Banking in Sierra Leone - a service or a favour? by Edleen B. Elba
December 7, 2014
On the 20th of this month, I would have lived in Sierra Leone for 12 years. I was only 17 when I left Sierra Leone to study in the UK and had never experienced banking. I maintained a bank account in the UK for over 7 years and it did not warrant a conversation. One of the first things I learned when I moved back home was that you had to have at least one contact in your bank if you wanted a fairly easy life. During visits to the bank at which I have maintained my salary account for 12 years, Sierra Leone Commercial Bank, I have been frustrated by rude tellers, eating tellers, tellers walking out of their cages as I approached without a word to me, other customers standing next to me while I made withdrawals or requested my bank balance and being offended when I told them I was the sole signatory to my account and they had to step back as banking was a private affair. Over the past 5 or so years, I have relieved myself of most of the stress of banking as my trusted staff has done my deposits and withdrawals. That has left me with a significant amount of energy to tackle the plethora of issues that come with living in Sierra Leone.
When my then partner and I set up our company in 2007, the MD of Guaranty Trust Bank was a good friend of ours and he convinced us to open our account there. Since we didn't do a lot of transactions, banking was pretty easy. I worked at the bank for a year and a half, after my friend left, and it was my most stressful period in Sierra Leone. The hours were unnecessarily long, hard work was very rarely appreciated, the Nigerian managers arrived with the notion that all Sierra Leoneans were lazy and stupid and treated us all as such. It was a hard time. After I separated from the bank, I maintained my business account there as I had formed relationships. Unfortunately there was a mass exodus shortly after and I was left with one helpful contact. About 2 years ago I decided to focus on building my company, so did a fair bit of marketing and networking which has brought about a growth in banking transactions. Over the past month I had an increase in transfers and withdrawals and physically staying away from the bank didn't seem to work this time with reducing my frustrations. The transactions had become more complicated and my involvement was required. I will share a few incidences with you.
I had to transfer £150 to renew hosting of my business website. After a week of being told the bank had no pounds sterling, the transaction was finally done. My account was debited with $430 + $69 charges. I asked my account officer to immediately reverse the transaction as it was daylight robbery. That was done and a new transaction was processed. This time it was $258 + $69 charges. If I hadn't made a fuss I would have lost $172. A month later I'm still waiting for the first set of charges to be refunded despite several reminders. My account officer and I also fought about the SWIFT code I had used. It was for Lloyds bank and not Halifax even though the recipient's account was at the latter. Despite explaining to him that Halifax was part of the Lloyd's group he was reluctant and invited me to visit the person responsible for processing the transaction. He even told me "you've worked at a bank before, you should know how these things work". I had to email the bank's international transfers brochure to him for them to believe me. Of course I advised him to search the internet for updates in the banking sector worldwide instead of delaying customers' transactions due to ignorance.
I was advised that if I had a token I could use internet banking to make transfers. I filled in a form, submitted it and within a couple of days had my log in details. 2 weeks later I'm still waiting for my token because they have lost the form and don't know who processed it. In fact had it not been for the email with my internet banking details I would not have been able to convince them that I had submitted the form.
Last week I sent an instruction to the bank for withdrawal of USD. I was asked to call my account officer. He then informed me that they had told my messenger to tell me (my bank has my address, email address and phone number) that they will no longer process USD withdrawal letters, I should use a cheque book. I told him I didn't have one and he said I had not requested one. I told him I did not even know it existed and it was the bank's duty to inform its customers of changes and new products. Anyway, I requested a cheque book by letter and my transaction was processed. I also sent an SMS to the MD telling him that my account officer required customer service training, especially in the area of communications and needed to keep abreast of changes in the global banking sector. He responded "OK thanks". A few days later, my cheque book was still not ready and I wrote another letter for withdrawal. 3 hours later (all the staff that could have dealt with my transaction were in a meeting), I was informed that effective 1 December all USD withdrawals should be made by cheque or I had to physically visit the bank and use a withdrawal form. I asked them to give me my cheque book so I could comply. They denied receiving my application - another missing form. Another 2 hours later, I was allowed to withdraw the funds I required. By the time the transaction was processed, I was stressed, frustrated, sad, angry and had done little work as I was too distracted.
When did banking become a favour? For the amount of money banks make off their customers, you would think they would at least try to take the stress out of it. Instead they create more. Most of the staff are ignorant, arrogant and simply don't care. In the past few months I have had bad experiences with FiBank, Ecobank and GTBank and from speaking with friends and family the other banks are no better. Collectively, the sector needs to change the way they do business. I know they would still make money either way, but we are their customers and are paying for a service. The least they could do is make us feel like we're receiving one.