Dr Herbert Wigwe, Managing Director of Access Bank Plc

By Nsikak Ekanem

Following recent development whereby Access bank Nigeria Plc swallowed Diamond Bank Nigeria Plc, which had appeared hale and hearty before entering into the belle of the former, the Herbert Wigwe-led bank has achieved an enviable newness of a sort.

Owing to its successful acquisition of two seemingly healthy banks in recent years – Intercontinental bank in 2012 and Diamond bank in 2019 – Access bank could be evidentially said to have become omnipresence in Nigeria. In a number of streets if the branches are not besides another it could be behind another or opposite each other or adjacent to each other or all of the above. Without branding itself so, the bank sends a message of being “everywhere you go” in Nigeria.

So, as far as Access bank is the bank for assessment, with the branch network, which is visibly assessed without tables, pie charts, pictograms and histograms or reports from news media and journals of financial organisations, other indices of assessing a bank’s worth, such as balance sheet, profit before tax, earning per share, assets and loans deposits count little or not in the eyes of the man in the streets.

By and large, Access bank is adjudged one of the leading banks in Nigeria. In The Cable Rating of 10 leading banks in Nigeria by profit in 2018, Access bank was rated number three. According to The Cable, which is one of Nigeria’s leading online newspapers, “Access bank closed the financial year with an after tax profit of N95 billion with one of the industry’s top record advances of 58%.

Amidst the impressive rating of the bank and its sterling public perception the bank has been recently embroiled in scandalous allegation of fraud, which the bank and some of its top staffers, including the Managing Director, are accused at two separate cases at High Courts of Lagos and Ogun States. At Ikeja division of the Lagos State High Court, Access bank and eight others are alleged by the Nigerian Police to have, in conspiracy, defrauded Chief Don Etiebet $6.3 million through his company, Top Oil and Gas Development Limited. At Sagamu division of Ogun State High Court, the police alleged that Access bank unlawfully converted and sold property of BMCE Bank International worth about N 2.5 billion.

Expectedly the criminal matters against the bank alongside multiple-counter civil suits slammed against each other – Etiebet and Access bank – have enjoyed exciting reportage in the news media. In fact, on the strength of the criminal cases against the bank, Etiebet, who, by virtue of being a shareholder in the bank should ordinarily be reaping his own fair share of apparent fruitful fortune of Access bank, has asked regulatory bodies of banks in Nigeria for revocation of the acquisition of defunct Diamond bank by Access bank and went ahead to court to get legal spine to his prayers.

It is this other-side of stories making round of Access bank that brings Honore de Balzac’s critical evaluation of success to fore. The 19th century French writer, who decades after his death, still enjoy iconic recognition on realism, had stated that “Behind every great fortune there is a crime”. As time-tested and valid as the assertion has proved in many instances, it is certainly not the case in all cases. It is probably that, overwhelmed by age-long prevalence of crime among humans, Balzac was infected by a disease of faulty generalization while scribbling that particular line.

In Nigeria where corruption runs leitmotif in public and private lives, coupled with stereotypical reckoning in the Western world that Africa’s blackness does not start and end on the skins of the people, but on the entire way of life of Africans, it is possible that anybody could be called a criminal and that is why standing out from crowd of the criminals is even more tasking and compelling.

When Ken Saro-Wiwa, a minority and environmental rights activist, was sentenced along with eight of his kinsmen to death by hanging by Justice Ibrahim Auta-chaired tribunal, the writer, who was hanged on November 10, 1995 had described that Tuesday, October 31, 1995 (the day he was sentenced) as “a black day for a black man” and that “it shows that the best black man on earth is nothing but a criminal.”

Good enough, the era when Saro-Wiwa was tried, convicted and executed had since gone. Nigeria has since become a democracy and its operations are anchored on the rule of law. So, Access bank has no cause to fear in submitting itself along its accused employees for trial over allegations of crime leveled against the bank and others by the Nigerian Police.

Whereas it is cheering that the bank and Etiebet have opted for out-of-court settlement on the civil matters instituted against each other, it is chilling that the accused employees of the bank appear afraid of standing trial on charges of fraud hang on their necks. So far, while Access bank, as a legal person, has been appearing in the courts, the accused employees of the bank have not been showing up in the courts, hence stalling commencement of trial of all the defendants in the matter. In fact, speculation is brewing up in certain quarters that the prosecution in the matter may amend charges to get the bank and its staffers off the hook of the criminal charges.

Gratifyingly, Paul Usoro, who, in recent time, has been vociferous and vehemence for enthronement of the rule of law, is leading the defense team of the bank in the cases. Even if the Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), has not advised the bank, which is doubtful, the bank ought to learn from Usoro’s exemplary conduct. The president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, who is currently standing trial at the Federal High Court, Lagos division over allegation of N1.4 billion money laundering charges leveled against him and others by Economic and Financial Crime Commission, EFCC, has been religiously keeping dates with the matter in court. Apart from the need to extricate himself from charges leveled against him, he knows very well that the reputation he has painstakingly built for himself over the years is at stake.

Being in the dock does mean that the reputations of those docked have been dragged to the dogs. It is a follow up to judicial processes of ensuring fair hearing, which in turn leads to achieving justice; and provided it has discernment of sound mind and has not fallen to temptation of perversion, justice, through the law courts, does not ensure a one-sided winner but a four-square winner – justice to the accuser, the accused, the victims and the society.

Whenever any of the parties involved in a matter evades procedural path of resolving criminal or civil puzzles either by absconding or through technical shenanigans justice eludes the whole society. The victims become more victimised and rendered helpless in search of self-help; the accuser loses opportunity of proving his accusation and getting vindicated or unfounded; the accused loses a chance of defending his innocence or showing his culpability thereby being informally sentenced to wear the tag of an accused person for life; and since no deterrent is dished out, the society is perpetually put on precipice of anarchy with inherent danger dangling on the doorsteps of everybody.

The chances availed accused persons to take plea in court as to whether he is guilty or not guilty is one step too many for accused person to get discharge and acquittal or otherwise. It is for the interest of Access bank and its employees accused by the police to prove Balzac right or wrong. Similarly, if criminal cases against Access bank could serve as a case point, relevant law enforcement agencies and anti-graft bodies in Nigeria should let the world know how valid or invalid is Balzac’s assertion that “Laws are spider webs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught”.

· Ekanem sent this piece from Lagos through nsikak4media@gmail.com