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Opinions of Thursday, 28 February 2019

Columnist: Brig-Gen (Rtd) J. Odei

‘Lotto’ banks-institutional failures or challenges?

The game of lotto is a highly risky business but the game became the pre-occupation of many Ghanaians sometime ago. The desire or craze to make quick money caught up with many workers to the extent that working hours were used in working lotto numbers. The situation was so serious that many game lovers sold houses and properties in order to stake heavily and win big but the sad end of the story was that many lost their properties and only a handful won peanuts to satisfy their egos. The other interesting thing was that those who lost after heavy stakes only nursed their pain secretly and were not even willing to disclose the cause of their misery to friends and relatives let alone appeal to the government to make good the loses. The penchant to make quick money has permeated society for some time now and like cancerous cells, have corrupted every aspect of our lives. Politically, the country is suffering from this menace of greed and economically some smart people have taken advantage of their exploitative schemes to hoodwink the people.

I have nicknamed all the collapsed banks, savings and loans and gold trading (Menzgold) companies as “Lotto Banks” and equated their operations to that of lotto operations because their concept of operation is the same in the sense that “lotto stakers” are enticed with high payments for their stakes whilst in ''lotto banks'' customers are attracted with high interest payments on deposits. The only difference is that “lotto banks” are managed by educated men and women dressed in well-tailored suits and high heels and operate from well-furnished offices in prime locations including foreign countries. The officials drive multiple flashy vehicles and numerous ostentatious billboards are mounted at strategic locations all aimed at convincing innocent Ghanaians to believe that they are in genuine business. The attractions are like magnet and those who bite the baits fail to do due diligence and nobody can convince me that greed has not been a factor in the decision to invest. Greed was the motive of many customers and consequently not every Ghanaian was attracted except the odd 6,000 whose desire to reap where they have not sown made them swallow the hook, line and sinker.

I think what has happened is a disaster but not a national one because we have lived with this situation since the emergence and collapse of Pyram and R5 in 1992 and have failed to take measures to prevent its occurrence and so why all the noise? The NDC under whose watch these banks flourished have no moral grounds to criticize the government who has taken the initiative to remove the cancerous cells from our financial sector. Isn't it strange that the operations of these banks only flourished under NDC regimes? Pyram and R5 emerged during the first two terms of NDC under Rawlings and even with the revolutionary spirit at that time, the government only issued a warning. After the collapse, the Directors and Executives bolted with the customers' money and as at today are enjoying the booty.

Then came the collapse of Savings and Loans Financial companies (DMK, God is Love, etc) during President Mahama's tenure and once again the Directors, Executives and Senior Officials are free. Then GCB under instructions from BOG turned a whale and swallowed UT and Capital Banks after BOG had used billions of Cedis to bail them out. This was followed with the amalgamation of five banks (Beige, Unibank, Royal Bank, Sovereign Bank, Construction Bank) into Consolidated Bank.

The good thing about “swallowing” and “amalgamation” is that customers did not lose their deposits but obviously some punishable crimes had been committed. In all, thirty-two (32) of these fraudulent financial companies (including Noble Dream, Onward Investment and MMM Company) have collapsed and not a single prosecution has taken place. Besides these, “US Tilapia” and some real estate marketers and developers including CASTLE GATE Estate Ghana, `also managed to dupe their customers.

The case of Menzgold seems to have awakened Ghanaians from their slumber not because its operations differ from the rest but the alleged number of people caught in the web, the suspected huge sums of monies involved and the delay by BOG to close down Menzgold seems to have ignited the shock waves. The official explanation that the “bereaved customers” had been warned did not go down well but it seems to be the only justification that delayed the closure of the company. WARNING suggested some wrong doing and the belated closure exposed some weaknesses in the BOG operations.

It degenerated into near anarchy and the executives of the company who should have been under surveillance were let loose. The appeal to INTERPOL to help bring back the Chief Executive who is alleged to be in jail in Dubai is embarrassing and very expensive to the nation because of the frequent visits to Dubai to negotiate his release. A warning without action is irresponsible – today we are witnessing the outcome of the inaction. Citizens have been warned about the harmful effects of cocaine, wee, tramadol etc, yet the security agencies do not go to sleep and immediately apprehend any person caught in possession of any of these substances. So why the delay in NAM1's case? It is being alleged that NAM1 before his incaceration in Dubai, was very generous with his “customers' deposits” and therefore many influential people in our society are “in his pocket'' and to arrest him posed many challenges and consequently he slipped through the security network to Dubai. Many people even doubt that he is languishing in a Dubai jail.

The current Management of Bank of Ghana is undoubtedly doing very well in removing the cobwebs in the financial sector but we cannot simply ignore the lapses that allowed Banking Licenses to be obtained under false pretenses. The BOG in its report confirmed that some of the collapsed banks “used suspicious and non-existent capital which resulted in a situation where reported capital is inaccessible to them for operations”. The question is who granted the licenses? Obviously, there was some collusion between the scam banks and BOG officials. So long as the BOG officials and Executives of these collapsed banks remain free, new ones will emerge with new tricks. The former Governor of the Bank of Ghana who presided over the issuance of some of the licenses to the “lotto banks” as well as some of the BOG officials have a lot of questions to answer.

I find the current criticisms and insults heaped on the President very repugnant because the issues at stake are obviously signs of institutional failures that must be addressed. President Obama of the USA on his visit to Ghana on 11th July, 2009 remarked that “Africa doesn't need Strongmen, it needs Strong Institutions”.

What President Obama, however, failed to observe was that institutions are ran by human beings and therefore strong institutions should be managed by people with a high sense of integrity and patriotism without which there will be no strong institutions. In Africa where corruption has eaten into the fabric of society, talking about strong institutions is an illusion but admittedly that is what our nation needs and we should now devote some attention to build strong institutions. Building a strong institution cannot be achieved overnight but with determination it can be done. Strong institutions have made all the difference between developed and under-developed worlds.

As long BOG officials, Executives and Directors of “lotto banks” are not prosecuted, more scams will emerge. My question is, why does it take so long to find justice in our dear country? I am not sure where to put the blame. Is it the fault of our investigators, prosecutors or the law courts? Ask any Ghanaian who has a case pending before any court in Ghana and you will appreciate the magnitude of his/her frustrations. Ghanaians want justice but they have been denied justice in many cases to the extent that many have lost confidence in the law courts and the examples are too many to recount here. The delay in the delivery of justice has compelled many to take the law into their own hands leading to lawlessness in our society and its time some serious steps are taken to address this problem.

It is said that “justice delayed is justice denied'' (William Ewart Gladstone). Pyram and R5 took place in 1992, DKM, God is Love etc. took place in 2014 followed by UT and Capital Banks etc. and to date, no prosecution has taken place suggesting that no crime has been committed. If there is any intention to prosecute, it has been unnecessarily delayed and consequently justice has been denied. With all the noise that has been made concerning scam banks, the only way to soothe the pain of Ghanaians is immediate prosecution of all the criminals and this action must not be further delayed.

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