even more doubtful if in its efforts to demonstrate that it is a national bank, Unity Bank can connect anymore to the needs and aspirations of the peoples of northern Nigeria. Obviously just as it may be impossible for anyone who did not grow up in the creeks of the Nigeria Delta to fully appreciate the intricacies of life in that part of the country, so it is for those who have not truly experienced life in the core north to fully appreciate life in that part of Nigeria. And this is vital if a bank is to truly optimise its impact on the community. It is not only Bank of the North that lost out in this bizarre exercise of the CBN that headlined the leadership of Soludo. Intercity Bank also lost out. This predominantly northern bank no longer exists.
But if banks like Intercity and Bank of the North could be said to be regional banks focused on the north, Habib Bank was not. A clearly northern bank with professional and ethical tenets founded on the principles of Islam, Habib Bank even though a very successful northern-dominated bank, provided services on a national scale. With a presence across the country, it was a bank with which lots of northerners shared affiliation at various levels - commercial, cultural and spiritual. Consequently, it was common to see the Hausa or Fulani tailor in Ebute-Metta in Lagos for instance, go the extra mile to establish a banking relationship with a Habib Bank located all the way on Awolowo Road in Ikoyi. This was his own bank and banking with it was more than an ordinary transaction.
In the aftermath of Soludo's consolidation, Habib Bank simply disappeared. It was subsumed into a contraption that appeared confused as to who it was and what role it wanted to play in the economy. Rather, the new contraption appeared almost hell-bent on further emasculating the legacy of Habib completely out of existence. Otherwise, how does one explain the phenomenal growth of the legacy Platinum Bank in the new Bank PHB contraption? How does one explain its desperation to buy over first Afribank and later, Spring Bank if not part of the grand ploy to further dilute and completely annihilate the legacy of Habib?
It is in the light of these distortions in what ought to be a delicate economic balance in our country, that we must appreciate the interventions of Lamido Sanusi, our new CBN Governor. It does not need a professor of macro-economics to make us realise that the skewed nature of ownership of banks across the country could only have further spelt doom for us as it clearly worsened the economic disadvantage of Northern Nigeria. With more than 20 bank CEOs from the south of Nigeria, only Falalu Bello of Unity Bank is a Northerner. Indeed the only other northern bank CEO in the last six years was Sanusi himself and in all, he spent less than six months in office!
As Nigerians we must learn to begin to tell ourselves the truth. Soludo's banking consolidation may have benefitted the south but was a big disservice to the north and consequently may have been a disservice to the entire country. Sanusi's efforts to redress this situation should not be derided by elitist and self-seeking apostles of regional politics. Ultimately, the poor in Lafia, Gagagarawa, Zuru and Birnin Kebbi, need specialised banking and financial support like his counterpart in Koko, Uyo and Ogoni. This can, however, never happen if all the banks in Nigeria are southern banks, dressed in the self-deceptive toga of national banks.
Thankfully, the CBN has since systematically assumed control of Bank PHB and hopefully, should in due course extend its control to Unity Bank. Without prejudice to whatever misdemeanors by executives of the former that warranted the take-over, the CBN may wish to consider dismantling these unnecessary, fake and inefficient behemoths into the focused and efficient banking institutions which at least some of their components used to be. Let Habib Bank and Bank of the North re-emerge from these institutions as part of the new focus of the CBN to encourage regional and specialised banking. We can only further drive holistic economic growth and development if we empower every segment of our country to progress together.