Nigerians may continue to spend dirty and mutilated notes if findings by Saturday Punch are anything to go by.
Nigeria’s currency, the Naira, in all its denominations, has been severely mutilated, overused and over-circulated such that it has become an issue of luck to come across a clean note.
However, Saturday Punch learnt that the scarcity of the clean notes is due, in part, to the fact that the Central Bank of Nigeria has refused to recycle the old notes while it imposes charges on commercial banks that want to change the dirty notes to cleaner ones, thereby turning it into a money-making practice.
Access to clean notes is now by luck, special request with pleas and sometimes, financial inducement and purchase from sellers who have taken to the streets to sell the clean notes to legitimate customers who have no access to them.
Many Nigerians wonder why the CBN has refused to withdraw the bad notes from circulation and replace them with clean ones.
A cross section of bank workers who spoke to our correspondent alleged that the CBN has refused to recycle bad notes because it makes a lot of money from the dirty notes in circulation. They alleged that the CBN imposes a charge on commercial banks when they return dirty notes for replacement.
A senior executive in one of the new generation banks, who pleaded anonymity, said that the CBN charges N12,000 flat rate on each box of naira notes the commercial banks take to the CBN for exchange to clean notes, regardless of the denomination.
“No commercial bank wants to take responsibility for the dirty notes that it did not give out because CBN imposes a charge on returned notes. That is why banks do not want to collect bad notes from customers again and it is one of the reasons the bad notes are everywhere.
“Sometimes you see the notes and you won’t be sure if it’s the same naira or a bleached note for scientific experiment.”
However, another source said the amount being charged by the CBN was 5% of the total amount taken for exchange.
A teller in a commercial bank, Mr. James, wondered why the CBN compels banks to pay for replacing what they did not spoil. He described it as an exploitative act by the CBN to make money.
“A bank with so many dirty notes in stock is forced to go and change them because if you give them to the customers, they reject them. If you load them in the Automated Teller Machines, the machines push them to reject bin or even tear them in some cases,” he said.
James said that even though the money that the CBN charges appears small, it is not something that the commercial banks are willing to part with, more so that some staff members of the CBN make money from selling the much-needed clean notes to street sellers. A cash management officer in another commercial bank, Miss Chime (not real names), said the charge on the exchange prevents commercial banks from changing notes for customers.
“What the CBN charges for exchange of bad notes to clean ones is half of the total value of the notes. Ideally, a customer should be able to enter any bank with a dirty note and get it changed into a cleaner one but it doesn’t come that easy again because of the imposed fee.
“In fact, in my own bank, tellers have been instructed not to change notes for people unless it’s a withdrawal.
“If you take dirty notes worth N10m to the CBN, it would deduct half of it which is N5m as commission and it makes us wonder why the apex bank should make us pay for its responsibility.”
A top executive in a foremost commercial bank who preferred to be anonymous said, “Yes, CBN charges commercial banks on the exchange of dirty notes to new ones, but the money is minimal which is not enough to deter banks from approaching it even though it’s a loss in profit.
“The thing is that CBN is not printing new notes as often as it should. I have also heard that CBN sells mint to banks but I cannot substantiate that allegation.
“CBN is the only statutory regulatory body that has the responsibility of recycling money; removing bad notes from circulation and printing new ones, but we find out that we have bad notes in circulation for a long time which should not be so.”
He refused to disclose how much the CBN charges but admitted that it was wrong for the apex bank to impose charges on commercial banks who want to change bad notes into good ones and that the apex bank should not let notes circulate for so long in spite of the cost of printing.
“Fairly, what I believe to be part of the issues is that the cost of printing the notes is very huge; it’s almost like the cost of the notes you are printing. Maybe that is the reason why CBN is rationalising printing the notes, but we also don’t know why it prefers to import our currency,” he said.
However, due to the crave and increasing demand for clean notes by the citizenry for various reasons, most people who are in need of the clean notes resort to buying them on the streets.
The naira has become an object of trade in many places, as people now sell the clean notes on the street, usually at major parks, garages and parties. Visits by our correspondent to many parks within the Lagos metropolis revealed that Nigerians now patronise the hawkers on the street to get clean notes, an act which the CBN described as unlawful.
Investigations revealed that people pay as much as N200 on every N1,000 clean notes, regardless of the denomination. Even though most of the money-changers approached by our correspondent said that N50 clean notes have not been available since last year, other denominations are available in surplus.
In a chat with our correspondent, one of the hawkers at the popular Oshodi park, who gave his name as Baba Tosin, said most of the people who come to them to change money request for the lower denominations such as N50, N100 and N200.
“On every N1, 000, we charge N200, even if you need N100, 000, we would change it for you. It is just that N50 note has not been available for some time now. Also, if the notes are used ones, the amount payable on every N1, 000 is N100.
“The only challenge is that N50 had been scarce since last year, because there is higher demand for it than other denominations which had led to its scarcity.
