Diaspora BVN: Tension over forfeiture threat

The decision by the Federal Government to stop commercial banks from operating accounts without Biometric Verification Number (BVN) continues to pitch the citizenry against the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and the Buhari administration. The bone of contention is the forfeiture threat on account holders should they fail to update and register the BVN within two weeks.
 
Frowning at such decision, the Director General of Lagos Chambers of Commerce and Industry (LCCI), Muda Yusuf , said there was need to question the policy that puts a time frame on the registration for the Diaspora Nigerians as it is not consistent with the letters and spirit of human rights.
He said, “The idea behind BVN is to go after illicit funds, but CBN should be discreet about this to know which funds come under it and which does not. There is need for financial inclusion, we have sincere Nigerians who are earning their money through hard work. Those ones cannot be denied access to their money because of BVN registration. CBN cannot say because they’ve not done BVN, should forfeit their money.”
 
He noted that it would be counterproductive if Nigerians in the diaspora could no longer transfer money home and would have to come home with N500,000 using almost a million naira on transportation.
 
The LCCI boss reasoned that some people are already dead without registering for the BVN and their relatives are struggling to access their money, wondering what will become of such funds, he queried:
 
“Do we want to conclude that any money that is not covered under BVN is an illicit funds? it is not a good proposition, but an unfair one”, he maintained.
The Director General of the Nigeria Employers Consultative Association, (NECA) Olusegun Oshinowo, said though it should not be expected that the exercise should have an indefinite time, at the same time, there should not be an unusual hurry to bring it to an end given the implications of such an action on the generality of Nigerians.
 
“Hence, there must be patience on the side of government in getting as many Nigerians as possible to enlist”, he said.
 
He stated that CBN particularly should be sympathetic to the plight of Nigerians in the Diaspora, saying “it will make both economic and social sense to grant another extension.”
 
Some Nigerians in the Diaspora,sounded out on the issue described the move, described it as wicked and insensitive. While others even complained of difficulties in moving to where the BVN capture centres are located.
 
For instance, Mr Uyime Akpan, who resides in Milan, Italy, branded the policy as “wicked and insensitive to the feelings of Nigerians overseas.”
 
“How can you order the forfeiture of monies without BVN verification in Nigeria in two weeks when you know very well that those of us in the Diaspora have been highly constrained to get this biometric capturing in the last three years abroad,” said Akpan.
 
I know of hardworking men and women, who have opened accounts back home and keep sending dollars and have them changed into naira to fund project, particularly buildings. Some also keep these monies as savings in case they visit home. I know of some Nigerians in this country (Italy) who are serving jail terms and have been constrained to participate in the BVN registration. The government should protect the weak, the poor, and the struggling citizens. For anyone to thoughtlessly order a forfeiture of these hard earned monies is nothing but sheer wickedness,” Akpan added.
 
Another Nigerian resident in New York who gave his name as Dr. Eno-Obong told Daily Sun that if the policy is allowed to stand, thousands of Nigerians in the USA would lose their monies. He described the US as very large with Nigerians scattered all over the country and pointed out that some of the US states had only one point where the BVN could be captured, which constituted a major hindrance to those who wished to get their BVN.
 
“The banks know those that are fraudulent. Those who steal government money are certainly not those with little savings deposited in banks. At least, the law demands that amounts exceeding N1million and N10million deposited by anyone should be reported to the EFCC. And this means those persons can be traced and questioned. It’s foolishness to punish someone who has a Nigerian bank account and lives in San Antonio in Texas and has not been able to travel to Houston to get his BVN. I think the government has to re-think its decision on this. More time is required and a new deadline has to be set. You cannot punish the innocent saver of money in a bank with the thief; that negates the essence of banking,” Eno-Obong warned.
 
Expressing her disappointment in the BVN Scheme, a subscriber, Mrs. Folasade Ayakwo, who resides in Dallas, Texas, said the arrangement is too cumbersome and may not achieve the intended purpose.
 
She said the State of Texas, which is almost the size of Nigeria, has only one BVN enrollment center located in the Bisssonet area in Houston.
 
She said the inability of the agent appointed to decentralise the enrolment centres across Texas has made the process problematic as Nigerian account holders have to travel long distances to get the BVN done.
 
