Zenith Of Our Banking Woes

Casmir Igbokwe

It never occurred to me that our old Naira notes could be vectors of diseases until someone called my attention to it last Friday. According to the person, with the Naira redesign and cashless policy, the Federal Government has helped tremendously to eliminate lots of diseases from Nigeria. Somehow, I agreed with him as I imagined the old Naira notes in the hands of a leprous patient begging on the roadside. Some market women squeeze this money and put it under their bra or in some other hidden unhygienic places. Some persons, after collecting their balance from bus conductors, buy some snacks from hawkers which they eat without washing their hands.

This is partly why we need to go cashless. Nevertheless, the past few weeks have been very traumatic for many Nigerians. No fuel. No food. No cash. Even to do some cashless transactions have become very problematic. Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) hardly dispense money. Point of Sales (PoS) operators charge high fees for their operations. To cap it all, many banks, especially Zenith Bank, tested the patience of their customers with shoddy services.

The import of the problems in Zenith did not occur to me until penultimate week when I travelled to Abuja from Lagos. I relied on my Zenith debit card since cash has become elusive. I tried to withdraw money from the ATMs at the airport. No dice. I tried to use the PoS machines for some transactions. That one also recorded some hiccups. I got no alert for both approved and declined transactions. I would have been stranded in Abuja if not for the mobile app of another bank that came handy for me.

Last week, I encountered worse problems with Zenith Bank at Asaba, the capital of Delta State. I needed to make some transfers from my Zenith account. I went to a branch of the bank in Asaba. At first, the crowd I saw at the gate threw me off. I thought the crowd was waiting to use the ATM. But on getting closer to the gate, I discovered that the bank had closed its gate to customers. But people were desperate to enter the banking hall. There were some scuffles at the gate. Some people pushed their way into the bank. But that was an exercise in futility.

Frustrated, they complained and cursed. But nobody could hear their complaints. Also frustrated, I resorted to doing mobile transfers with the mobile app of another bank, though I had insufficient funds in it. I was lucky some relatives bailed me out with some cash to augment the little I had on me. I came back to Lagos last Thursday, raced to my Zenith branch to do some transactions, but met the gate securely locked. I went back on Monday, February 13, but customers were kept outside the gate under the hot sun. They gave numbers to people and called them in one after the other. I still didn’t succeed to enter the banking hall due to the huge crowd waiting to enter the bank. So far, I don’t know the accurate balance in my account as I was supposed to receive some payments last week, but because the alert was not working, I am not sure if the deposits were successful.

Millions of Zenith Bank customers elsewhere have similar experiences. Some of them now contemplate closing their accounts with the bank and moving their money to some other banks. Some people I know have stopped depositing money or using the bank for their business transactions. This may seriously affect the fortunes of the bank.

The disturbing thing is that Zenith has been experiencing this downtime in its network and services for some time now. About June last year, for instance, a number of Zenith customers similarly lamented the poor services of the bank such as inactive USSD code, poor internet services, and epileptic mobile app or cards.

Already, members of staff of the bank are feeling the pinch one way or the other. Angry customers who were unable to withdraw new notes or even do any other transaction have attacked the bank’s staff in some branches in some states. There was a viral video of the bank staff somewhere scaling a wall at the back of their compound to escape the wrath of customers.

Obviously, other banks have their problems. But it seems the problems are worse in Zenith this time. And this is why it looks like the cashless policy introduced by the Federal Government is a punishment to Nigerians. The financial inclusion the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has preached for sometime has not fully materialized as many Nigerians, especially in the rural areas, don’t even have bank accounts.

Nigerians had a temporary relief when the Supreme Court halted the move by the CBN to stop the use of the old Naira notes from February 10, 2023 pending the determination of an ex-parte application brought by three All Progressives Congress (APC) governors. The three state governors of Kaduna, Kogi and Zamfara, last week, applied for an order of interim injunction to restrain the Federal Government from suspending or ending on February 10, 2023, the time frame with which the old Naira notes of N200, N500 and N1,000 denomination may no longer be legal tender pending the hearing and determination of their motion on notice for interlocutory injunction. Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), has already challenged the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to suspend the scheduled deadline. He applied for an order to strike out the suit. February 15 is the date for determination of the case.

While Nigerians wait to see what happens February 15, Governor Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna State went ahead to incite his people to stop returning their old Naira notes to the banks and to continue doing their business transactions with them. In a town hall meeting with leaders of markets in Kaduna State last Tuesday, el-Rufai said if the presidential candidate of the APC, Bola Tinubu, was elected the next President, he would do away with the redesign policy. El-Rufai believes the redesign policy is a calculated attempt by some unnamed fifth columnists in the Presidential Villa to sabotage the chances of Tinubu in the election.

I am yet to fully understand the game APC is playing with Nigerians. Speculations are rife that some stalwarts of the ruling party have mopped up money in circulation for vote buying on February 25. It was el-Rufai who told us recently that a certain governor collected N500 million new Naira notes from one bank and that politicians who were targets of the Naira redesign policy already had their way. But, they now make it look like they are championing the interests of the masses. I wonder when our greedy politicians started having sympathy for the masses.

The Naira redesign is a good policy. But its implementation has been marred largely by the shenanigans of some political actors. Over 80 per cent of our money is outside the banking vaults. Much of this is in the hands of politicians who use it to corrupt the system. This should not be so. India withdrew its two highest-denomination currency notes (Rs 1,000 and Rs 500) from the market in 2016 which was an election year and heavens did not fall.

Heavens will not also fall in Nigeria because of Naira redesign. Our currency has not even been redesigned in the last 20 years or so. What the CBN may do is to extend the deadline for the Naira swap to cushion the effect on the masses or print more money to increase the ones in circulation. Meanwhile, Zenith Bank should talk to its frustrated customers and look for ways to assuage their feelings. Keeping silent in the face of these anomalies is not the best.

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