Sunday, 4th June 2023

NLC reconsiders strike as CBN opens vault to banks

By Geoff Iyatse, Gloria Nwafor, Michael Akinadewo (Lagos), Lawrence Njoku (Enugu) Collins Olayinka, Joseph Chibueze (Abuja), Ann Godwin (Port Harcourt) and Murtala Adewale (Kano)
27 March 2023   |   4:27 am
From Lagos to Enugu and Kano to Port Harcourt, there seems to be a breather, at last, for cash-strapped Nigerians, as part of the hitherto withheld banknotes made their way to Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) and banking halls for those who need cash for transactions.

Crowd thining out as ATMs dispense both old and new naira notes in Lagos…yesterday. PHOTO: AYODELE ADENIRAN

• NEC meets tomorrow to review plans, strategies
• We may call off strike if Nigerians have access to their monies, says Ajaero
• Strike’ll drag economy into deeper hole, says NECA
• Cash scarcity eases as queues disappear gradually from Lagos, Abuja ATMs
• Restrict over-the-counter withdrawal to N10, 000, N20, 000

From Lagos to Enugu and Kano to Port Harcourt, there seems to be a breather, at last, for cash-strapped Nigerians, as part of the hitherto withheld banknotes made their way to Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) and banking halls for those who need cash for transactions.

The gradual easing could force the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC), which had planned an industrial action on Wednesday to protest the naira scarcity, to retreat.

The National Executive Council (NEC) of the Congress will be meeting on Tuesday to reassess and review cash availability across the nation and finalise its strategies. President of the NLC, Joe Ajaero, disclosed this to The Guardian, yesterday.

Ajaero said the NEC of the NLC would meet tomorrow to review the situation and compliance by banks to alleviate the sufferings Nigerians are currently going through over the naira scarcity.

He said that if the compliance level across the country is high to the extent that Nigerians can easily access their money, the NLC might suspend the nationwide strike.

A source privy to a meeting between NLC and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) explained that the apex bank said it had disbursed N20 billion to banks nationwide, adding that banks in Lagos got N4 billion, while Abuja branches received N2 billion.

The source said CBN promised to continue disbursing more money to the banks to address the scarcity caused by its naira redesign policy.

“We are not going to rely on what they told us that they are pushing; we all go to banks. The Director of Operations of CBN came to meet with us. They said that based on our complaints and ultimatum, they have redoubled efforts. We told them they needed to redouble their efforts to stave off our action. If they pump money consistently, then there would be no need for our actions. The Ministry of Labour will also meet with us on Monday,” the source said.

MEANWHILE, the Director-General of the Nigeria Employers’ Consultative Association (NECA), Adewale-Smatt Oyerinde, said the planned strike by the NLC could further drag the economy into a deeper hole, leading to rapid business closures, job losses and other socio-economic challenges.

In a statement, Oyerinde, said while NECA affirmed emphatically its displeasure with government’s slow response in resolving the self-inflicted quagmire, the planned strike, at this time, could be counter-productive.

“It is without a doubt that the cash crunch has affected businesses, individuals and households terribly. Economic experts and analysts have stated that the loss in economic terms could be over N20 trillion as a result of loss of productive hours in bank halls and petrol stations, shut-down of businesses due to low patronage, the inability of employees to transit to work, challenges faced by households in meeting basic needs and the general distortion in the general supply chain,” he said.

Amid the crisis, the Supreme Court ruled on a suit filed by states, extending the validity of the hitherto phased-out old N500 and N1,000 banknotes to December 31, 2023.

Enforcement of the judgment delivered early this month suffered partial implementation with the Presidency, the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation and the CBN waiting to take delivery of the judgment.

Until the weekend, the apex bank had held on to the volume of money (totaling over N2 trillion) mopped from the economy, leaving the banks cash strapped after paying out the residual amount in their vaults.

The currency-in-circulation was N3.23 trillion on the eve of the currency change policy. The amount tumbled by 70 per cent to N 982 billion at the close of February after the old notes were called back without an adequate replacement.

While the challenge lasted, electronic payment faltered, leaving millions of Nigerians, especially rural dwellers, with next to no option for settling their daily transactions.

On the heel of a threat by the organised labour to proceed on a nationwide industrial action on Wednesday in protest of the pains, the policy brought on their members, the monetary authority made a u-turn against last week, directing the banks to collect the old notes at its branches across the country for onward disbursement.

Monitoring by The Guardian showed there was relatively high compliance by the banks, with many branches opened to customers on Saturday and Sunday. ATMs across different cities were also paying, albeit with manageable long queues on Saturday.

However, the queues waned yesterday, even as customers could walk to some ATM points to make withdrawals without having to queue.

In-banking cash withdrawal was also seamless in parts of Lagos and Abuja, yesterday. But unlike the CBN’s position that customers could withdraw as much as N500, 000, a temporary revert to pre-naira redesign cash withdrawal limit decided to quickly increase circulation, most commercial banks continue to disallow withdrawal over N10, 000, an N20, 000 in some cases.

Findings by The Guardian, yesterday, suggested banks imposed the restrictions to stave off excessive cash calls.

Recall that The Guardian had reported the rising concern over possible bank run whenever the cash ‘seizure’ eased. It also reported that some bank chiefs were simulating different scenarios and fine-tuning possible strategies to avert a major challenge.

“If you keep the withdrawal limit open-ended or allow people withdraw N500, 000, you should remember that deposits are not coming into the banks yet. You would rather keep the withdrawal limit low so that you can continue to meet daily needs.

“Until the situation improves drastically, I am not sure any bank will ask customers to withdraw more than N50, 000 per transaction. Besides, high-volume transactions are majorly settled electronically,” a top banker, said.

Agent banking operators who have been profiteering from the challenge may have been caught unaware of the improvement with some of them likely to shed some of the gains of the past two months.

The operators mop cash from filling stations, retail stores and open markets at a premium. They pay as much as 20 per cent to cash holders to get money, which they trade for end-users for as much as 30 to 50 per cent margin, depending on locations. In the past few weeks, Point of Sale (PoS) merchants who registered their terminals for payment settlement purposes have also joined the lush cash trading businesses, leading to the proliferation of unregistered agent banks.

But the weekend cash accessibility improvement may have marked the beginning of the end of the abnormal profits posted by these operators. In Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt, patronage to these agents dropped drastically, forcing many of them to reduce their charges. A few of them admitted that they were giving out cash at a loss.

The Guardian correspondent, who moved around Enugu metropolis on Sunday discovered that though the banks were operating, the rush to access the banking halls had reduced even, as only a few individuals queued at the ATM points.

Although the apex bank had asked commercial banks to open for normal operations, most branches in Enugu closed at noon owing to tension over the attack on a police checkpoint by unknown gunmen, which reportedly claimed the lives of two officers.

In Kano metropolis, commercial banks operating along Murtala Muhammad Road, Bank Road, Bello Road and Zoo Road opened for full transactions at the weekend.

Not all the financial institutions at the main campus of Bayero University opened for business. Those that complied with CBN directives were besieged by customers.

At ATMs, the perennial long queues and their attendant pains are gradually disappearing.

Customers, however, are restricted to the withdraw N20, 000 per day over the counter. Similarly, withdrawal on ATMs was limited to dispense N20, 000 per customer.