As Nigeria takes its first steps towards introducing a cashless economy where most transactions can be done without carrying bulky and annoying amounts of naira notes, banks are introducing services that will make money transactions less burdensome.
One of such service is the introduction of ATMs or “hole in a wall” cash machines. These are supposed to help customers get quick access to money when they cannot avoid the cash trap and want to avoid long bank queues.
Our Abuja Correspondent Frank Garriba yesterday went through a nightmare that explains why some people die needlessly when they either have no money or cannot get money in time to help a sick relative . This is a personal tale that could have easily turned tragic.
Today Tuesday July 17, 2013, has been a day like no other. It’s been a hectic day and I have just returned from work, dead tired. Just when I want to take a rest, my phone rings. It’s a desperate call from my niece – my late older sister’s daughter.
“Hello Patience! Good afternoon. How’s everybody?” I pick the call and ask. For the first time, Patience, calling me from Jos, Plateau State, stammers. I can perceive desperation in her voice. “I am in hospital with Nana; she’s very sick and urgently needs a blood transfusion. The hospital officials want payment before they can administer the blood,” she says amidst her stammering.
I scamper out of my house, and even forget to bolt my door due to the urgency of the call. I rush to my bank and slot my card into the automated teller machine, ATM. “Please, wait while your transaction is processing,” the automated female voice tells me.” Shortly after, I get an on screen message informing me “service is temporarily unavailable.” I am sweating under the collar now.
I rush out of the ATM room into the bank to do an across-the-counter withdrawal. But here, there is a very long queue. The queue frightens me and it is almost closing time at the bank. I decide to dash to another bank where I have no account for inter-switch transaction. Again I slot my card into the machine and after punching the buttons to withdraw N20,000 (about $130), I wait for the transaction to process.
“Thank you for banking with us. Please, take your card,” the automated female voice intones as the machine ejects my ATM card. I wait, and wait, and wait. Bizarrely, no money pops out. But my account has a $130 debit. I change machines and the same thing happens.
Welcome to new age banking in Nigeria!
I complain to the officials inside the bank and they tell me to go to my bankers. My phone keeps ringing and I have to explain to my niece what I am going through. I know she is not convinced I am telling her the truth. I can’t convince myself either
I quickly hire a taxi and rush over to my bank to complain that I have made transactions in a different bank and the machine has not been able to release the sum of $260 – the last amount of money I have in my account. I am flat broke but have no money to show for my troubles.
The lady at the counter tells me I will have to wait for nine working days for the bank to do their verification. I am stuck with no money, a sick relative in hospital and another who keeps ringing every other minute. Time is running out. My relative is lying in hospital half dead with hospital officials who refuse to do anything except they get some upfront payment.
Mine is not an uncommon story in Nigeria. I consider my experience exceptional because I succeeded to sweet talk the medical officer of the hospital to begin treatment while I will struggle to get some money over to him in the next twenty-four hours. I had to convince him I was a journalist. He checked my credentials online before deciding to start treating my sick relative. Journalism sometimes has its pecks and this is one of them. But what about the millions of Nigerians whose identity cannot be verified online? I might have been lying even but the medical officer could at least verify who I said I was. Another official in his place would have refused to begin treatment so I thank the officer profusely. I will not embarrass him by naming him here but he is a good man.
After narrating my ordeal, Adeniyi Olugbemi, an Abuja based journalist told me interbank transactions in Nigeria are very frustrating. He narrated how his cousin got stranded in town because he could not afford to pay his transport fare because he lost money trying to effect an interbank transaction. “Since then, I have learnt not to perform any bank transactions in any other bank, except the one I have an account in”, he said.
Although there are many banks in Abuja, they are always crowded and many people thought ATM machines would ease transactions. The problem with the interbank service is new. It started when the Central Bank of Nigeria passed an order stopping any charges for inter-bank ATM transactions. Hitherto, banks charged N100 (about $0.6) per transaction.
Some people argue that the frustration with the inter-switch service is a deliberate attempt by banks to discourage customers from performing transactions in different banks. Despite the threat by the CBN to sanction defaulting bankers, the phenomenon has continued.
Some banks have even reverted to the $0.6 charge for transaction by non-customers. Nigerians now want the Central Bank of Nigeria CBN to punish defaulting banks but that has still not happened. There are also fears thieves might also start burgling ATMs for “free cash”.
I am glad to report my sick relative is respondent to treatment as I write this.