"Gb'omu le'na" in Yoruba language, the dominant language in Nigeria's South-west - literally means to place breasts on a lit lantern. It was coined by some Nigerians today to express the excruciating pain that comes with the repayment plans for loans drawn from some micro-finance banks (MFBs) or micro-finance institutes (MFI).
Borrowers, mostly petty traders and local artisans, constantly suffer palpitations as they strive to make their payments in weekly instalments.
Defaulters are usually locked up in toilets or paraded in public to beg for alms.
From Ibadan to Ile-Ife, Osogbo to Ilesha, Ilorin to Abeokuta, and other major towns and villages across Nigeria, tension usually erupts among local traders at the mention of LAPO.
LAPO is an acronym for Lift Above Poverty Organisation - a registered non-governmental poverty alleviation group, which has a microfinance bank as an affiliate.
According to its customers, LAPO registers clusters of groups, through which loans are disbursed to individuals. Arrowheads of the groups are appointed as leaders, and a semi-illiterate member is made the secretary.
The groups, with usually range between 10 and 30 members, are managed by the bank's credit officers (CO), who until lately are mostly secondary school leavers or holders of national diploma certificates. The rising unemployment situation has forced higher degree holders to take up what many describe as a demeaning job.
The minimum loan disbursed to first-time borrowers, according to operators, is N20,000 while N50,000 is the maximum. It could grow to as high as N300,000 if the borrowers have a history of not defaulting.
But to be eligible for a loan, customers save with the bank 10 per cent of what they plan to borrow. They also pay for registration, insurance, forms, among others.
Small loans are repaid in instalments for between 23 and 30 weeks, depending on the MFB or MFI. Each week, an average of N300 is also added to repayments as savings.
The secretary of Ibadan-based Halleluiah Group, a registered group with LAPO MFB, Raheem Ishola, said for a customer to be eligible for N50,000 loan, he or she will have to "first save N5,000; pay N300 for Insurance, N1,150 for group registration, N200 for bank form, among other charges."
"Such customer will then be paying N2,800 every week for 23 weeks, which is equivalent to six months. N300 out of the weekly payment is the customer's savings," Mr Ishola, a member of the association of Nigerian barbers, said.
Crude Loan Recovery Methods
Today, LAPO's 'booming business' has attracted tens of such MFBs or MFIs joining the fray. The new entrants, including Grooming MFB, SEAP (Self Reliance Economic Advancement Programme) MFB, Grace and Mercy MFI, among others, have also introduced many schemes with various repayment plans, which many customers describe as hellish.
Just like they call every seasoning Maggi, local Nigerian traders have replaced other MFBs' or MFIs' names with LAPO. But expressions on their faces, at its mention, signal pain and hardship.
Muiz Oyewole worked for ten months as a credit officer with Grace and Mercy MFI in Ilorin, Kwara State capital. His 'ugly' experience with customers forced him out of a job prematurely.
He said: "Before I left, I had 320 savers and disbursed about N14 million. But the pains my clients used to go through to meet weekly repayment was frustrating. I used to counsel them, and for the first eight months, I recorded no default.
"Between my 9th and 10th month, my unpaid loan had grown to N16,500. (This was) Because any amount not paid would be deducted from salary at month ends. Since I couldn't withstand public harassment of women old enough to be my mothers, I had to quit."
Corroborating Mr Oyewole, a serving official of Grooming MFB, Gbagi branch, Ibadan, who asked not to be named, said deductions in salaries and other 'unfair treatment' suffered by credit officers over defaults were responsible for the crude loan recovery methods.
The official said: "Involving police to recover small loans could cost more than the loan. So, credit officers connive with groups' leaders to 'arrest' defaulting customers and ensure that through whatever means, they repay their loans.
"Banks are unconcerned about recovery method applied as long as credit officers' accounts are balanced. Group members, for some selfish reasons, also encourage the molestation of their colleagues. Defaulters' goods are sometimes confiscated, or they may be paraded on streets or locked up in pit toilets. Sometimes defaulters are dragged to palaces or family heads for intervention."
