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Nigeria's naira shortage: Anger and chaos outside banks

People in Nigeria have taken to sleeping outside banks. They want to be among the first in line to get notes from the cash machine once it is loaded up in the morning.

Simi Jolaoso – BBC News, Lagos

People in Nigeria have taken to sleeping outside banks. They want to be among the first in line to get notes from the cash machine once it is loaded up in the morning.

A lack of newly designed naira notes has led to a cash shortage and a growing sense of anxiety among those desperate to get hold of their money in a country where 40% of the population don’t have bank accounts.

The Supreme Court has even become involved and has ordered that the deadline to hand in old notes be extended but this has made little difference.

People here have long been used to the periodic bouts of fuel shortages leading to long lines of cars snaking from the petrol stations. But now long lines of frustrated, confused and angry people have become a common sight outside banks as the country builds up to a presidential election at the end of the month.

“I have not eaten today,” says Abraham Osundiran, 36, as he stands in one of two queues at a bank in Ikoyi, a district in the country’s main commercial hub, Lagos.

He has had to miss work at a construction company for a second day because he does not have the cash to pay the taxi fare. Some Nigerians have embraced digital payments, but many still rely heavily on cash.

“I don’t have any cash. I’ve had to skip breakfast so I could come here, and I don’t know what I will eat for the rest of the day.”

It is a similar situation for many others.

Woman standing in front of hair salon
Lilian Ineh has noticed that fewer people are coming to her salon

“It’s painful. I can’t go to the market, because they want cash. Buses want cash – now I have to trek everywhere,” hairdresser Lilian Ineh, 26, tells the BBC from her salon.

“There’s no money to buy stock, so I have less products to sell. There are even less customers. Usually on a Saturday I have a minimum of five.”

Last Saturday, she only had two.

Nigerians were told last October that the old notes were being replaced with new notes and they were encouraged to deposit any cash savings in the bank.

“They made us put all our money into our accounts, and now we can’t access it. It’s unbearable,” says Osarenoma Kolawole, 40. She works in telesales, but has not been able to access her salary since getting paid last week.

“The last time I went to the shops, I had to buy eggs instead of fish – that really hurt me – not the food, but having to buy what I didn’t want to, just because the banks won’t let me get my money.”

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) said it redesigned the higher denomination notes – 200, 500 and 1,000 naira – to replace the dirty cash in circulation, to tackle inflation, curb counterfeiting and promote a cashless society.

It hoped the redesign would bring some of the money being hoarded by individuals and companies back into the financial system.

People queue to withdraw cash from an automated teller machine (ATM) at a bank, ahead of presidential elections, in Zamfara, Nigeria February 8
Queues have been seen across the country including in Zamfara state in the north

The reform has created something like a cashless society – but not in the way the CBN had planned.

People have been finding it difficult to make online payments and transfers. Analysts say the infrastructure to support a digital system is not robust enough.

“The whole idea was to limit how much cash people have access to, in order to encourage them to make digital payments, so they [CBN] can monitor where money goes,” says Paul Alaje, a senior economist at management consultants SPM Professionals.

“But Nigerian banks don’t have the capacity or structure to make digital payments work seamlessly.”

The CBN has not said whether the shortages are deliberate.

“The government has been trying to move the country into a cashless economy for ages,” argues policy analyst and economist Dr Yemi Makinde.

“Its intention is good, but it is just not feasible, the banking systems were not ready and Nigeria is just used to cash.”

When announcing the redesign, the CBN said the new notes would begin circulating from 15 December and the old notes would cease to be legal tender at the end of January.

The bank then extended the deadline to last Friday. But the Supreme Court stepped in and suspended this deadline but the queues outside banks remain.

“The only way this judgment would work is to release old notes back into system to meet the shortage [but] doing that will only take us back to square one,” says economist Mr Alaje.

Accusations of hoarding

Many have also blamed individual bank branches.

Firstly, they were still giving out the old notes rather than new ones, even up to the week of the initial deadline, thereby keeping them in circulation.

Secondly, agents from the country’s anti-fraud body, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, raided some bank branches and arrested managers who were accused of hoarding the new notes in vaults rather than putting them in cash machines and giving them to customers.

“The banks are not doing a good job distributing the money. Bank managers have been keeping a lot of the money aside for people with connections and for the rich, misusing the central bank’s policy,” Dr Makinde says.

As a consequence, the lack of new naira notes has hit those who primarily deal with cash day-to-day, like market sellers and hawkers.

Market woman
Plantain seller Iya Ruka says her customers do not have cash so she has to go to the bank herself

Iya Ruka, 52, sells plantains at a market in Ojodu Berger, Lagos. She has had to adapt by accepting bank transfers – but this has not helped her when she needs money.

“All my customers are saying they don’t have cash, they will pay using a bank transfer, but I go to the bank and there’s no cash for me to collect. So what do I do?”

Further down the street, Kingsley, who only gave his first name, sells mobile phone accessories.

The 27-year-old told me he has hardly sold anything in the last few days.

“People only pay [by] transfer. If I want to get home, I need to go to a Point of Sale (POS) to get money and they charge a lot now.”

POS vendors are individuals standing at street corners who have a card machine and can make transfers for people, but often charge a commission.

They have been accused of fleecing ordinary people by charging extortionate amounts for cash withdrawals.

‘Things will get better’

One vendor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, defended the need to charge extra.

“I queued for an entire day at a bank to get new notes and old notes. That’s why they must pay, because we queue,” says the 25-year-old, who runs a kiosk in Lekki.

She adds that she is not sure how much longer she will be able to keep up the business, as the banks run dry.

“Some customers can get angry and nearly violent – I just avoid looking up at them. They forget I’m suffering as well, like now, I have to trek for an hour home, and I have only been eating garri [cassava flakes].”

CBN Governor Godwin Emefiele has said he has taken steps to get more of the new notes into the system with the aim of easing the situation.

The chaos has become a major election issue with calls for President Muhammadu Buhari to take action to avoid losing votes for the ruling All Progressives Congress.

Despite the crisis, there are a few people, especially those who managed to plan well ahead, who have not felt the crunch just yet.

Ruth Okeke, 35, runs a convenience shop in Omole. She says even though her number of customers has dropped, she is not worried.

“I know things will get better. The bankers are the ones making money from all this panic, but there will be new notes soon, everybody should relax.”

Yahoo News

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