Nigeria: Protests at banks and ATMs break out amid ‘cash scarcity’ concerns

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Destroying ATMs, breaking into banks and setting up blockades in the street: angry protests erupted on February 15 in several cities across Nigeria as people struggle to get their hands on newly designed banknotes. Frustration is mounting as some citizens can’t even purchase basic necessities amid widespread shortages of the new currency, just a week ahead of the 2023 general elections. 

The Central Bank of Nigeria began circulating newly designed banknotes worth 1,000, 500 and 200 naira (2.03, 1.02 or 0.41 euros) on December 15, 2022. The move was intended to replace dirty, old cash currently in circulation, tackle inflation and counterfeiting, as well as promote a cashless society

The old banknotes were set to expire on February 10, before Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari extended the deadline for citizens to continue using their old 200 naira banknotes until April 10. The 500 and 1,000 naira notes must be exchanged or deposited in banks. 

But a lack of new notes in the banks – as well as allegations that banks are hoarding the new notes – have left people desperate, with lines forming outside banks and at ATMs. 

A video shared on Twitter on February 2, 2023 shows a long line of people queuing up to collect naira banknotes at a United Bank of Africa branch.

Some merchants have already stopped accepting the old banknotes, rendering them essentially valueless. In a cash-based society where around 40% of the population do not have bank accounts, the currency redesign has caused growing anxiety among those who can’t access the new money. 

Protests at bank branches erupted in Ibadan and Benin City as well as several towns in Delta State, in southern Nigeria, on February 15.

A video shared on Twitter on February 15, 2023 shows damaged ATMs outside First Bank in Benin City, Nigeria.

A video shared on Twitter on February 15, 2023 shows protesters blocking a road in Ibadan, Nigeria.

‘The people in the streets feel massive frustration’

In Benin City, a crowd of protesters attempted to breach the local branch of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). Local residents had gathered around the bank to wait for a chance to exchange their naira notes. 

Protesters in Benin, Nigeria attempt to break into the local office of the Central Bank of Nigeria on February 15, 2023.

However, according to local media, they began throwing stones at the building and were met with teargas and gunshots from security forces. 

Protesters, armed with sticks and weapons, also attacked other bank offices and destroyed ATMs around Benin City.

A video shared on Twitter on February 15 shows people gathered and tyres burning outside of a United Bank of Africa branch in Benin City, Nigeria.

Godsent Clement Ogumu is a tech entrepreneur who lives in Benin City.


Yesterday [February 15], I unknowingly bumped into one of the protests that was going on in the middle of town in Benin City. I was almost mobbed or lynched by some very, very angry, protesting youths. They are very frustrated by the whole situation of naira scarcity. The frustration is very high and the youths are willing to take it out on anybody who happens to be someone that they perceive to be better off or in a position of power. During the time I witnessed the protests, the crowd was not exactly very violent, but they were very agitated. And a lot of damage has been done already. 

A video shared on Twitter on February 15, 2023 shows protesters near a Union Bank and United Bank of Africa branch in Benin City, Nigeria. Protesters appear to be breaking windows at the Union Bank. One protester appears to be wounded.

It started escalating between protesters and police. That’s when I left the scene, because we all know what the Nigerian police is capable of. Not too long after I left, we started getting information that some of the protesters were shot dead.

At least three people were shot dead by security forces on February 15 as protesters attempted to break into the CBN building in Benin City. 

Protests also forced many bank branches in Benin City to temporarily close. Many ATMs were also out of service or destroyed. 

‘A family told me they haven’t eaten because no one is willing to take their old banknotes’

The people in the streets feel massive frustration. A family came to me and told me they haven’t eaten since the previous day – even though they have the money – because no one is willing to take the old banknotes from them. 

The instruction was to deposit all your old naira notes and then withdraw the new naira notes. The funny thing is that the banks are not even allowing the withdrawal of new naira notes. There is no way anybody is coming across the new naira notes, even in this very, very serious situation. I know none of my family or friends have actually come across the new naira in quantities that are actually useful. Once in a while, you come across one or two of the new naira, which is barely enough to do anything.

A lot of us use online banking and transfers, which is an alternative, but a lot of families don’t know how to use these channels so they basically rely on cash transactions. These people can’t make payments, buy food, buy water – they are stranded. It’s a very dire, serious situation for a lot of people living in my neighbourhood.

‘It feels as though we are no longer in control of our lives’

Oyinkitana, who declined to provide his full name for security reasons, lives in southwestern Nigeria and is the CEO of a startup. 

The scarcity of Naira currency has had a significant impact on the Nigerian population, particularly those who depend on cash for their daily transactions, such as small business owners. As for myself, I find it challenging to purchase fuel for my car since many fuel stations prefer cash over POS [Point of Sale vendors who use card machines to make transfers for people, but often charge commissions for the service] or bank transfers. Moreover, some small business owners […] see cash as the only source for certain items, and their sales have been directly affected due to the lack of cash circulation. 

The current state of affairs in Nigeria is truly unbearable, as feelings of uncertainty loom over everything. It seems as though we have lost our bearings, with even the simple task of determining whether to use new or old notes becoming a challenge due to inconsistent acceptance by vendors. It feels as though we are no longer in control of our lives, as businesses shut down and the purchasing power of individuals continues to plummet. It’s a confusing time and nobody seems to understand what’s really going on in the country anymore.

‘The federal government wants to mop up all the cash in circulation so that politicians wouldn’t be able to buy votes’

Both our Observers told us the timing of the new currency redesign, coming just before the general elections, is no coincidence. They believe that it is also a mechanism to prevent politicians from hoarding cash and using it to buy off votes.

Clement Ogumu explained:

We all feel like this agenda is targeted at politicians who have stacks of cash stashed away in warehouses, in their bedrooms, or in various locations to buy election votes. They want to bribe their way into office by buying votes. I believe that’s the reason the federal government wants to mop up all the cash in circulation so that politicians wouldn’t be able to buy votes from those that are impoverished and willing to sell their votes for some cash.

I think it’s a good thing that the government is doing something about vote buying, but the truth of the matter is that it is coming with a lot of huge consequences for the population. The people bearing those consequences are people with little education, little money. 

The general election in Nigeria will be held on February 25, with three main candidates vying for the presidency: Bola Ahmed Tinubu, from the ruling All Progressives Congress party; Atika Abubakar, of the main opposition People’s Democratic Party; and Peter Obi, a favourite of the youth vote who represents the Labour Party.

Insecurity – including a kidnapping crisis and a militant Islamist insurgency – and economic concerns, such as inflation and unemployment, are among the top electoral issues ahead of the vote.

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