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Twenty-four hours after the Central Bank of Nigeria directed deposit money banks to start giving the redesigned naira notes to customers, partygoers, high net worth customers and currency traffickers are mopping up the new notes from the banks even as the notes are being rationed to the majority of customers.

Saturday PUNCH gathered on Friday that despite the official position of the banks that the new notes were not available in huge volumes, some categories of influential customers had infiltrated the banks and were being given new notes far above the limits set by the lenders.

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One of our correspondents, who visited a branch of a new generation bank in the Abule Egba area of Lagos State on Friday, was told that the new notes were no longer available as what was allocated to the branch had been exhausted before 10am.

A senior official of the bank, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “We received about N1.5m in N1,000 notes on Wednesday from our head office. We gave out about N250,000 on Thursday when the redesigned naira notes officially hit the market as a lot of customers were hesitant to collect them.

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“However, by this morning (Friday), the request for the new notes across the counter had surged. What we noticed was that some high net worth customers requested far above the limit we set per customer, which was N10,000. Some of them requested between N100,000 and N200,000 and they are customers we can’t ignore their requests.”

A branch manager of a tier-1 bank on Lagos Island told Saturday PUNCH, “The latest instruction from our head office is that we should not give more than N50,000 per customer and we are giving out the new notes. It is against the CBN rule to keep cash in our vaults. Initially, the limit per customer was set at N2,000 and it was later increased to N10,000 and has been increased to N50,000.

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“However, some high net worth customers have been calling to ask for higher amounts of up to N300,000. You have to manage a customer whose account balance is up to N5bn. We use our discretion in such circumstances.”

One of our correspondents, who tried to make a withdrawal from an Automated Teller Machine at the Ojodu Berger area of Lagos on Friday, observed that the five paying points dispensed old naira notes and when he went inside the banking hall and insisted on having the new notes across the counter, he was told that the maximum he could have was N5,000.

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The teller told him in confidence that currency traffickers, who usually sell freshly minted naira notes at partygoers to spray on organisers, were conniving with bank tellers and their managers to mop up the new naira notes.

A teller, who gave his name simply as Ambrose, said, “The currency hawkers, who made it difficult before now for regular customers to get clean notes, popularly called ‘mint’, from the banks, have found a way to mop up the redesigned naira notes released to the banks just on Thursday.

“Our ogas (bosses) are in partnership with the currency hawkers and we tellers dare not go against them as our continued stay on the job depends largely on them. One of the hawkers, who I am friendly with, told me that she wanted to cash in on Nigerians’ eagerness for the new notes to make profits before the daily withdrawal limits set by the CBN begins at the end of January.”

A currency hawker, Modinat Azeez, told one of our correspondents that there were many social engagements planned for the weekend and it would make good business sense to go to the venues with the new notes.

“You know that Nigerians love to show off. Even though the existing naira notes and the redesigned ones have the same values, many partygoers will like to make a statement by ‘spraying’ the new notes at parties. It will be like ‘spraying’ dollar notes; so, I am prepared to offer a premium to get the new notes from the banks as I know that I will make my money back,” she said.

Abuja bank customers

There was no improvement in the dispensing of the new naira notes to customers in the Federal Capital Territory on Friday.

Our correspondents, who visited several banking halls and ATM stands in the city of Abuja on Friday, observed that the cash machines were not dispensing the new naira notes.

Visits to the branches of leading banks and ATM points showed that the institutions were grappling with network issues.

The banks visited include Stanbic IBTC, Zenith, United Bank for Africa Bank and First Bank situated at Sauka, Airport Road and Kuje.

Saturday PUNCH also visited Guaranty Trust Bank, Stanbic IBTC, UBA, Zenith Bank and Polaris Bank branches located at the Central Business District.

At Stanbic IBTC in Sauka, customers grumbled over network failure and the slow pace of cash withdrawals, which one of our correspondents later found to be old notes.

An official of the bank, who did not disclose his name, said limited quantum of new N1,000 notes was given to the branch hence its scarcity

“You can’t get the new notes; we have only the N1,000 note and it is not much. We don’t even have other denominations,” he explained.

The same reason was given at Zenith Bank in Sauka as the official on duty said, “We got limited allocation of the new naira notes and they have been disbursed; you can check on Monday, it may be available.”

Officials also lamented the limited allocation of the new notes at First Bank and UBA on Airport and Tipper garage junction, Kuje.

They, however, expressed hope that the issue would be resolved soon.

At the GTB branch in Area 11, the ATMs dispensed the old naira notes.

One of our correspondents, who monitored activities in the banking hall, observed cashiers paying customers with old naira notes across the counter.

A customer, who preferred to be addressed simply as Onyinye, said she was at the bank just to get the new notes, noting however that they were not available.

Similarly, Stanbic IBTC Area 11 branch dispensed old notes from its ATM.

At UBA Central Area, it was observed that the ATM dispensed only old naira notes.

A customer service representative, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said N2,000 new notes in N1,000 denomination were being added to every withdrawal over the counter.

At Zenith Bank, Central Area branch, an official told Saturday PUNCH that customers could withdraw N5,000 in N1,000 denomination of the new naira notes across the counter, even though the ATMs were still dispensing old notes.

