Alwan Ali Hassan is a prominent figure in the Nigerian banking sector and currently serves as the Managing Director of the Bank of Agriculture.
Under his leadership, the BOA has become one of Africa’s most capitalized agricultural development banks, providing affordable financing to small-scale farmers and agribusinesses across the country.
Furthermore, he has been at the forefront of the bank’s loan recovery drive. He developed a robust loan recovery framework that has helped it recover a significant portion of its outstanding loans. This effort has also been complemented by Hassan’s focus on strengthening customer relationships and providing tailor-made solutions to meet its customers’ unique needs.
However, Alwan Ali Hassan’s tenure at the Bank of Agriculture has not been without challenges. In March 2022, he was abducted by gunmen while on a train from Abuja to Kaduna. He and 64 others were held captive, but he was released nine days later with a ransom payment of N100 million. The incident was a stark reminder of Nigeria’s security challenges, highlighting the need for the government to do more to protect its citizens. It’s been a year since the unfortunate incident, but memories remain fresh. In this interview, he reflects on the kidnapping incident and his successes in his current role as MD of the Bank of Agriculture.
Tell me a bit about yourself, Mr. Alwan.
As you know, my name is Alhaji Alwan Ali Hassan. I come from a large family of 20 siblings. We were ten boys and ten girls, and I am the 17th child, quite down the ladder. Though I don’t have a younger brother, I have three younger sisters. My parents and senior brothers gave me a good upbringing and education. I had the privilege of attending Government College Kano, now known as Rumfa College. Later, I was admitted to Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, a prestigious institution where I obtained my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. My banking career began when I joined the Central Bank of Nigeria after working for the Kano State Government. I am married and have eight children—four boys and four girls. Three of my children are married, and I have two granddaughters. The first four children are all graduates and pursuing their careers, while the four young ones are also pursuing their dreams; they are in universities, and the last child is in secondary school.
How long were you in the banking sector before your current appointment?
I began my banking career in 1990, spending considerable time at the Central Bank of Nigeria. After that, I transitioned into commercial banking before retiring early in 2011 to pursue my own personal business ventures. Then I was given this appointment in 2020 by Mr President.
Would you say your experience as a banker prepared you sufficiently for your current role as MD Bank of Agriculture?
Yes, of course. During my career in the commercial banking sector, my last role was that of an Executive Director in Bank PHB appointed by the CBN when they took over nine banks in 2009. I remained in that position for two years, during which time we were able to rebrand it into Keystone Bank successfully.
Let’s talk about your work. What areas have been most fulfilling for you?
The issue of recapitalisation and restructuring of the bank has been a major source of happiness for me. Fortunately, the shareholders have agreed to recapitalise and restructure the bank, which has been a positive development during my tenure. This decision will significantly benefit the bank, its customers, and its shareholders. Recapitalisation will provide the bank with much-needed funds to enhance its operations, expand its business, and improve its services. Additionally, the restructuring will help the bank streamline its processes, reduce inefficiencies, and increase profitability. As a result of this decision, the bank will be better positioned to compete in the market and meet the evolving needs of its customers. Furthermore, the shareholders can look forward to increased value and investment returns.
I am pleased with the outcome of this decision and confident that it will lead to a brighter future for the bank.
Could you speak to the challenges the Bank of Agriculture faced in the past with bad debts and how you have been able to balance loan recovery efforts with running the establishment since taking on your role?
As I mentioned earlier to you, recovery is one of my priorities. We set up a task force committee at the Head Office, and they were able to collaborate with the Zonal Offices and some key branches for the recovery exercise.
Some of these loans were given about 20 or 30 years before the BVN, so their recovery was difficult. Without the BVN, people can move around, and you cannot trace them. What I did was to get ten machines, BVN machines from Nigeria Interbank, and then we now went and enrolled BVN for all our customers. Once we did that, we were now able to track the loan defaulters. We’ll tell them to either pay, or we’ll report them to the police or CBN for sanction. They would come and pay. So gradually, recovery improved because of that BVN that we did for our customers. And then, we also realised some had lost their business due to insecurity, flooding, and drought. Those we have just put them into what you call classified assets. A committee was set up for business outlets realignments. The bank has one hundred and forty locations. When I say locations, they comprise branches, cash centres, recovery centres, and BOARBI centres. We decided to close the recovery centres because one person cannot do recovery, and we also closed the BOARBI centre because it is just selling one product.
