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Nigerians are furious as the country switches currencies, creating a cash shortage

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In Nigeria, it is virtually impossible to get hold of cash. Old bank notes of specific denominations were made invalid earlier this month, and the new notes that replaced them are scarce. Authorities say the policy is meant to target corrupt figures who hoard illicit funds. But in a country where millions of people rely on cash, frustrations are at boiling point. And this, just days ahead of elections. NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu reports from Lagos.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: If you want to know what ordinary people are talking about in Lagos, there are few better places than a busy newspaper stand.

There's a crowd of men poring over the front pages here. It's almost a daily ritual to read and debate the news of the day. And almost all the headlines are dominated by the naira crisis. One reads "Naira Chaos Grounds Economy." And that's the one story people here want to talk about.

MOGU KINGSLEY: Just because of the incoming election, and they are making us to look as if we are fools. We have not ever in life experienced the issue of scarcity of cash. So I don't know how governments want the citizens of the country to survive.

AKINWOTU: That's Mogu Kingsley, a civil servant, and his frustration is echoed by everyone else. The trigger for the crisis has been a controversial policy by outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari and Nigeria's central bank. Most old notes were made invalid in February, but the banks are barely dispensing the new notes, so people can't get money from their accounts, and businesses relying on cash sales are being hurt. I'm here in Obalende, a busy intersection of small businesses, market traders and bus stops. Across the road from the newsstand, bus drivers wait for passengers and call out destinations, but it's taking longer than usual because many of the passengers don't have the cash to make the journey.

UNIDENTIFIED BUS DRIVER: By now, on a normal day, supposed to be loading my second trip because I arrived here, I think, around 6. If I don't see full load now, I'm considering I will discharge my passenger and go home.

AKINWOTU: Over the last month, anger in the country has been mounting, and now it has reached a tipping point.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

AKINWOTU: People have taken to the streets all over the country. In some places, banks have been set alight and ATMs destroyed. And the man many blame for this chaos, President Buhari, has asked for calm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT MUHAMMADU BUHARI: I'm fully aware of the current hardship you are facing as a result of some policies of the government which are meant to bring overall improvement to the country. God willing, there will be light at the end of the tunnel.

AKINWOTU: At this stage in the election, campaigns are usually awash with cash. Buhari said that the target of the policy are figures who have hoarded illicit funds and to stop politicians rigging elections. But many ordinary people feel caught in the crossfire.

(CROSSTALK)

AKINWOTU: There are around a hundred people here crowded around the only ATM machine that's working in the area. It's about 12:30 in the afternoon, and people have been here for hours. Some people even slept here overnight. Occasionally, there are fights breaking out, and frustrations are boiling over. Days ahead of the elections, scenes like this have become depressingly familiar.

(CROSSTALK)

AKINWOTU: They're saying you can't take more than 2,000.

ACHE KOO: Yes, for all the banks. Look at all the banks here. None of them are paying. Look at them. They're not paying.

AKINWOTU: Mr. Ache Koo, like everyone else here, wants to talk and voice their frustration to me, to each other, to anyone who will listen. Amid all the shouting, one man walks quietly over and introduces himself.

EMEKA DAVID: My name is Emeka David. I am a citizen of Nigeria. I'm not a proud citizen, though.

AKINWOTU: Why are you not a proud citizen?

DAVID: No, no. I cannot be proud of this country because the country has messed a lot of people up.

AKINWOTU: Emmanuel Akinwotu, NPR News, Lagos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emmanuel Akinwotu
Emmanuel Akinwotu is an international correspondent for NPR. He joined NPR in 2022 from The Guardian, where he was West Africa correspondent.