Victims recount ordeals
Sekinat Ogunola, a seller of "Koko" (pap), lives in Maku community, Sawmill Area, Ibadan, Oyo State. She was on May 18 dragged to the streets within the neighbourhood over the N20,000 she owed Grooming MFB.
According to the 36-year-old mother of four, she had just returned from the market on the fateful Saturday when some officials of the bank knocked on her door.
"I had only a blouse and a wrapper on when they came. The young man said he was from 'Grooming.' He didn't know me before, but as soon as I confirmed my identity, he signalled his other colleagues and five others besieged me, pronto. They demanded the N20,000, but before I could say a word, they dragged me out," she said.
Ms Ogunola's eight-year-old daughter- Fareedah, cried as her mother was being pushed around.
"Hard times forced me into this mess. I once had a shop at Orita Merin where I was selling groundnut oil, but things changed so suddenly. I ignored shame and resolved to be selling 'koko' because it required little capital," she said.
Ms Ogunola's husband, Musibau, a bricklayer, did not help matters. He reportedly abandoned the care of the four children to his wife.
"Our first child- Karimot, now 16 years old, has since been withdrawn from school and now a hairdressing apprentice," Mrs Ogunola said.
She said a hairdresser, identified simply as Iya Ibeji (mother of twins), introduced her to a cooperative group she leads. Not suspecting Iya ibeji's motive, Ms Ogunola jumped at the offer.
"I said I only needed N20,000 to support my 'koko' business. Iya Ibeji said okay. She asked me to pay N1,150 for registration. Later, she asked for N5,000, saying by the third week I would be entitled to N50,000. She urged me to apply for N50,000, saying she would take the N30,000 and repay it," Ms Ogunola said.
She said she paid about N11,000 to access the N50,000 loan in December 2018. Since then, every Monday, she had been paying N2,800 until April when "she was broke".
Iya Ibeji reportedly did not pay a dime, but instead, ran away from the neighbourhood. Her whereabouts are unknown to date.
Rasheedat Sodiq from Oluode Compound, Osogbo, Osun State, was not lucky to tell her story.
'Iya Mustapha,' as she was fondly called, kept N100,000 loan borrowed from LAPO in April in her room ahead of the planned trip to Owena market the following day. But on the market day, she discovered that N40,000 was missing.
The mother of three collapsed on the spot. Her children's shout of 'Maami (mother),' alerted the neighbours who rushed her to an undisclosed hospital. She was treated for high blood pressure before she gave up the ghost less than 48 hours after she was admitted.
According to a family source, who asked not to be named, Rasheedat used to hoard kola nut during its season and resell during scarcity.
"That was what she wanted to do with the loan," the source said.
On her part, Badekale Taiwo, a hairdresser based in Lalupon, Ibadan, said she had taken LAPO loan twice but prayed never to have anything to do with it again.
She said; "I was a member of Itesiwaju group under LAPO. I shared the first N50,000 I borrowed with a friend. The second time, I borrowed N80,000, but my friends who needed money to repay their loan took N60,000. You know some people are comfortable with debts."
The hairdresser, who also sells drinks and children's clothes, said blood pressure 'almost killed her' before she paid the N80,000.
"As soon as I paid up in February, I said bye-bye to them. I haven't even gone there to apply for my savings because of each time the office at Oki, around Olodo Area of Ibadan, the sight of defaulters being molested used to scare me."
But Taye Nurudeen, a locust bean seller at Masopa village, Egbeda Area of Ibadan, said she has been able to manage the loans well.
The mother of seven, including three sets of twins, accused defaulters of diverting their loans for other purposes.
"LAPO loan cannot be used for anything else except the business. So those who use the money to buy clothes or organise a party, I don't pity them when they lock them up in toilets. We have them in my group too."
The leader of Ajebamidele group at Oke-Bale in Osogbo, Morili Hammed, said she had started with LAPO long ago, but due to rising cases of defaults, the group's membership has been reduced from more than 40 to just 14.
