46m accounts without Bank Verification — NLC secretary

The General Secretary, Nigeria Labour Congress, Dr. Peter Ozo-Esan, in this interview with ADELANI ADEPEGBA and TOBI AWORINDE says the government’s move to freeze money in accounts without BVN is in order

Many believe that the government was hasty in its decision to freeze money in accounts without the BVN. What do you think of this decision?

I don’t think confiscation is what you should start with. I think those accounts would be frozen, and as people come up to do their biometrics and obtain their BVN, they would be unfrozen or unblocked. The government has given the public a time frame within which the process must be completed. It is only at the expiration of such that we can be talking of forfeiture. There has to be processes. I think it is important to agree that ensuring that every account is linked to a BVN is an extremely good policy because right now, people use financial transactions through banks to commit all manner of crimes. Somebody transferred money from my account sometime ago into another person’s account, and at first, I wasn’t impressed. I said, ‘Since it is an identified account, they should be able to trace it.’ But at the end of the day, they were not able to produce anybody or trace anybody. If there was BVN identification, such would not happen. It will also help to combat terrorism because we will be able to trace and monitor such monies, and I think this will help. It is like when we must register SIM cards, it’s the same logic that we are able to trace and through such process, we are able to minimise the use of money for crimes. If all bank accounts are linked to BVN, the issue of paying salaries to ‘ghost’ workers will be a thing of the past because one person cannot have multiple accounts with different BVN

So, I think it is a good policy if done correctly. But I don’t think we are at the stage where we should talk about people forfeiting their deposits because there may be genuine account holders among them currently having constraints with the BVN registration. I think there should be a period for campaigns to create awareness for capturing and issuance of the BVN. When I say time frame, I’m not even thinking in terms of months. I think we need a longer period that will allow people to actually key into the process and have their data captured. If we’re talking about two weeks, then that is clearly like an ambush and I don’t think it is acceptable.

Would you also suggest that the government direct banks to suspend the affected accounts until the holders register for the BVN?

The banks should stop the account holders from operating without BVN. They should put the accounts on hold temporarily, not that the money is lost to the government.

But for the government to say it wants to take over the accounts, is it not an illegal way of appropriating and taking money belonging to Nigerians?

There must be a process that must be followed in order to do that. So, this cannot be a revenue source to the government, no matter how attractive it might sound. I don’t know what figures they are seeing in those accounts. They need to do the needful first, in order to ensure that this process is properly done.

Some believe that the government should worry more about other issues of the economy that affect the populace apart from the BVN, for which they feel only a few people are involved?

The BVN issue has implications on the economy; it has implications on the fight against corruption. It’s sad. Some of the accounts may actually be holding proceeds of corruption and through this process, if you are able to so establish, the BVN will be instrumental to each of those areas.

But some have argued that the government does not really have proof that the funds in those accounts are proceeds of corruption.

It is through BVN registration that everybody will be identified; every account holder will play a role one way or the other. If you then know that you have accounts and you can identify people who have them, or there are inflows that are coming into accounts and you identify who the holders are, it’s a first important step in actually establishing whether or not these are genuine sources of income or not. I think it is an important step that we should take.

Why is the government not clamping down on the banks which may be complicit in the issue?

Before the BVN came as a policy, it had always been the case that for you to open at least a current account in any bank, you have to provide some form of identification. And if that is so, then the banks ought to be liable for not establishing the owners of specific accounts.

Do you honestly believe the government has really considered what it may cost Nigerians in the Diaspora to come back home just for the BVN capture?

We should put structures in place which would give room for data capturing close to places where people are residing. For example, a system can be done that it is not the individual bank that will do it. Even in embassies abroad, if facilities are there, people can go with proof of accounts and get their data captured which can then be fed into those banks to generate their identification numbers. There are ways that this can be done in a more friendly and less cumbersome way, particularly for those who are living in faraway places so that they do not have to be subjected to coming down just for such a capture.

Some critics feel that the BVN issue might just be another way to take away the people’s attention from the challenges they are facing in governance.

I’m not so sure. There are challenges and I think Nigerians are politically savvy enough not to allow the discussion of one issue to becloud other important issues of the day. Whether that is the intention of anybody or not, the reality is that Nigerians will continue to focus on what the various challenges are. Therefore, I don’t want to join the bandwagon — or call them conspiracy theorists — who think an orchestrated diversion of attention is what is happening. I think that it is an important matter that needs to be done for us and for our economy, for modern banking and for us to be able to take adequate control. It’s something that needs to be done. It can be done in a way that is planned, in a way that gives room for people to be able to come forward and do what they need to do over time. And so, timelines need to be in the public domain. For instance, I know that in the case of e-dividends, which would help to clear huge unclaimed dividends matter, a deadline of June this year was initially given. It’s just been extended to December. These are the ways these things are done, so that all those that are genuinely required to play their roles will have time to so do, and I think we can do the same here.

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