Anyakwo equally faulted the registration process adopted by the agent, saying they lack the required manpower, forcing subscribers to spend longer hours than necessary,while is some cases, the system experinced down time for hours.
 
“This is US where people are conscious of time. To get enrolled on the BVN takes almost a whole day. For me, I have to travel for about four hours from Dallas to Houston. And on getting here, the queue was just too long. When it got to my turn, they said the system was down. I waited for another two hours for the system to come up. I lost that day’s pay at work, and had to pay additional charges for the steward taking care of my baby. But thank God, I was able to get it done.
 
She equally faulted the decision of the agent to charge for BVN registration, saying those in Nigeria get the service free.
Although, Mr. Johnson Chukwu, the Managing Director of Cowry Assets Management Limited, does not buy the arguments of the Nigerian Diaspora on the BVN, he, however, faults the forfeiture clause in the interim order:
 
“Coming from the directions you have given, the need for diaspora funds, the acting diaspora members don’t have problems with the BVN, those doing what we call live transactions have no problems also, we are coming for those who don’t have legal status of where they are, then come home going to financial institutes in those locations trying to update their records. Coming through official channel, their monies come through the media, like the one the government say they released diaspora funds, that categories don’t have problems with the BVN.
 
“It is not advisable to seize an individual’s account who has huge balance because he didn’t complete one process in the account opening. The Money Laundering Act 2011 states that the account will be frozen and never said that the money will be appropriated to the Federal Government. Appropriation attacks the human rights unless the government has proved that the account has illegal transaction.”
 
Trouble for non-BVN account owners started on October 17 this year, when Justice Nnamdi Dimgba ruled on an ex-parte motion filed by the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF), Abubakar Malami, where he slammed a restraint order on commercial banks to desist from operating such ‘ghost’ accounts.
 
Justice Dimgba further directed the banks to disclose the owners and the financial content of each of the accounts. The 19 Deposit Money Banks (DMBs) in the country are affected by the court orders which seek to check corruption and enthrone transparency in the financial system. The ex-parte motion – FHC/ABJ/CS/911/2017- was filed on September 28, 2017 and argued by the plaintiffs’ lawyer, A. D. Tyoden. It was brought pursuant to the Central Bankof Nigeria’s (CBN) Know Your Customers (KYC) Guidelines and Section 3 of the Money Laundering (Prohibition) Act of 2011as amended. The enrolled orders from the ruling read:
 
“That the 1st – 19th defendant banks shall disclose: (a) the names of the accounts as operated; (b) account number(s); (c) outstanding balances (d) domiciliary accounts and (e) the branch/location wherethe accounts are domiciled of all accounts without BVN.
 
“That the 1st – 19th defendant banks to disclose any investments made with funds from these accounts without BVN in any products including fixed/term deposits and their liquidation and interest incurred, bank acceptances, commercial Papers and any other relevant information related to the transaction made on the accounts.
 
“That an order is hereby made freezing the said accounts by stopping all outward payments, operations or transactions (including any bill of exchange) in respect of the accounts pending the hearing and determination of the substantive application.
 
“That an order is hereby made directing the 1st to 19th defendant banks to disclose anyinvestments made with funds from these accounts without BVN in any products including fixed/term deposits and their liquidation and interest incurred, bank acceptances, commercial papers and any other relevant information related to the transaction made on the accounts.
 
“That an interim order is hereby made directing the Central Bank of Nigeria and the Nigeria Interbank Settlement Systems to validate the information contained in the affidavit of compliance/disclosure filed by the respective 19 banks within seven days from the date of service on the Central Bank and NIBSS.
 
“That an interim order is hereby made appointing a Bank Examiner from the Central Bank of Nigeria to examine the books of any bank that fails to comply with the order of the honourable court to file affidavit of disclosure.
 
“That an interim order is hereby made granting leave to the applicants or any officer authorised by them to advertise the accounts without BVN disclosed by the bank in a widely circulated national newspaper as notice to any person or body corporate or financial institution who may have any interest in any of the said accounts to claim ownership of same within 14 days of the publication of the order and show cause why the proceeds in the account should not be permanently forfeited to the Federal Government of Nigeria.” Justice Dimgba fixed further hearing on the case for November 16, 2017.
 

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