“Most people who spray at parties prefer N50 note because it is economical,” he said. At the popular Obalende park in Lagos Island, one of the naira notes hawkers who spoke to our correspondent, on the condition of anonymity for fear of being hunted and humiliated, gave the same amount as the cost of the exchange.
On further enquiry, he said that the main source of their supply is the CBN while they use commercial banks as a secondary source.
“Supply from the CBN is more reliable, consistent and readily available because they are in charge of the issuance of notes, but we also get the new notes from commercial banks. We have people who buy from the banks and supply us.
“We also buy from them and we pay between N100 and N150 on every N1,000. We have to make some profit, that is why we sell at N200 on every N1,000.”
Tina, a money-changer at Iyana Ipaja (Lagos) park, also gave the same rate of N200 on every N1,000.
When our correspondent asked if she could change N50,000 to mint, she said, “Even if you have more, you will get it. I have it.”
Asked how she gets the new notes, Tina said that that there are middle-men who buy the notes from the banks and sell to them.
“It is a chain-like business. We have some big people who buy the notes from both the CBN and commercial banks in large quantities, they sell to us and we sell to our customers.
“The thing is that the CBN is our main source because commercial banks do not have the clean notes in commercial quantity, hence, they can’t meet our demand. If you go to commercial banks, you would see tellers and other staff members scrambling to keep the notes anytime they come across them.
“Because of issues like confidentiality and security, we are not allowed to get direct supplies. Besides, CBN is not a place anybody can enter, so we don’t even know the top officials who supply us, but we get the supply unhindered which is more important.
Tina, however, refused to disclose how much they pay their suppliers for the new notes but assured our correspondent of steady supply anytime there is need for it.
Findings revealed that most of the hawkers who have the notes in large quantities get them from the CBN while those who need money to spray at parties get them from commercial banks.
Even though CBN recently denied the allegation that its members of staff sell naira notes, the hawkers who confided in our correspondent said they get the large chunk of the new notes from the CBN while the remaining comes from the commercial banks, all through informal means.
It was also learnt that concerned bank officials who sell the notes would prefer to sell to the hawkers and make money than make them available to the customers at no extra cost.
Our correspondent learnt, on further enquiry, that the hawkers or their middlemen have links with some senior staff members of the CBN and the Cash Management Units of the commercial banks.
One of them told our correspondent that it is not possible for the hawkers to operate without an insider who may likely be a senior staff member because not all bank workers have access to cash or its reserve in the bank.
While some banks have their CMU at the headquarters, some have them at the branch level.
A senior member of staff in one of the new generation banks, Mr. Seyi Aliu, said, “While it may be harder for those who have their CMU at the headquarters to sell new notes, it is easier for those who have their CMU at the branches to sell but the CBN is their best shot because that is where all notes come from; it issues the notes.
“All the cash coming into a bank, including from the CBN, is received at the CMU, from where they may be sent to other places. Hence, the officials in the unit have access to the notes than other bank workers.
“Even though the deposit at the end of each day would pass through them, they hardly get mint from deposits. Even if it comes, the tellers in the banks are also Nigerians who love to spend clean notes. They could have changed it for personal use which is not a crime.”
Also, another banker, Tosin, who claimed to be in the know, said that it had to do with knowing the right persons at the CBN and the Cash Management Unit of the commercial banks.
“Once the hawkers have insiders either directly or through some middlemen, they would pay the equivalent of what they need and the cost of purchase into the banker’s account, who would supply them the clean notes through an agreed method.
“Some people even pay ahead so that when the clean notes are available, they would be assured of getting something because there is also competition.
“The hawkers have more than one source and that is why they always have enough stock. Some have sources in the CBN and some in the commercial banks, and it is a very secret deal.”
Tosin added, “It is common practice for bank executives to instruct the workers at the cash management unit to reserve a certain amount of clean notes for them and no one would dare touch the mint.
“In fact, sometimes we are instructed to separate the box containing the mint so that we don’t tamper with it either intentionally or by mistake. It is only when the boss who hands down the instruction comes that we touch the box, and we give him whatever amount he needs.”
Reasons for dirty notes
Findings showed that many reasons could be responsible for the dirty notes in circulation. These range from poor maintenance culture, over-used notes, non-renewal of circulated notes to intentional mutilation.
A senior bank executive who spoke to our correspondent on the condition of anonymity decried the poor maintenance attitude of some Nigerians.
“The thing is that when we have a clean culture as it obtains in other countries, then we will start to have clean notes. The users will always use the notes anyhow but it is the responsibility of the government to recycle the notes and educate the users on how to keep them clean.
“In other words, the over-circulation of the notes could be responsible for the bad ones. By the time a note spends a year or more in circulation, moving from one hand to the other, it could wear out.”
He identified the persistence of Nigerians to spraying money at parties as inimical to sustaining the flow of clean notes.
However, medical experts have advised members of the public to wash their hands thoroughly after handling money to prevent infectious diseases, as paper currency could aid transfer of germs.