So we can’t just be selling one product in one location. Let it sell in. The bank shareholders approved in August 2020 that we should come down from 140 to 110 branches nationwide. And relate there should be three branches in every state, one in every senatorial district, and two in Abuja. That makes it 110. We have started merging the locations by closing the recovery centres and BOARBI centres. We were renting those premises, so when the rent expires, we opt out. So far, we are now down to 120. We have about ten more to go. We also have carried out a staff audit exercise. It was supposed to show us the staff we have in terms of manpower. Do we have the required manpower in terms of skills? Do we have the manpower in terms of status and age, in terms of stagnation on one grade in terms of promotion, and so many things? We have done that in; it has brought us so much information, which we have also presented to the shareholders for approval.
Are you still able to give out loans?
Yes. Since I reported in May 2020, we have done close to 2 billion loans, and we hope to do more soon.
We are focusing on Women and Youth this year. We have done five town hall meetings with the women in the northwest, northeast, southeast, southwest, and south-south. The last one is coming up on 11/2/2023 at Keffi for the north-central zone.
Where do you see the Bank of Agriculture at the end of your tenure, and what do you want to be remembered for?
I will love to see the bank fully recapitalised and fully restructured and impacting the lives of the small farmers and also being able to finance the entire Agric Value Chain activities. I want the bank to be a foremost development financial institution in Agric sector financing. I leave it to fate and life to remember me. I am putting in my best, and I hope my best is what is needed.
Is it okay to speak about a recent highly distressing and traumatising event you recently experienced as one of the victims of the Kaduna Train attack? Could you provide a detailed account of the events that transpired on that particular day?
I Can’t believe it’s been a year since the incident happened. We are already in March 2023; it happened in March 2022. It was a normal day, I went to Abuja from Kaduna for a meeting at 11 am on 28/3/2022, and after the meeting, we had lunch. For that, I couldn’t make the 2 o’clock train. I decided to take the 6 o’clock train to Kaduna.
Some few minutes before our arrival in Kaduna, we heard a loud bang at the back of the train, and then the train behaved as if it was going to skid or tumble. We heard a loud bang at the front, and the brakes were applied. As the train came to a halt, we heard sporadic shooting from outside. So we knew we were attacked, and then the train was switched off, and the lights went off, and all of us were looking for where to hide.
What happened next?
We got under the chairs and took cover because there was so much shooting. People were running up and down from the business class to the economy, from the economy to the business class. Everyone was looking for cover. Then, after about thirty minutes, we heard people shouting, “come down, comedown.” Some of The kidnappers were able to enter the train and were picking us one by one. It was not selective; it was just those who they could see their faces and showed signs of being awake.
After the shooting, I got tired of squatting and hiding under the chair, so l came out from under the chair and sat down on the chair. They came and said, “you with the white, come.” I followed them. Before we went out of the train, they instructed me to empty my pockets. I emptied my pockets and gave them all I had except for my telephone that was in my trouser pocket, so I didn’t give them the phone.
We came down from the train, and there were one or two beatings on my back to hurry up. We entered the forest. When we entered the forest, the guy behind me with the gun told me to sit down on the ground. There were some people in the forest already sitting down on the floor. They said we should just stay there and they would tell us what to do. They kept on bringing more and more people. You could see their torch lights, and on their phones, you could see some little bit of light.
One of them came and said if we catch anyone with a telephone, he is in trouble. It was then I realised my phone was in my trouser pocket. I brought it out, and I threw it, I flung it. As I was flinging that phone, I didn’t know one of them was watching, so he went and picked it up and quietly put it in his pocket. They tied our hands behind us and instructed us to start walking. We walked for a long time. It was a very long walk; it was dark. We hit our legs on little tree plants. I fell down so many times.
