Nigerian authorities have quizzed the chief executives of three of the country’s banks over transactions made under the previous government, widening the scope of the anti-corruption drive launched by President Muhammadu Buhari.
The questioning in the past two weeks of the CEOs of Access, Fidelity and Sterling banks signals a new step in the Buhari administration’s effort to hold former officials and businessmen accountable for the many billions of dollars that went missing from state coffers in recent years.
The investigation is also sending shockwaves through the banking sector in Africa’s biggest economy, which is already under severe pressure from the collapse in theprice of oil.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission questioned and released the three banking executives on Friday without charge.
Commission spokesman Wilson Uwujaren said it was conducting “an ongoing investigation that affects the operation of some banks, which makes it important to interact with their officials”. He declined to comment further.
On Tuesday, the Nigerian central bank said it was participating in an investigation into “certain financial transactions in some banks” by law enforcement authorities. “It is important to state that the safety and soundness of the Nigerian banking industry remain strong”, it said in a statement.
All three banks confirmed that the questioning by EFCC officials of their CEOs — Yemi Adeola of Sterling, and Nnamdi Okonkwo of Fidelity, and Herbert Wigwe of Access — concerned transactions carried out by the respective banks with “a client”. Neither the banks nor the EFCC identified the client.
Banking executives in Lagos say they are concerned the probe may spread.
“Clearly if there has been a massive flight of money from Nigeria during the last government, this could only have been facilitated by banks”, said the chief executive of one of the country’s leading banks.
The executive, who has not been questioned by the EFCC and spoke on condition of anonymity, said he worried that a prolonged investigation would “create uncertainty in the financial system which is currently under pressure and also scare much needed potential investors.”
Analysts raised similar concerns.
“How wide and deep is this going to go?” said Lanre Buluro, head of research for Primera Africa, a brokerage group in Lagos.
“It really does open up another front” of challenges in the banking sector, said Ronak Gadhia, equity analyst at Exotix in London. Nigerian banks that lent heavily to local energy companies when oil prices were high have seen their profits fall by as much as 80 per cent since the crude price crash.
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