‘Their Weapon Is Your Shame’: Toxic Abuse From Nigeria’s Loan Sharks

Loan companies in Nigeria not only send threatening messages but also use customers’ social media contacts to harass them. Photograph: Ojuolape Agbaje/The Guardian

Shayo Adebayo, 28, an unemployed medical physiology graduate from south-west Nigeria, read from scores of abusive WhatsAapp messages and voice notes sent to her by debt collectors from quick loan companies.

“I will destroy your life,” said one. “I want to see your payment or else all hell will be let loose,” said another. And another, which simply said “enjoy your shame”, arrived after a message calling her a fraud and thief was sent to her family, friends and everyone in her contacts, attached to a photo lifted from her Facebook page.

Adebayo said the messages had been arriving on her phone almost every day since October, driving her to suicidal thoughts.

She is not alone in her anguish. Unemployment, inflation and the cost of living have all risen sharply in recent years in Africa’s largest economy, fuelling a burgeoning quick – or payday – loan industry. Adverts for quick loans have appeared at bus stops and street corners and been broadcast on the radio.

Messages like those sent to Adebayo’s contacts have gone viral on social media, bringing the companies’ attempts to harass and shame people who are struggling with debts into focus.

For months Adebayo had been relying on regular 40,000 naira (£70) loans from a loan company based in Lagos, to pay for transport and food until payday. In October she lost her job and her debt spiralled.

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

“First I was borrowing just to make it to the end of the month,” she said. “Then I was borrowing to pay back the loan, then borrowing more to pay that one and on and on. By the end of it, I had taken loans from so many apps.”

Adebayo said that as she began to struggle to pay off her debts, payment reminders quickly turned into sinister 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, and details of family and friends, where she worked, worshipped and lived.

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

Debt collectors constantly called and sent texts and WhatsApp broadcast messages to her phone contacts. “Their weapon is your shame,” she said. “That’s why they do it. They use that to get to you.”

Calls for the government to clamp down on the companies have grown. Many are accused of operating without registration, and of warning employees against revealing details about their operations, according to former staff.

Some of the loan companies enforce illegal conditions, paying below the minimum wage and incentivising abusive behaviour, according to several former staff.

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

She described the work environment as “toxic”. Olubode said many staff were paid a basic salary below Nigeria’s minimum wage of just 30,000 naira a month, and received bonuses based on debt collection targets. Each collector was incentivised to take extreme measures, she said.

“I remember a colleague of mine called one girl’s dad and told him that his daughter was in the police station and that until the father pays the debt amount, they’re not going to release the girl,” she said.

In typical cases, people were requesting loans for as low as 2,000 naira, she said, often to cover things like food and transport costs and medical bills. The application process, she said, worked “like a trap”, and for many people outstanding debts of as little as 500 naira quickly ran to thousands.

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 thousand people, many in similar or even worse situations. Stories of abuse and harassment are reported daily.

People on the group encourage others to pay back their debts but not to be overwhelmed by the threats. Documents produced by loan company agents purporting to be from police are debunked, and people share messages where they have responded to threats with jokes or taunts.

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

The Facebook group was founded by 32-year-old Willis Osunde, an unemployed economics graduate, after his own ongoing experiences with fast loan companies began.

“When they defamed me, messaging my contacts, I lost almost everything,” Osunde said. “My marriage, my family, my job, all at the same time. It started from 2019, right up until last year … It occurred to me that I may not be alone.” Osunde is still paying back.

In November, Nigerian financial crime and central bank authorities created a “lenders taskforce” to investigate the rise of loan sharks, with regulators becoming increasingly active at pursuing companies accused of harassment and abuse. Victims of illegal practices have been encouraged to contact the taskforce, though many in the Facebook group felt more urgent action was needed.

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