On March 1, the Consumer Advocacy Foundation of Nigeria (CAFON) and the Coalition of Nigerian Consumer Protection Associations plan to drag the Nigerian banking consumer out in what promises to be a novel observance of the “no banking day”. On that day, customers are expected to avoid all forms of banking transactions nationwide.
The rationale, according to the organisers, is borne of the need to draw attention to prevalent anti-consumer practices in the financial services industry – particularly the unfair and inequitable relations between the providers and the consumers of banking services.
Practices identified by the consumer advocacy group include excessive charges, unexplainable fees and unfair contracts designed to protect the banks to the detriment of the consumers. They also cite the indiscriminate debiting of customers’ accounts for charges that are more often than not spurious; arbitrary and unilateral changes in interest rates by banks, and this without prior notice to the consumer; levy on use of deposit and transfer forms in bank branches; rising incidences of ATM frauds and the failure to educate and inform consumers of the inherent dangers in online banking at commencement, among others.
The initiative is as commendable as the issues raised are familiar. These are some of the things that Nigerians have put up with over the years, often with the tacit endorsement of the regulators. And while they have persisted, the average Nigerian hitherto is known to shrug off such issues either as a result of genuine ignorance or the absence of structures to redress perceived wrongs, or both. The initiative therefore speaks both to the growing awareness on the need to do something and perhaps the gradual coming of age of the Nigerian consumer.
Little wonder therefore that the much-touted goal of financial service inclusion has remained a tall order. So, the typical consumer, driven to desperation by his credit needs, is only too ready to swallow all manner of charges – visible and invisible – to keep going; the same way that depositors, either too powerless or indifferent to protest practices that are unfairly tilted against him, choose to carry on.
The point is that the initiative is only the beginning. We recognise that the issues raised by the advocacy groups are for the long haul. Be that as it may, the starting point must be the recognition that nothing in the interests of the banks and their consumers is either irreconcilable or mutually exclusive – after all, business thrives only when the consumers are guaranteed satisfaction.
Therefore, while we expect the planned public show to generate some excitement, it must be seen as a means to an end. The end is to get the banks to cease exploitative practices, to be more open, transparent and truly value-driven; to get them to shed their age-long inscrutability and to develop a culture of better engagement with their customers as obtained in other jurisdictions. On the obverse side, it is for the bank customer to take more than a passing interest in understanding and standing for his rights at all times.
Those goals when achieved will by far surpass the sacrifice of the one day boycott.