After a long walk, we got tired, and they noticed, so they brought motorcycles to carry us. The person that actually drove me was very, very rude. Right from the time he took me to the time he dropped me, it was all full of abuses, and that’s when I realised that there are some other connotations and not just normal banditry. He said that we are not following the Islamic teachings; instead, we are practising something called democracy, being ruled by a constitution instead of the book of God. I had to continue giving answers to make sure he didn’t harm me, and then even at night, this guy was going about 60 kilometres on a motorcycle. I had to come close to him so I didn’t fall. I could see the speedometer, and then he would switch off and switch on the light just because they were scared of aircraft. But up to the time we found where to sleep for the night, there was no aircraft looking for us.
In so many stories, they said we were put into a bus. There was no bus. No bus took us. We came there, and all of us sat down on the floor, and because it was dark, you couldn’t see the next person to you, and when they put on the torchlight, they said we are going to sleep there—bare ground.
Of course, we were tired and not only tired, but there was so much fear in us, but somehow, some of us managed to sleep. By morning, they woke us up, and they started profiling us. “What is your name? What do you do?” By the time they came to me, they had two of my ID cards, and those ID cards were inside my office bag. I knew my bag had been stolen.
One of my ID cards was for the Central Bank of Nigeria (Pensioner Card), and the other was my ID card for the Bank of Agriculture. They said, “What is your job at BOA?” I said, “I am the MD.” They said, “That is the boss?” I said, “No, it is MD of the bank.” They said, “Okay, fine,” and then went to the next person.
After profiling, they took us to another place across a dried stream. We sat down, and they brought garri and groundnut and asked us to eat. I had not eaten that for a long time and was not hungry either. I just put my hand inside to make it wet, so I do not get punished.
Could you provide more information about the mood at the kidnappers’ den and the number of captives who were there? I can only imagine that having to sleep with guns to your head must have been a horrific experience.
If you want to ease yourself, you have to seek permission then one of the kidnappers will follow you with a gun. You will go and ease yourself and come back. This was done for both the men and the women. There was no exception. It was scary because somebody could make a mistake and pull the trigger, so we were quite scared.
There was no molestation because right from the first day, they told us they were not bandits. They will not molest any woman, and they will not maltreat any child. Even we men, if we cooperate, there will be no maltreatment. Up to the time I left and even those who came out after I left, they said no woman was maltreated.
Did they at any time try to communicate with any of you?
At their time, they told us that it was not us they were targeting. Two days prior, there was an APC convention. They thought that most of the politicians were coming back a day after. They were after them. Unfortunately, most of us were just on our normal day-to-day business. They said they have some grudges against the government of Nigeria. They have arrested their people and locked them up for many months, some years. They want them to be released, and they are looking for how to get across to the government to tell them this.
Can you provide some information about the bandits? It has been said that they are primarily composed of young boys.
They were quite young, but they had their leaders. Some of their leaders were also relatively young or middle-aged in their early forties. The motive behind their actions is not far from the fact that they are offshoots of Boko Haram, and their people had been arrested. They believe they want to have a swap between us, who were kidnapped, and their relations, who were taken by the military during the exercise.
There are conflicting reports regarding your release from captivity. The bandits claimed in a video prior to your release that you were being released due to your age and the observance of Ramadan. However, another report stated that you were released after paying a ransom of 100 million naira. Which is correct?
I think both stories are true because they wanted somebody to come and talk to the government and tell people that there were still sixty-something people in their captive. Yes, a ransom was also paid.
The two stories are okay because I wasn’t shaven for 7 or 8 days, my white beard came out, and I looked very old. I am a young, old man, but at least they pitied me because of that, and it was also during Ramadan (fasting period).
At what point did your release come up?
