During the last week of February this year, Union Bank packaged a most unpallatable new year gift to its customers in Arochukwu. The bank sent electronic message to its customers to the effect that the branch in Arochukwu would move to Ohafia, a distance of about 38 kilometres, with effect from the second week of March, 2019.
The implication was that all customers in Arochukwu, who wished to transact banking business with Union Bank, would have to travel more than 38 kilometres to do so. To deposit, withdraw or use the ATM would not just take a whole day but would expose the customers to all kinds of risks including possible attacks by criminals. On some occasions, the cost of transporting oneself to Ohafia and back may be higher than the money withdrawn!
To state that Arochukwu residents were alarmed is to put it mildly. Many aged retirees, workers and petty traders panicked. All Aro fora were inundated with calls and petitions from distressed customers.
Residents were worried because banking is the life blood of the modern economy. The success of a business, to a large extent, depends on the availability of funding. Experts point out that banks facilitate the process of production, exchange and distribution of wealth. Banks keep and distribute liquid capital which is the life wire of commercial and economic activities. The average bank receives monies and advances loans, promotes savings, money transfer, over draft facilities, finances internal and external trade and acts as agent among other general utility services.
Many could not, therefore, understand why Union bank that has spent more that 37 years in Arochukwu would want to close shop especially now that many things were looking up for the town. Arochukwu roads, internal and external, are being reconstructed while many businesses are springing up in the area.
Some Aro leaders took up the challenge with the bank. Crucial meetings were held to find a way forward. In one of such meetings between the bank, the Central Working Executive Committee of Nzuko Arochukwu and other stakeholders, among them Nde Eze Ogo, presidents of village unions, presidents of Nzuko Aro branches, business leaders, leaders of social clubs, SMEs, representatives of workers and pensioners, the bank explained that every branch was autonomous and expected to sustain itself.
It lamented that Aro branch was operating at a loss because of low deposit base, absence of government accounts especially the local government, high cost of bringing funds to Arochukwu, preponderance of savings accounts with the bank paying out interest, inadequate business accounts, aged customers and the cost of serving them, especially, when salaries and pensions were not regularly paid as well as poor public infrastructure such as roads and power supply. The bank representatives, however, said that the planned relocation has been suspended and appealed for steps to shore up the deposit base and other banking activities of the branch.
On their part, the stakeholders noted that relocating any of the two banks in Aro would have very negative effects on the economy of Arochukwu and neighbouring communities such as Isu, Ututu, Ihechiowa and Abam who also rely on banking facilities in the town. Even if the bank was not making the kind of money it expects, what happens to CBN’s policy of financial inclusiveness. And, what ingenious steps have the branch taken to mobilise and unlock the dormant potentials prevalent in the environment?
Since Arochukwu was granted urban status by the government of old Imo state headed by Rear Admiral Ndubisi Kanu in 1976, the town has evolved into a thriving commercial hub that requires more than two banks to meet its needs. The residents are actually expecting more financial institutions going by the long queues in the banking halls of the two banks in Aro and the few ATM machines that serve the town and its environs.
However, to make the relationship mutually beneficial to the banks and the community it is important that government agencies, especially the Arochukwu local government, Abia State College of Education (Technical), Arochukwu, the Police, Prisons, the Education department and Sub-Treasury should as a matter of urgency maintain active accounts in the two banks in Arochukwu.
Aros in business, manufacturing, farming, packaging and processing should make the branches in Aro their mother branch. Such accounts can be operated from anywhere. Those whose business concerns are located outside Aro are, as a matter of necessity, encouraged to establish branches in Aro to help create employment and assist the area develop. With recent experiences of Ndi Igbo in Nigeria and the threats to Igbo economic interests outside Igboland, it becomes imperative that the concept of ‘aku ruo ulo’ go beyond building residential complexes to establishment of businesses. The time has come to use the fabled Igbo ingenuity to develop Ala Igbo.
All Aros no matter where domiciled, should open or transfer their accounts to Aro. Existing accounts can be transferred to Aro by sending a letter requesting same to the branch in Aro. Also, Nde Eze Ogo, presidents of Nzuko Aro branches and other Aro organisations in Nigeria and the Diaspora should hold periodic meetings with Aros in those areas to encourage them to open accounts with the branches of banks in Arochukwu.
While Aros do their best to sustain the branches, it is fitting to remind the banks that modern banking leverages on technology, ICT, innovation and creativity. The banks in Aro, rather that seek to bale out at the slightest challenge, should up their game by ensuring good customer relations. The branches must improve their services as a way of attracting and retaining customers. They are expected to study the environment and come up with innovative packages that will bring more customers into the banking net. The era of ‘feeding bottle’ banking is far gone!
Arochukwu has the capacity to accommodate more banks in a mutually thriving relationship. The banks just need to creatively unlock the potentials.