ahead of nigerias election a cash shortage causes chaos and suffering

Nigeria’s government changed the currency design before the presidential election, causing shortages and wreaking social havoc.

Fights are breaking out in bank A.T.M. lines where people queue for days, just to withdraw a maximum of around $40. Cash shortages are so severe that many cannot buy food or medicine, despite having money in the bank. Protesters are venting their anger by burning down banks.

A decision by Nigeria’s government to replace its currency with newly designed bills within just four months — with a deadline of Feb. 10 — has thrown Africa’s largest democracy into chaos as it heads toward a presidential election scheduled for this Saturday, Feb. 25.

Most Nigerians turned in their old currency, called the naira, as they were told to do in October by the Central Bank of Nigeria. But when they tried to withdraw the new notes, from banks or even informal money brokers, they were stunned to find that few were available.

The cash crisis is now an enormous and unpredictable factor in an election that was already Nigeria’s most wide-open race in years. The presidential candidates for the two major parties, which have alternated power for over two decades and failed to address widespread poverty and insecurity, are now facing a surprise, third-party challenger.

The government has not made clear what it is trying to accomplish with the currency makeover, offering a gamut of explanations including that it is trying to rein in counterfeiting and cash hoarding. But the effort has been a disaster, and some suspect there may be a political motive behind the mess because of the timing.

Voters are now furious at the governing party over the shortage of bank notes, which could undermine support for the party’s candidate. Protests, if they continue, could disrupt elections in parts of the country. Turnout could be affected as some voters struggle to afford to travel to faraway polling stations.

Blessing Akor, 22, was on the verge of tears as she was jostled and elbowed by dozens of people waiting in line for an A.T.M. in central Abuja. That morning at 4 a.m., she had left her baby daughter with a neighbor she didn’t really trust, and went in search of cash.

The heat was intense, but Ms. Akor had little choice; despite having money in her account, she had no cash for food, water or even the bus fare home. She was incandescent with rage at the government, and said she would not vote for any Nigerian politician.

“We’ve been in hell, serious hell,” she said, watching as a man in military uniform cut to the front of the line. “It’s choking — as if they are pressing my throat.”

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Normally, cash is Ms. Akor’s livelihood. Since Nigeria has few commercial bank branches and A.T.M.s, many people get their cash from professional agents who act as human A.T.M.s., known as P.O.S., or point of service, operators. Ms. Akor is among legions of such operators, who stand on street corners throughout the country with small stocks of cash and mobile card machines, offering cash to cardholders in return for a small fee.

Right now, though, cash is in such short supply that those fees are astronomical.

Prince Chibeze, 37, ducked under a P.O.S. operator’s umbrella in Lagos last week and asked the price for withdrawing 5,000 naira. A construction worker who earns around 9,000 naira daily, he had spent hours searching for cash to send home to his parents, who were running out of food. But every P.O.S. operator was demanding 30 percent — 1,500 naira — a huge jump from the usual fee of 100 naira.

Initially, Godwin Emefiele, the Central Bank governor, said the currency had to be redesigned because Nigerians were hoarding notes in their houses. He then said it would help prevent counterfeiting and kidnappers’ ransom payments, and that it was a step toward achieving a cashless society. Later, he also claimed it would reduce inflation — which has risen to a crippling 21 percent.

But some analysts, politicians and dozens of Nigerian voters said that the real reason was to stem vote buying by foiling politicians who had stockpiled naira ahead of election day.

Last week, President Muhammadu Buhari said that it had reduced the influence of money on politics, and many Nigerians spoke approvingly of the policy in interviews. But some warned that voters might be so desperate for cash that they would more readily sell their votes.

President Buhari has served two terms, and could not run again. The governing All Progressives Congress (A.P.C.) party selected Bola Tinubu, a former governor of Lagos, as its candidate for president.

But one of Mr. Tinubu’s rivals in the presidential primary was the head of the Central Bank, Mr. Emefiele. Mr. Tinubu’s allies assert that the Central Bank and a group of people around the president are trying to exact revenge, plotting to ensure Mr. Tinubu suffers massive losses by inciting Nigerians’ anger at the government.

One A.P.C. state governor even claimed that they were trying to “provide a fertile foundation for a military takeover.”

Taiwo Aina for The New York Times

Some critics even accuse President Buhari of trying to make Mr. Tinubu lose the election — allegations that Mr. Buhari, who has campaigned with Mr. Tinubu, has denied.

This is the second time Mr. Buhari has rushed a currency redesign; the first was almost four decades ago, after he took power in a coup d’état. That time, he gave Nigerians less than two weeks to exchange their naira.

How severe the shortage of new naira is this time is unclear. Mr. Emefiele has only vaguely referred to “challenges in the distribution” of notes, blaming commercial banks for not loading them into A.T.M.s. Neither he nor the president’s spokesmen could be reached for comment.

While political infighting intensifies, the disruption to ordinary life is extraordinary.

Angel Christopher pulled her children out of school, unable to pay the fees, because she is selling so few vegetables to cash-strapped customers at the Garki Model Market in Abuja. Hungry diners at a lunch spot ate reduced portions of banga soup — stew made with palm fruit — because the chef, Theresa Tota, can’t afford to buy as many ingredients.

A livestock owner desperate for cash in northeast Borno sold his sheep for a fraction of the usual price. At Ocean Blue strip club in Lagos, lap dancers have started accepting bank transfers. Uber drivers now routinely phone passengers before pickups to ask if they’re paying cash — and if not, they cancel.

Taiwo Aina for The New York Times

Nigerians with bank accounts try to pay with cards and bank transfers — but are frequently stymied by what they’re told are “network issues,” perhaps because the system is suddenly overloaded.

The crisis has been compounded by the scarcity of fuel. Lines at gas stations rival those at A.T.M.s. Some customers sleep overnight in their vehicles to get gas, and some pay double the official price. Industry officials blame the high cost of transporting fuel to and around the country. But Nigeria is one of Africa’s biggest oil producers, and many citizens blame government mismanagement.

The long-term effects of the cash crunch on Nigeria’s already-struggling economy are not clear, but when India banned the largest rupee notes in 2016, causing similar chaotic scenes, its economy slowed markedly.

The rituals that many Nigerians savor are also affected.

At a glamorous Lagos wedding, no wads of cash were available for showering the bride and groom with money — a Nigerian tradition.

Taiwo Aina for The New York Times

Next morning at the Citadel Church, a large Pentecostal church in Lagos, when the blue plastic offering buckets went round, congregants mimed putting cash in them. Few had notes to give. Church leaders had anticipated that: outside the auditorium were rows of card machines, and inside, bank numbers flashed on a giant screen so worshipers could transfer their tithes instead.

In his sermon, the church’s celebrity pastor, Tunde Bakare — who was a 2023 ruling party presidential aspirant himself, but received no delegates’ votes in the primaries — railed against Nigerian politicians, including some in his own party.

“Today our nation is in dire straits; our frontline political parties and the politicians within their enclaves are at war with themselves,” he told his flock.

After the service, he said in an interview that he would usually be out in the field campaigning for his party, the A.P.C., but that he refused to be “part of Ali Baba and the 40 thieves.”

And though he was Mr. Buhari’s running mate in 2011, and remains close to the president, the pastor had no kind words for the chaotic currency redesign.

“The policy may be good, but the implementation is terrible,” Mr. Bakare said.

Taiwo Aina for The New York Times

Oladeinde Olawoyin contributed reporting from Lagos, Nigeria, and Rahila Lassa from Abuja, Nigeria.

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