They called us individually and asked us to call a dear one to tell them this was where we were. I told them that I did not have any number that I could remember, all the numbers are on my phone, and my phone had fallen down. One of them said, “Your phone did not fall down. You threw it on the ground, and I picked it. Is this not your phone?” I said yes. They said, “Get the number you want to call.” I picked the number up, my executive assistant Yusuf Tafida. I said, “Mallam Yusuf,” he said, “Yes?” I continued, “It’s Alhaji Alwan Ali Hassan. I’m fine but in a forest and do not know where we are.” They cut in and said, “Mallam Yusuf, we’ll call you back,” and they switched off the phone.” After we finished making the phone calls that Wednesday, they said we should move to a huge mango tree to sit. We went there and sat down, and then their Leader came. He was from the northeastern part of Nigeria (Borno State). He told us that we should get across to our government to tell them we’re here and they will not release us until their people are released. Wow! That’s when I knew that we were in for it. How do we tell our government? Eventually, they said I was going to bring 500 million. I said I do not have that 200 million; I said honestly, I do not have it. Your people will pay, they said. I told them my people could not pay as I was the breadwinner. How can they pay? One of them said look, we are tired of arguing with you; you are paying 100 million. They kept on telling us that they were talking to our people. By Tuesday, eight days after we were kidnapped, they came in the evening and told me that I was going home tomorrow and that my people had cooperated with them. I didn’t know what that meant, so I said thank you, and they gave me a sachet of Klin soap detergent and said I should go and wash myself and wash my cloth, which I did. At night, their Leader, the Sheikh, Leader came and called me to one side, and preached to me and said, “When you go, we want you to go and tell the government to release our people. He said we will know whether you have done it or not, as we have people outside. Tell them they should do what we want them to do.”
The next day, Wednesday, April 6th, they brought bikes and took me out. We were on that bike for about three hours. I knew we were very far from Kaduna, which could be Niger state because I saw this high-tension national grid, so I knew we were not far from Shororo or somewhere. That’s as far as we went. So I was brought into Kaduna state, somewhere not far from Gwagwada. My nephew and my EA picked me out.
How did you feel leaving there unharmed?
It is quite an experience that I wouldn’t like anybody to experience. But it has strengthened me because I realised I could live for nine days in a bush without food. Also, I can survive with just one set of clothes on my body. All I need is just water. Perhaps the biggest thing that I need is the faith that whatever happens is ordained by God.
Can you provide an update on your current state of health, both physically and mentally? Have you fully recovered?
I’m fine, and as I said, I have put this thing behind me, but I’ve not forgotten it. I am now more alert to my situation, which has made me realise that whatever God ordained will happen to me. I cannot escape it.
Because I am somebody who tells people to be careful of using the night train, and I found myself on the night train. Mentally, I am okay. I’ve gone to the hospital and done all the checkups; health-wise, I am okay.
I kept saying to people that my luck was that I was prayerful throughout the duration and very calm; I didn’t allow myself to get distracted. I knew the condition that I found myself in. It’s not by force; it’s not by anything that I will get out. Only God can bring me out, and God did that.
So mentally, I am fine.
Did you have any apprehension about going back to work in Kaduna?
I am back to work. Immediately after I was released, I was taken to Kaduna, so I didn’t go to my home state Kano or Abuja. I was taken to Kaduna. It’s from Kaduna that I came to Kano, and I took off for Lesser Hajj in Saudi Arabia. Thank God for my release. I am back to work fully.
Would you travel by train in Nigeria again?
Yes, the train services resumed on December 5th, 2022, and on December 6th, I took the train from Abuja to Kaduna. I have used the train three times since it resumed, as it is a very convenient way of travelling. Regarding the accident, I was there, and it was just that – an accident. It could have happened to anyone. However, I still use the train and hope such an incident will not occur again. That is my prayer.
What is your life like outside of work? Do you believe a healthy work-life balance is achievable?
It’s achievable if you don’t have a lot of side attractions. Once I close from work, I go home to unwind, and most of the time, I don’t go out again. I come down and put the TV in front of me, watch as many programs as possible, eat dinner, say my prayers and then go to bed. Sometimes I go to bed as early as 10 pm.
I love travelling, and there are many places to visit, even within Africa. I started visiting countries way back in 1979 when I was in part 3 of the university when I went to Cameron and Congo Kinshasa, and that’s when my travelling experience started. I’ve been to almost all the continents except Australia and Canada. So that’s my travelling experience. I also love to watch football and sometimes documentary series like National Geographic.
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