"Defaulters are our major troubles. I have been locked up by police in the past because of defaulters in my group. So I wouldn't pity anyone disgraced publicly for defaulting. If they say, we shouldn't take LAPO, where is the alternative?" Mr Hammed said.
Following cases of harassment of debtors by the banks frequently brought to his palace, the Ooni of Ife, Eniitan Ogunwusi, has kicked against the banks' loan recovery methods.
Speaking with PREMIUM TIMES, both the monarch's spokesman, Moses Olafare, and his special adviser on empowerment and wealth creation, Lamide Awofile, confirmed that the Ooni paid debts on behalf of borrowers.
Mr Awofile said; "Day in, day out, people come to the palace to complain of being molested by these microfinance banks over an inability to repay the loan. You can imagine young boys in Sabo Area sleeping with married women so that they can repay loans. I can confirm to you that I witnessed that myself. I couldn't believe it.
"The situation informed Kabiyesi's decision to put in place various measures to help the people secure loans through either the Bank of Industry or Agriculture. The Ooni Ogunwusi Women Empowerment Micro Loan Scheme has also offered loan to not less than 300 women. We have also just graduated and equipped about 70 youths from our fashion institute."
He said illiteracy and lack of adequate information had pushed many grassroots men and women in the bondage of the microfinance banks, "with their health negatively impacted."
Ripple health effect
Bello Olalekan is a senior registrar at the department of family medicine, Ladoke Akintola University of Technology Teaching Hospital (LAUTECH), Osogbo.
He said the history of many of his patients show that "they are suffering from economic hardships, with a good number of them indebted to these microfinance banks or other schemes."
He said; "Look at that young man at the waiting room, he is just 36 years old and he is suffering from hypertension. He has been running from pillar to post over the issue of a loan. Because there is no money to access hospital, he comes from Lagos regularly to see me here."
But, a consultant cardiologist at the Ogbomosho branch of the hospital, Adeseye Akintunde, said it would be difficult to link loans from microfinance banks to rising cases of cardiovascular diseases.
"There is no data to confirm that. But the truth is that hard times and lifestyles usually ignite all sorts of cases," Mr Akintunde said.
CBN, LAPO react
An official of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) said the apex bank will investigate the matter and respond.
Speaking with PREMIUM TIMES on the phone, the official, who identified himself as Bartholomew, said the apex bank would "investigate the matter and respond appropriately."
"But I will advise you send a mail detailing your questions to us," he told our reporter.
On Monday, CBN acknowledged the mail sent in by the reporter requesting for a reaction to the report.
The bank responded thus: "Your request has been forwarded to the appropriate department for further action."
However, as at the time of filing this report, the bank is yet to send in its response.
Also speaking on behalf of LAPO, an agent, Jonathan Monday, said he would neither confirm nor deny the claim. He said the matter would require proper investigation.
"This claim has not gotten to us before. So I will neither confirm nor deny it. It is a matter we will need to investigate," Mr Monday said.
He promised to get across to the 'appropriate authority' and report back to our reporter. He is yet to do so after almost two weeks.
Similarly, a representative of Grooming MFB, Akinrinde Akinwale, said he was not capable of responding to such matter. He asked our reporter to call back after 30 minutes for a response. The phone number has remained unavailable since then.
Meanwhile, a former head of risk management of Infinity Microfinance Bank, Lagos, who does not want to be named, confirmed the crude loan recovery methods by LAPO and other microfinance banks.
He said the CBN "could never have approved such practices."
He said; "I retired as an MD of an MFB in Osun in 2016 and I can confirm to you that LAPO and a few others are notorious for such practices. Customers would rather keep their soup money for LAPO and go hungry. If you are supposed to make a payment today, you dare not defer it till tomorrow.
"What the CBN rule states are that your portfolio at risk, that is, the loan yet to be recovered as at the time you are preparing your report must not go above five per cent of shareholders' fund. But in a situation where you have more than that, genuine reasons are still tolerated, especially when seasonal businesses are involved. The current business environment in Nigeria does not guarantee adequate sales to ensure prompt repayment of loans. So, banks are permitted to give customers grace."