A Cashless Policy Of Tears And Blood, By Kazeem Akintunde

Kazeem Akintunde

The irrepressible Spokesperson of the Northern Elders’ Forum, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed, in a Twitter post on his verified Twitter handle, gave a new definition of the Cashless policy now being vigorously implemented by the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN. He defines a Cashless Society to mean: ‘A State where no one has money for anything.’

He may be making a jest at the Nigerian government when he came up with the definition, but that has been the sad reality for many Nigerians in the last few days. Nigerians, being law-abiding citizens, took all the currency notes at their disposal to banks as the January 31st deadline set by the CBN when the old notes would seize to be legal tender in the country, hoping to get new notes and move on with their daily struggles. But to our consternation, Nigerians soon discovered that the newly printed mint notes were not available in most banks, causing a quagmire with the scarcity of new notes while market men and women were no longer accepting the old.

With the new naira notes as scarce commodity being pursued by many Nigerians, times have turned from worse to hellish for most with banks claiming non-availability of the new notes while the CBN is insisting that enough of the new notes have been sent to the banks. In other words, between the vault of the CBN and the commercial banks, the new naira notes have developed legs or wings and simply disappeared. Are we not in a funny country?

A video went viral last week where a married woman stripped herself half-naked inside a banking hall out of frustration. Her grouse was that she had deposited all her old notes in the bank and the bank was not forthcoming with new notes. After several visits to the Bank without any tangible result, she stripped down to her undergarments, asking the bank to close her account and give her all her money; an action that attracted the attention of the Branch Manager of the Bank. Whether the stunt was able to cough out some funds for the desperate woman was not captured in the video as she was quickly led away to the bank Manager’s office.

She was not the only one frustrated by the incompetence of those at the helm of affairs in the country. What Nigerians have been subjected to in the last few days is enough to bring down a government in other saner climes.

There is tension everywhere. A police station was torched in Ibadan, Oyo State last week as miscreants took to the streets in protest over the development. If care is not taken, we hope the anger will not spread to other parts of the country. President Muhammadu Buhari, on Friday, asked for seven more days to tackle the new naira scarcity. I doubt if hungry Nigerians have the luxury of time to grant their leader another seven days of hunger, want and agony.

A close friend was in her bank to withdraw some cash last week, only to be told that there was no cash. It was when she approached the Bank Manager alongside two other desperate customers that she got a reprieve. They were told to simply share six thousand naira that a customer came to deposit. She was lucky to get two thousand naira out of what the manager said was what he could provide. Yet, my friend has over a million naira in her account.

A first-generation bank close to my house starts receiving customers now from as early as 6 a.m. By the time it is 8 a.m. when the bank is expected to open for business, there will be over 500 customers by the gate. All four ATM machines at the bank have not been working, and there is a standing instruction from the CBN that payment across the counter is prohibited. Again, fund transfer has become a herculean task as customers are told that there is no network. After several shows and reports of anger and frustration clearly shown by the disposition of customers, the CBN relaxed its rule and allowed banks to give N20, 000 only across the counter per customer. Even at that, many of those banks have the cash to give out. How can the CBN mop up over N1.7 trillion from the system and print only N300 billion new notes? How?

Indeed, many Nigerians are not smiling. There is no electricity, as power supply to most homes in different parts of the country has dropped. There is no fuel in most parts of the country, as marketers and NNPC are playing hide and seek over the issue with Nigerians. Despite the fact that N3.6 trillion was set aside for fuel subsidy in this year’s budget, petrol is now being sold for between N320 and N500 in most filling stations across the country. In some major retail outlets selling the commodity between N180 and N210, the queue is enough to drive one to the bend. However, the fuel crisis in Abuja suddenly disappeared during the week as most filing stations got the commodity and are selling at the official pump price of between N185 and N195. The magic that was performed in Abuja needs to be replicated in other parts of the country, as it appears to be a clear case of sabotage and greed!

The whole crisis in the country, to many political observers, is surrounding this month’s presidential election and the desperate attempts by some forces to stop a particular candidate from emerging as the next President. It is a fight between two elephants and definitely, the grass in such an arena must suffer. This is the suffering many Nigerians are going through now. No one would have imagined that the CBN’s policy of Naira redesign would come with so much pain, tears and sorrow to the extent that two fully grown angered men could fight over a little misunderstanding in a banking hall to the extent of inflicting bodily harm on each other. In Delta state, a bank customer, after several hours on the queue, slumped and gave up the ghost, leaving his family and loved ones who depend on him to mourn on top of the difficult situation we currently find ourselves.

