‘Their weapon is your shame’: Toxic abuse by Nigerian loan sharks | Nigeria

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SHayo Adebayo, an unemployed 28-year-old medical physiology graduate from southwestern Nigeria, read dozens of abusive WhatsAapp messages and voice notes sent to her by fast loan company debt collectors.

“I will destroy your life,” said one. “I want to see your payment or all hell will break loose,” said another. Another, which simply said “enjoy your shame”, arrived after a message calling her a fraud and a thief was sent to her family, friends and all her contacts, together with a photo extracted from her Facebook page.

Adebayo said the messages had been coming to her phone almost every day since October, prompting her to have suicidal thoughts.

She is not alone in her anguish. Unemployment, inflation and the cost of living have risen sharply in recent years in Africa’s largest economy, fueling a thriving industry of fast or payday loans. Advertisements for quick loans appeared at bus stops and street corners and were played on the radio.

Messages like those sent to Adebayo’s contacts have gone increasingly viral on social media, drawing attention to the companies’ attempts to harass and shame people struggling with debt.

For months, Adebayo had relied on regular loans of 40,000 naira (£70) from a Lagos-based loan company, to pay for transport and food until payday. In October, she lost her job and her debts skyrocketed.

Between October and December, Adebayo downloaded 32 quick loan application forms onto her phone as she struggled to cover her debts.

“At first I was just borrowing to get to the end of the month,” she said. “Then I would borrow to pay off the loan, then I would borrow more to pay that one and so on. By the end, I had borrowed from so many apps. »

A woman balances a bowl containing soft drinks as she weaves through a street in the Yaba district of Lagos on Tuesday. Photograph: Akintunde Akinleye/EPA

Adebayo said that as she began to struggle to repay her debts, the payment reminders quickly turned into grim threats, first sent to her and then to almost everyone important in her life.

As a condition for a loan, the application process required access to her contacts, social media accounts, family and friends, where she worked, loved and lived.

“By the time you take the loan, you are practically naked. They know everything about you,” she said. “So when you’re not able to pay, they start working on those contacts.”

The debt collectors were constantly calling and texting and broadcasting WhatsApp messages to his phone contacts. “Their weapon is your shame,” she said. “That’s why they do it. They use it to reach you.

Calls for the government to clamp down on the companies have multiplied. Many are accused of operating without registration and warning employees not to reveal details of their operations, according to former employees.

Some of the loan companies enforce illegal terms, paying below minimum wage and encouraging abusive behavior, according to several former staff members.

Sophie Olubode worked as a debt collector for months last year at a quick loan company which employs more than 150 people and is based in an unmarked office building in Lagos.

She called the work environment “toxic”. Olubode said many employees were paid a base salary below the Nigerian minimum wage of just 30,000 naira per month and received bonuses based on debt collection targets. Every collector was pressured to take extreme measures, she said.

“I remember one of my co-workers called a daughter’s father and told him that his daughter was at the police station and until the father paid the amount of the debt they would not release not the girl,” she said.

In typical cases, people applied for loans for as little as 2,000 naira, she said, often to cover things like food and transport costs and medical expenses. The application process, she said, worked “like a trap”, and for many people, unpaid debts of as little as 500 naira quickly amounted to thousands.

The Lagos skyline.  Advertisements for fast loan companies have popped up in the city and elsewhere in Nigeria.
The Lagos skyline. Advertisements for fast loan companies have popped up in the city and elsewhere in Nigeria. Photography: Eye Ubiquitous/Alamy

Most of Adebayo’s debts remain unpaid, but she said she turned a corner when she found support on a Facebook group used by 19,000,000 people, many of whom were in similar or worse situations. Stories of abuse and harassment are reported daily.

Group members encourage others to pay off their debts but not to be overwhelmed by threats. Documents produced by loan company agents claiming to be from the police are being debunked and people are sharing posts where they responded to threats with jokes or taunts.

“Some of the talks are actually funny,” Adebayo said. “They joke about it. It makes you feel like, ‘OK, I can handle this, they can’t kill me’.

The Facebook group was founded by Willis Osunde, 32, an unemployed economics graduate, following his own ongoing experiences with fast loan companies.

“When they defamed me, by sending messages to my contacts, I almost lost everything,” Osunde said. “My marriage, my family, my job, all at the same time. It started from 2019, until last year… It occurred to me that I might not be alone. Osunde always reimburses.

In November, Nigerian financial crime and central bank authorities set up a “lenders’ task force” to investigate the rise of loan sharks, as regulators became increasingly active in prosecuting companies accused of harassment and fraud. ‘abuse. Victims of illegal practices were encouraged to contact the task force, although many members of the Facebook group felt more urgent action was needed.

“People are still vulnerable to these companies,” Osunde said. “In this economy, a lot of people are desperate.”

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