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 ₦100 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. 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 graduates and pursuing their careers, while the four young ones are pursuing their dreams; three are completing their degrees at different 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 personal business ventures. Mr. President appointed me for this current role in 2020.
Would you say your experience as a banker prepared you sufficiently for your current role as MD of the Bank of Agriculture?
Yes, of course. During my career in the commercial banking sector, my last role was that of an Executive Director at Bank PHB. I was appointed by the CBN when they took over nine banks in 2009. I remained in that position for two years, during which time we successfully rebranded it as Keystone Bank.
Let’s talk about your work. What areas have been the most fulfilling for you?
The issue of recapitalisation and restructuring of the bank has been a major source of happiness for me. Fortunately, 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, 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. It will also meet its customers’ evolving needs. In addition, shareholders can expect increased investment returns and value.
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, recovery is one of my priorities. We set up a task force committee at the head office, and they collaborated with the zonal offices and some key branches on the recovery exercise.
Some of these loans were given 20 to 30 years before the introduction of the BVN system, so their recovery was difficult. Without a BVN, people can move around, and you cannot trace them. What I did was get ten BVN machines from Nigeria Interbank, and then we enrolled all our customers in the system. Once we did that, we could track loan defaulters. We told them to either pay up or risk being reported to the police or CBN for sanctions. They showed up and paid. So gradually, recovery improved because of the BVN we provided for our customers. We also realised some had lost their businesses due to insecurity, flooding, and drought. Those we have just put into what you call classified assets. A committee was formed to realign business outlets. The bank has one hundred and forty locations. When I say locations, they include branches, cash centres, recovery centres, and Bank of Agriculture Rural Business Initiative (BOARBI) centres.
The bank’s shareholders approved in August 2020 to reduce our branch count from 140 to 110 branches nationwide. And that 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 rented those premises, so when the rent expired, we opted out. So far, we have reduced it to 120. We have about ten more to go. We have also conducted a staff audit exercise. It was supposed to show us how many employees 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, stagnation on one grade in terms of promotion, and so many other things? We have done that; 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 given out about ₦2 billion in loans, and we hope to do more soon.
We focus on women and youth this year. We have done five town hall meetings with women in the northwest, northeast, southeast, southwest, and south-south. The last one is scheduled to take place in 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 would love to see the bank fully recapitalised in order to impact the lives of small farmers and be able to finance the entire agricultural value chain activities. I want the bank to be the leading development financial institution in agricultural sector financing. I leave it to fate and life to remember me. I am giving 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 day?
I cannot believe it has been a year since the incident happened. We are already in March 2023; it happened in March 2022. It was a normal day. I travelled to Abuja from Kaduna for a meeting at 11 a.m. on the 28th of March, and after the meeting, we had lunch. Because of this, I couldn’t make the 2 p.m. train back to Kaduna so I decided to take the next train at 6 p.m.
A few minutes before our arrival in Kaduna, we heard a loud bang at the back of the train. The train behaved like it would 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 under attack. The train was switched off, the lights went out, and I and the other passengers began to look for places to hide
What happened next?
We got under the chairs and took cover because of the shooting. People ran up and down from the business class to the economy, and from the economy to the business class. Everyone was looking for cover. After about thirty minutes, we heard people shouting, “Come down, come down.” Some of the kidnappers entered the train and picked us off one by one. It was not selective; it was just those whose faces were visible and showed signs of being awake.
After the shooting, I got tired of squatting and hiding under the chair, so I came out and sat down on the chair. They came and said, “You in white, come”. I followed them. Before we got off the train, they instructed me to empty my pockets. I emptied my pockets and gave them everything I had except for my phone, which was in my trouser pocket.
We came down from the train, and there were a few 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 on the floor. They said we should stay there, and they would tell us what to do. They kept bringing more and more people. You could see their torch lights, and on their phones, you could see a little light.
One of them announced that if anyone was caught with a telephone, he would be in trouble. It was then that I realised my phone was still in my pocket. I brought it out, and I threw it away. As I tossed that phone, I realised one of them was watching. He picked it up and quietly put it in his pocket. They tied our hands behind us and instructed us to walk. We walked for a long time. It was a very long walk, and it was dark. We hit our legs on small plants and shrubs. 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 who drove me was very rude. From the time he picked me up to the time he dropped me off, it was all full of abuse. That’s when I realised that there were other connotations and not just normal banditry. He said that we were not following Islamic teachings; instead, we were practising something called democracy and being ruled by a constitution instead of God’s book. I had to continue answering to ensure he didn’t harm me. Even at night, this guy drove about 60 kilometres on a motorcycle. I had to come close to him to not fall. I could see the speedometer. Occasionally he would switch the lights off and on to avoid being spotted by aircraft. But until we found a place to sleep for the night, there were no aircraft looking for us.
There were so many stories about us being put on a bus. There was no bus. We got there, and we all sat down on the floor. Because it was dark, you couldn’t see the person next to you. When they put on the torchlight, they said we would sleep there on bare ground.