The tension in the land is so palpable that one can cut it with a knife. As rightly stated in Abeokuta during a political rally, the fuel scarcity, and now the scarcity of the Naira was allegedly orchestrated by those in power to stop Asiwaju Bola Tinubu from emerging as President come May 29. The man himself made the pronouncement recently at a rally. Make no mistake about it, I am not a fan of the former Governor of Lagos state, but to deliberately create problems for millions of Nigerians all in a bid to stop one man from emerging as President is the height of wickedness. The question people are asking is who could be responsible?

The deputy director, banking supervision department, CBN Lagos, Kayode Makinde, alluded to sabotage last Tuesday while monitoring the distribution of the new Naira notes. He pointedly poked fingers at the faces of the commercial banks for sabotaging the efforts of the CBN in making the new naira notes unavailable to Nigerians. Hear him: “This is the third week of ensuring strict implementation of our directive as regards the issuance of new notes. We have banks, agents and super agents circulate new notes in the economy. The experience has been mixed, we saw some trying to hoard new notes, we compelled them to upload into ATM terminals, and others had poor cash management. From our experience, CBN should not be blamed, but commercial banks for the scarcity. We caught some of them with new notes in their vaults, and we compelled them to upload them to their machines. We told them that instead of trying to ration, upload the ones they have and contact your central cash Management unit which has direct access to CBN for more.

‘We came across instances of sabotage on the part of the operators, we will take the case up and they will be dealt with appropriately. We have given a directive that they shouldn’t pay out new notes via the counter but other notes, some of them did that and ran out of cash. Some of the branches deployed resourceful cash management skills and they never ran out of cash while others experience cash run out and are still waiting for their source. We came across one of them that couldn’t account for almost four million naira of new notes and appropriate sanction will be placed on them.’

As expected, many Nigerians hold the commercial banks responsible for the crisis in the management of the new notes. Agreed that there could be a shortfall in what was released by the CBN, it shouldn’t have to be this bad. How did the new notes get to currency hawkers trading it for gains? How did it get to those hawking it at social events? The terrorist with bales of new Naira notes in the bushes, who took it there? Where are the POS operators getting the naira on which they now charge as high as 15 per cent commission instead of the approved 1 per cent? Many of the operators however, said that they had to use the “black market” to get both the old and new notes from “unexpected quarters”, hence their resolve to charge a lot of money from people who were desperate to withdraw cash from them. 

Some POS operators now charge as much as N1, 000 or N2,000 to release N10, 000 to users. This should not be so. They were brought into the system to aid it in both rural and semi-urban areas, but they now constitute an issue and need to have their activities regulated.

The total number of POS machines deployed by merchants and individuals across Nigeria is about 1.6 million as at November 2022, according to the data released by the Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System (NIBSS).

Aside that, there are approximately 17 automated teller machines, 147 point-of-sale devices and four bank branches for every 100,000 Nigerians, according to a new report by McKinsey. But poor network and internet access has rendered mobile banking and other channels unattractive to many. Most of these facilities, which were meant to facilitate a gradual transition to a cashless economy in Nigeria were somehow strangulated to the extent that they could not offer the needed services. This has, again, brought to the fore, the argument that Nigerians may not be ripe for a full cashless society as has been canvassed by the CBN. We do not have the resources nor the structure in place yet. Ordinary transfer of funds becomes an issue as the network becomes problematic.

Most market women who heeded the CBN’s call to get PoS machines for their operations started complaining that they are losing money due to erratic network, as many customers are not with cash. Imagine buying a pack of sugar for N500 and you have to wait for over one hour just to ensure that the seller gets their money through fund transfer.

Most Nigerians are not comfortable with what is going on in the country. Many are hungry and angry. The CBN and the federal government must design a way of getting cash, whether new or old, into the hands of Nigerians before things get out of hand. We are not at war and there is no reason why people will have money in their bank accounts but cannot access their funds. Emefiele and his officials in the CBN and the federal government must find a way of urgently dousing the tension in the land. God help us all, and heal our land.

See you next week.