According to an online report culled from email@example.com, money germs come from sweaty back pockets, food covered bills, floors, stripper G strings, drug exchanges, casinos, and dirty people.
Close observation revealed that if the CBN issues clean notes, when people spray them at parties; they step on them and rub them against hard surfaces which wear them out. Some hold them with dirty hands, some keep them in unhygienic places such as inside the bras (as reported by Saturday PUNCH recently) and engage in other unpleasant practices.”
Saturday PUNCH observed that some people have converted the naira into jotters where they write their plans, names, calculations, even people eating oily foods still handle the naira with the dirty hands, hence the note becomes dirty.
Some shrink the notes, fold them in their hands, some put them in their wet pockets, bras while some squeeze them in nylons.
Though Sections 20 and 21 of the CBN Act of 2006 stipulate how the naira should be handled, not much attention has been given to adherence to the instructions.
However, the commercial banks have also claimed that most of the cash they get from the CBN are not clean, hence it is the same dirty notes they get that they pay to the customers, either on the counters or through the ATMs.
Some bank officials however said they do not pay to get mint from the CBN.
“The only thing is that we apply for mint to be included in the cash they supply to us and we apply formally for it.
“Most times, what you get is below what you apply for, which gives an impression that the clean notes are not available or some people are hoarding them for their personal interest,” one of them told Saturday PUNCH. A teller in a commercial bank, Toyin Oluseun, said, “If we have some new notes remaining after all the sharing and deductions from the top, the tellers and other bank staff also help themselves with some.
“Even bankers are on the lookout for new notes. A customer once brought clean notes (the one people call ‘untouch’) of N40,000 in N200 denomination for deposit. He told me that if he had other notes that were not clean, he would have changed them. The moment he left, my colleagues and I shared the notes and replaced them with our tattered notes. In fact, they were giving me signs before he left.”
It was also observed that the scarcity could also be due to hoarding by customers who, sometimes, sweat to get them.
Old notes, ATMs and endless queues
Investigations by Saturday PUNCH revealed that the rejection of some naira notes by the Automated Teller Machines could partly be responsible for the endless queues at the various ATM centres/points.
A customer care executive who handles ATM complaints in a commercial bank spoke to our correspondent.
She said, “The quality of the cash loaded in the ATM matters as it determines how fast the reject bin which collects and stores bad notes fills up.
“The bin has the capacity to store about N300,000 at a time, once it is filled up, the machine would stop working, that is when you see ‘temporarily unable to dispense cash’ or ‘cash jam’ on the display screen.
“So there would be need to empty the bin. That is one of the reasons why some of the machines don’t work at weekends; not that we don’t put money inside, the bin may be full. But if you have clean notes, the machines rarely develop faults, apart from network problem.
“And because of the non-availability of the new notes, banks tend to recycle the bad notes and put them in ATMs, which causes cash-jam, and sometimes the notes get torn in the machines.”
At an event in Lagos recently, the Director, Sales and Strategy, Inlaks Computers, Mr. Tope Dare, lamented that the CBN had not been giving out good notes which affected the performance of ATMs until his company was able to recalibrate its ATMs to accept bad notes.
When a former Governor of CBN, Prof. Charles Soludo, insisted that people should treat the national currency with respect, he was criticised by some Nigerians who said spraying money at parties was a part of Nigerian culture.
Investigations also revealed that new notes are now being sold, hawked and sprayed at major parties in defiance of the law.
It was also observed that the rejection of dirty notes and the ones with irregular shapes by many Nigerians have been a subject of conflict between traders, customers, commuters and passengers in any transaction that involves exchange of naira notes.
Comparatively, many countries do not have as many bad notes as we have in Nigeria due to their effective cashless policy which limits cash carriage and cash-dependent transaction. Such countries’ clean bill policy is also designed to give the citizens good quality currency notes while the dirty notes are withdrawn out of circulation.
When contacted on the phone, the Director, Corporate Communications, Central Bank of Nigeria, Mr. Ugochukwu Okoroafor, said he could not comment on the issue because he was attending a lecture. “I can’t comment on that now because I’m not in the office. I’m on a course, so you can speak to the deputy director, though he went on assignment to Washington,” he said.
When the Deputy Director, Corporate Communications, Mr. Isaac Okoroafor, was contacted, he asked our correspondent to send an electronic mail on the issue. But as of press time, he had yet to send a reply.
The Central Bank of Nigeria had, in May 2013, explained that it was committed to operating a clean note policy, and that deposit money banks and other customers will only be paid in clean notes made up of processed and mint notes.
The apex bank said that it had established channels of distribution through which it disburses clean naira notes to all deposit money banks licensed to operate in Nigeria.
In spite of its refutation of reports that it is responsible for the artificial scarcity of new naira notes, staff members of commercial banks, hawkers of the notes and many Nigerians who spoke to our correspondent have pointed accusing fingers at the apex bank.