At Polaris Bank, Central Area branch, a cashier told one of our correspondents that the bank was giving 10 per cent for every withdrawal made in N1,000 denomination, adding that the branch only started dispensing the new naira notes on Friday.

“If you want the new naira notes, you will fill the withdrawal slip and you will be given 10 per cent of your total withdrawal in N1,000 notes.  If you withdraw N100,000, you will be given N10,000 in new notes,” she said.

Bankers, CBN react

A senior official at the corporate headquarters of a tier-1 bank in Lagos said the limited volume of new naira notes currently in circulation had more to do with the restrictions put in place by the CBN, adding, “The central bank does not want much money in circulation. To bridge this gap is to manage what we have and to ensure that what is in circulation is not as much as what is being given out.”

A corporate affairs executive in a tier-2 bank stated, “The reason for the scarcity is that banks don’t want to give so much of the new notes to particular customers. The money will continue to flow as the CBN prints more and makes them available. The new notes are in circulation. The demand far outweighs the supply, but they will go around before January 31.

“Those who want to collect N1m or more, for example, will be given some in new notes and a mixture of the old notes. From Monday, more of the new notes should be available; as the CBN prints more, they will be circulated.

“Except in some special cases and money in ATMs, banks remit the remaining cash in their vaults to the CBN daily; they can’t afford to keep the new notes and not give to customers as they will be penalised.

“It is not impossible to grant the request of high net worth customers who request large amounts of the coloured notes. Nigerians will want to spend the new notes at parties during the weekend.”

Another senior banker said, “The new notes are not yet circulating well as there are more of the old notes in circulation. Even ATMs have not yet been configured to dispense the new notes, but by next week, there should be more of the new notes in circulation.

“For those who already got the new notes with the intention of spraying them at parties, it should not be so. The money is not yet fully in circulation. Those that sell money to partygoers are trying to do this so that they can make money before the deadline for the withdrawal limit starts.

High net worth individuals are also given priority in the disbursement of the new notes. It is a deliberate attempt by the CBN not to release more of the notes and this is what we will get at the end of the day when the withdrawal limit begins.”

When contacted by one of our correspondents, the Director of Corporate Communications, CBN, Mr Osita Nwanisobi, said the release of the new notes to banks was ongoing, noting that the process was still at the initial phase.

“The programme has just started and it is ongoing. Distribution is also ongoing. Thank you,” he simply said.

PoS operators kick

Meanwhile, some Point of Sale operators across the country under the aegis of the Association of Mobile Money and Bank Agents of Nigeria have appealed to the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), to prevail on the CBN to review the current threshold for maximum daily cash withdrawal upward.

The new policy by the CBN fixes weekly cash withdrawals for individuals at N100,000 and corporate bodies at N500,000.

The PoS operators in a petition dated December 16, 2022, called for the suspension of the policy to save 1.4 million bank agents from losing their means of livelihood.

The National President of AMMBAN, Mr Victor Olojo, who addressed journalists in Abuja on Friday, said over 1.4 million persons would lose their jobs if the policy was not suspended or reviewed.

The group requested an upward review of the maximum withdrawal limit to N500,000 weekly for individuals and N3m for corporate organisations.

It added that the series of engagements with critical stakeholders would continue.

Olojo said, “AMMBAN believes the cashless policy in its current state hasn’t provided for mobile money and bank agents in Nigeria adequately.

“The CBN governor made reference to the fact that mobile money and bank agents are spread across the country and it is one of the reasons why he strongly feels the country is ready for the cashless policy; the document puts the jobs of over 1.4 million agents on the line in its present state.

“This and many other germane reasons informed the decisions of the association to engage the CBN, the National Assembly and other relevant stakeholders.

“This is to ensure that while we show support for the cashless policy of the government through the CBN, the policy should recognise the categorisation of agents’ accounts as it does individuals and corporate entities.”

The group said it had interacted with the Chairman, Senate Committee on Banking, Insurance and Other Financial Institutions, Senator Uba Sani, and his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Victor Nwokolo, on the matter.

Olojo added, “They were all in agreement that owing to the high relevance of mobile money and bank agents have in the successful implementation of the cashless policy, there has to be categorisation of the accounts to be able to serve the Nigeria people, especially in areas where there are no banks or basic infrastructure, to enhance the usage of alternative channels of transaction.

“It is worthy of note that AMMBAN and her members have always been at the forefront since the inception of the financial inclusion drive in ensuring the achievements of the set goals.

“It is strongly believed that no success story can be pointed to without the selfless efforts of agents, who against all odds, go to the creeks and hinterland in the drive to deepen the financial inclusion goals as set by the CBN.”

ACF faults implementation

The pan-Northern socio-political organisation, Arewa Consultative Forum, has thrown its weight behind the CBN policy of cashless banking and new limits on cash withdrawal in the country.

According to the umbrella body of the North, a cash-based economy remains notoriously costly, inefficient and prone to attacks by evil people.

“A huge amount of time and money is needed to print the currency and a lot more still to steer it through the system. The currency notes themselves have a shelf life after which they have to be replaced. Cash is the lifeblood of the underworld: difficult to trace and quite convenient for terrorists, money launderers, smugglers and vote-buyers,” the ACF said.

