Between January and February early 2021, many Nigerians received indications regarding a COVID-19 grant or palliative, provided by the government in the form of financial assistance. The initiative aimed to support small households and businesses severely affected by the pandemic. While scepticism prevailed among many, some individuals believed in the program due to circulating rumours that Nigeria had obtained financial aid from international institutions such as the World Bank to alleviate the pandemic’s impacts.

Consequently, when the Central Bank of Nigeria, in collaboration with the NIRSAL Microfinance Bank, disbursed a zero-interest loan to citizens for pandemic recovery, a misconception arose. Many recipients perceived it as a grant. Bukunmi, a Lagos-based customer Representative and beneficiary of the NIRSAL loan, recalls, “We were informed that the money was a grant and would not require repayment.” She applied for N400,000 and received N370,000, so she assumed the deducted N30,000 was a one-time final repayment.

Bukunmi is distressed as the bank debited N270,000 from one of her bank accounts a few days after Christmas in 2023. The debit alert notice indicated “SIRecovery.” Bukunmi had intended to utilize that sum to transition into the new year after indulging in extensive holiday spending with her friends during the Detty December festivities.

According to a NIRSAL staff member who wishes to be anonymous, it is crucial to clarify that the funds distributed were not grants but rather zero-interest loans. This implies that the bank intends to retrieve the disbursed amount from the beneficiaries. The staff member emphasises, “During the loan application process, individuals were provided with the opportunity to review the terms and conditions. Unfortunately, it appears that many applicants did not thoroughly examine these terms, where it clearly stated that it was a loan.”

He points out a common issue, stating, “A significant challenge among many Nigerians is the tendency to overlook the detailed examination of terms and conditions before committing to online agreements. This, in itself, poses a significant problem.” Furthermore, he stresses that as long as individuals input their Bank Verification Number, which links all their accounts, the government will reclaim every owed amount.

“I don’t have any issue with repaying the loan if that is what they now call it. However, the indiscriminate manner in which they simply empty people’s bank accounts is what I cannot deal with,” says Linda, a Journalist based in Lagos. “I feel like there is no clear process for reclaiming the so-called loans, and as it stands, many have repaid more than they received. Therefore, beneficiaries are likely to incur losses in the end.”

The perceived grant now appears to be a deceptive offering, and Nigerians feel deceived by the Central Bank. “I only received N200,000 from NIRSAL, and they have already deducted N317,000 from my account,” laments Jide, a Barber in Ilupeju. “The money was useful at the time, and I used it to purchase more clippers for my business. Now they have emptied my account.”

In a subsequent conversation with the anonymous NIRSAL staff member, an attempt was made to understand the loan recovery process and how compensation would be provided for those claiming they were debited amounts beyond their initial disbursements. He refused further comments.

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