Of course, we were tired and not only tired but very afraid, 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; those ID cards had been 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 replied, “I am the MD.” They asked, “That is the boss?” and I replied, “No, it is the MD of the organization.” They said, “Okay, fine” and then moved on to the next person.
After profiling, they took us to another place across a dried-up stream. We sat down, and they brought garri and groundnuts 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 would 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 wanted to ease yourself, you had to seek permission, and then one of the kidnappers would follow you with a gun there and back. This was done for both men and women. There was no exception. It was scary because somebody could have made a mistake and pulled the trigger.
There was no molestation. From the first day, they told us they were not bandits. They would not molest any woman, and they would not maltreat any child. If we men cooperated, there would be no maltreatment. Even those who were released after me can agree that no woman was molested.
Did they at any time try to communicate with any of you?
At the time, they told us it was not us they were targeting. Two days prior, there was an APC convention. They assumed that most of the politicians would return on the day we were attacked. They were after them. Unfortunately, most of us were just going about our normal day-to-day business. They said they have grudges against Nigeria’s government. The government had arrested their people and locked them up for many months—some of them for years. They wanted them to be released, and they were looking for a way to get this message across to the government.
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 leaders, some of whom were also relatively young or middle-aged, in their early forties. In addition to being Boko Haram offshoots, their actions were motivated by the arrest of their people. They planned to swap us, who were kidnapped, for their comrades, 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. Which is correct?
I think both stories are true because they wanted somebody to come and talk to the government. They wanted somebody to tell people that there were still sixty-something people in their captivity and it was also during Ramadan (the fasting period). A ransom was also paid for my release.
Because I hadn’t shaved for 7 or 8 days, my white beard came out, and I looked very old. I am a young, old man, but they pitied me for that.
At what point did your release come up?
They called us individually and asked us to call a loved one to tell them this was where we were. I told them that I did not have any numbers I knew by heart; all the numbers were on my phone, and my phone had fallen down. One of them asked, “Your phone did not fall down. You threw it on the ground, and I picked it up. Is this not your phone?” I confirmed that it was. They said, “Get the number you want to call.”
When I picked up the phone, I dialled my executive assistant, Yusuf Tafida. I said, “Mallam Yusuf,” and he replied, “Yes?” I continued, “It’s Alhaji Alwan Ali Hassan. I’m fine, but we are in a forest and we 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 walked there and sat down, and then their leader came. He was from the northeastern part of Nigeria (Borno State). He told us to contact our government to tell them where we were. He also told us that they would not release us until their people were released. Wow! That was when I realized we were in for a big challenge. How would we tell our government?
Eventually, they informed me I would have to pay a ransom of ₦200 million to be released. I told them I did not have that amount of money. They replied that my people would take care of it. I told them my people could not pay as I was the breadwinner. How would they pay? One of them said, “Look, we are tired of arguing with you; you are paying ₦100 million.”
They kept telling us they were talking to our people. On Tuesday, eight days after we were kidnapped, they came in the evening and confirmed that I was returning home the next day. They also confirmed that my people cooperated with them. I didn’t know what that meant, so I said thank you. They gave me a sachet of Klin detergent and instructed me to wash myself and my clothes, which I did. At night, their leader came and called me to one side. He preached to me and said, “When you leave, we want you to go and tell the government to release our people.” He said they would know whether I had done it or not, as they had people on the outside. He added, “Tell them they should do what we want.”.
The next day, Wednesday, April 6th, they drove me out on a motorbike. We were on that bike for almost three hours. I knew we were very far from Kaduna, perhaps in Niger State. This is because I saw a high-tension national grid, so I knew we were close to Shororo or thereabouts. I was brought to Kaduna State, not far from Gwagwada. My nephew and my EA picked me up.
How did you feel leaving there unharmed?
It was an experience that I wouldn’t want anybody to have. But it strengthened me because I realised I could live for nine days without food. All I need is water. Also, I can survive with just one set of clothes on my body. Perhaps the other most important thing I would need is 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 have not forgotten it. I am now more alert to my situation, which has made me realise that whatever God has ordained will happen to me. I cannot escape it.
I often tell people to be careful when using the night train, and I found myself on it.
I kept saying to people that my luck was that I was prayerful throughout the duration and very calm; I didn’t get distracted. I knew the condition I found myself in. My exit would not be achieved by force; it would not be achieved by anything else. Only God could bring me out, and God did that.
Mentally, I am fine. I’ve been to the hospital and done all the checkups; physically, I am okay.
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 of Kano or Abuja. I was taken to Kaduna. It was from Kaduna that I left for Kano, and from there left for the 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, 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 never occurs 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 many side attractions. Once I get off work, I go home to unwind, and most of the time, I don’t go out again. I watch as many programs as possible on TV, eat dinner, say my prayers, and then head to bed. Sometimes I am in bed as early as 10 p.m.
I love travelling, and there are many places to explore, even within Africa. I started visiting other countries in 1979. When I was in year 3 of university, I visited Cameron and Kinshasa in the Congo; that’s when my travelling experience started. I’ve been to almost all continents except Australia and Canada. I also love watching football and documentary series like National Geographic.