 This was contained in a statement by the group’s Secretary General, Malam Murtala Aliyu, which was made available to journalists in Kaduna on Friday.

The statement titled, ‘CBN’s Risky Plan Let’s be clear,’ said the decision of the apex bank to begin the long-anticipated cashless payment regime effective from January 2023, was well-intentioned.

However, the ACF faulted the CBN over its implementations as it made a case for villagers, especially in the North, which it noted the policy would gravely impact.

The forum noted that CBN officials might have the best of intentions in contemplating the policy, but evidently “failed to consider the unintended consequences of implementing it in the way they have planned; consequences that may be extremely grave.”

According to the ACF, until the CBN is able to address some of the challenges substantially, a pre-emptive move into a cashless payment system, however well-intentioned, will only land the country in a bottomless pit.

The forum also knocked the CBN on the “unrealistic policy” of restricting individual cash withdrawals from the banks to N20,000 per day and N100,000 per week and N500,000 in the case of corporate bodies.

The statement added, “The decision of the Central Bank of Nigeria to kick-start the long-anticipated cashless payment regime in Nigeria with effect from January 2023 is well justified, perhaps even well-intentioned. Cash-based economies are notoriously costly, inefficient and prone to attacks by evil people.

“So, yes, the less cash available for all these criminals as the CBN is trying to achieve, the better for law-abiding citizens. That said, we do need to remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. CBN officials may have the best of intentions while contemplating this policy, but evidently failed to consider the unintended consequences of implementing it in the way they have planned; consequences that may be extremely grave.

“If the CBN insists on implementing this wholly unrealistic policy of restricting individual’s cash withdrawal from the banks to N20,000 per day and N100,000 for a week or N500,000 in the case of corporate bodies, it won’t be long before we suffer a catastrophic collapse of the informal sector of the economy. More than anyone, the CBN knows that transactions in commodity markets, especially in rural areas, are entirely cash-based.

“The villager that brings to the market his chickens, beans, onions, goat or cows does not typically have a bank account or Internet skills. Cash remains the overwhelming medium of exchange for much of the country, particularly in the North. This should surprise no one as bank offices are largely unavailable even for people who are keen and have the skills to use them.

“Even by the CBN’s reports, over 38 million adults in Nigeria do not currently have access to banking services with women, rural dwellers, micro-small and medium-sized enterprises and northern Nigeria being among the most disproportionately excluded.

“And despite its pious pretensions, it is on record that the CBN, under the present management, apparently out of desire to safeguard the interests of the commercial banks, has done much to undermine and stifle the progress of financial inclusion in Nigeria.

“Thanks to the decisions taken by the CBN, Nigeria, today, despite its size, has the dubious record of having the lowest financial penetration in all of Africa, perhaps in the world.

“Under the circumstances, the CBN will do itself and the country a world of good if it invests more efforts at addressing these challenges. It should start by ensuring that various financial institutions are created in sufficient numbers and in all parts of the country.”

The ACF added,  “It should allow a level playing field for a wide range of financial providers and encourage partnerships between them. Furthermore, the CBN must enforce strict regulations that protect people’s money. It must inform, encourage and prepare the public adequately for the transition.

“Until the CBN is able to address these challenges substantially, a pre-emptive move or a frog-jump into a cashless payment system, however well-intentioned, will only land us in a bottomless pit.”

Economists laud CBN

Meanwhile, some economic experts have hailed the new cash withdrawal limit set by the CBN, saying it will control the amount of money in circulation and tackle inflation.

An economist, Olalekan Fadiya, believes that the cash withdrawal limit is to combat issues that the country has been grappling with for several years.

He said, “It’s a way to control the supply of money in circulation in the country. We have too much of a mismatch between what the CBN says is in circulation and what is actually in circulation due to the deliberate effort of some people to stash money in septic tanks and whatever they’re using to keep the money.

“This policy is a good one to curb this menace. We have also been faced with money laundering in Nigeria because it’s very difficult to track cash transactions unlike online transactions that can be easily tracked by the regulator. As such, this policy has come to reduce the risk of money laundering in the country.

“Look at the volume of kidnapping cases. This policy will make it nearly impossible to engage in huge cash transactions with criminals and also make everyone go digital in terms of transactions. Moreover, many unbanked citizens will start to be banked through financial inclusivity.”

Another economist, Deborah Oluwagbenga, stated that Nigerians should help the CBN by embracing a cashless policy, which she noted would not only lead to a better economy, but also allow things to become better.

She said, “Many people have complained of how much inflation has affected the country, which has caused untold hardship and made the cost of living increase. The new naira, however, will tackle the greater part of these challenges and make life easier for Nigerians.

“The government’s policy will be more effective when Nigerians also accept the changes with open arms.”

She stated that it would take time before people would begin to accept the new notes, adding, “We have a duty to continue enlightening everyone. Just today, I heard that a commercial motorcyclist refused to collect the new note because he was unsure if it was genuine. This means that continued sensitisation is needed to make it easier for members of the public.”

Punch


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