By Victor Uzoho
• PSBs, Mobile Money Agents Ripped Off Customers During Curfew
• Cashless ATMs, Greedy agents, Versus Consumers
• Telcos, Vendors Complicated Issues
As the recent #EndSARS protests that shook the country degenerated into social unrest, where massive looting and destruction of public and private properties became the order of the day, various sectors of the economy felt the impact differently.
Chief among these was the banking industry, usually regarded as an essential service sector, and which even during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown faithfully stayed at its duty post, was unable to play its traditional role in the heat of the protest. Customers were left high and dry, and could not access much-needed cash.
The curfew imposed by some state governments to douse tension and ensure that normalcy returned as quickly as possible was a big relief and welcomed by many banks that were afraid of attacks by hoodlums, who targeted and plundered some prominent banks. Consequently, little or no provision was made for consumers to meet their monetary needs.
Cashless ATMs, Greedy agents, Versus Consumers
FOR many banks customers, the period the crisis lasted was quite challenging, as it was filled with agonisng experiences. Initially, when the curfew commenced, some customers adopted the e-channels to do transactions, while others who needed cash resorted to Automated Teller Machines (ATMs), Mobile Money Agents (MMAs), and Payment Service Banks (PSBs).
Investigation by The Guardian revealed that many ATMs in different locations across the country didn’t dispense cash during the period, leaving customers frustrated, as many of them came to make cash withdrawals, out of the fear that the curfew could be elongated.
The Guardian’s visit to banks and ATM galleries located along Okota Road, Lagos, the week following the curfew, saw many of the banks under lock and key, with no access to their ATMs, while those with accessible ATMs had no cash in them.
The banks included First City Monument Bank (FCMB), United Bank for Africa (UBA), Guarantee Trust Bank (GTB), Access Bank, Ecobank, Sterling Bank, First Bank and Zenith Bank.
Among the banks, only Zenith Bank’s ATMs dispensed cash. Most customers sighted at the bank’s ATMs withdrew large sums, which they said was prompted by apprehension and uncertainty, as they were not sure if the crisis would end soon.
Uchenna Ofobuike, a customer, withdrew N200, 000. He explained that he was not sure business activities would return to normal in the weeks following the protest.
“With the recent unrest, I don’t know how the coming week will be. As you can see, there is no money on other ATMs around. So, I had to take enough cash in case the curfew is further extended,” he said.
Another customer, Elijah Ajayi, said before coming to Okota Road, he had visited all the banks on Ago Palace Way, but their ATMs had no cash. By Friday, no ATM was dispensing cash across Okota, Jankande, Ire-Akari, Ilasa, Isolo, and Oshodi areas, when The Guardian visited.
As the Lagos State government relaxed the curfew from 8am to 6pm, the following day being Saturday, this reporter visited the Computer Village, the popular technology hub located at Ikeja. But the case wasn’t different here, as all the banks in the area had no cash in their ATMs.
With this disruption, PSBs and MMAs became the last resort for frustrated customers in need of cash. But rather than help, the agents took advantage of the crisis to extort consumers.
At Ire-Akari, MMAs charged as much as N300 for transactions of between N1000 to N5000, which ordinarily should have attracted a fee of only N100, while some even charged N100 for every N1000 withdrawn.
At a street close to Century Bus Stop, also along Ago Palace Way, an Access Bank’s MMA charged N250 for N5000 withdrawal, while the same bank debited N100 from the customer for the same transaction, making the total charge N350.
But not only bank customers in Lagos had this bitter story to tell. The story was not any different in many other parts of the country. Esther Ijeoma, who resides in Aba, Abia State, said throughout the unrest, no bank functioned in the place.
“Not even the ATMs worked,” she said. “I had to travel from Aba to Umuahia one Friday to use one particular ATM that had a heavy security presence. By the time I got to Umuahia, they had locked the place. It was not a funny experience at all.”
Zama Emmanuel, another customer that resides in Ogbor Hill in Aba, said: “ATMs were the most guarded infrastructure during the unrest in my area. So, the queues at the available ATMs were simply outrageous. Meanwhile, MMAs charged N100 for every N1000 withdrawn.”
In Edo State, a customer at University of Benin, Benin City, explained that in the week of the crisis, the ATMs didn’t work until Friday, despite the large crowds that besieged ATMs.
She said: “An alternative to avoiding the endless queues was using MMAs, but they soon ran out of cash, while some insisted on paying only N2000. Some individuals that had cash sold it.”
In Imo State, it was the same story. Mercy Ukandu, who resides in Okigwe was lucky to make a good bargain. “I went to make cash withdrawal, but found no money in all the ATMs I visited. Eventually, I had to transfer money into someone’s account and he gave me cash, while I paid him N100 for the transferred N3000.
Miss Jane Joshua, who resides along Enugu-Onitsha Expressway in Anambra State, said withdrawing from ATMs was tough during the unrest, as banks ATMs stopped paying.
“It was a neighbor that came to my rescue. She had POS but charged N100 for every N1000 withdrawn. And though I pleaded with her to consider the fact that we are neighbours, she bluntly refused to do anything or reduced her charges,” she said.
However, some smart customers used cards for transactions at fuel stations, supermarkets, and stores that accepted card payments.
Telcos, Vendors Complicated Issues
MOST consumers said they tried using e-channels for bank transactions, but were frustrated by the major network services, as their Internet, USSD, and other services were unstable.
The Guardian investigation revealed that the services of main telecommunications operators as MTN, Airtel, Globalcom, and Etisalat, had been unstable even before the crisis. They, however, got worse the night #EndSARS protesters were shot at the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos, which triggered the national unrest.
Consumers said the disruption experienced in telecom services included poor Internet and network services, inability to subscribe for data, recharge airtime and check account balance, and difficulties using USSD codes, among others.
Some accounts reported network disruptions among different telecommunications services providers in the Lekki area, as protesters tried to broadcast the incident live on social media platforms, but faced difficulties.
At about 9:30 pm on the night of the shooting, there were reports of network disruptions in MTN and Airtel networks around the area. Interestingly, people in other parts of Lagos, and across other states also complained of poor networks.
At 11:53 pm, MTN Nigeria acknowledged that there were indeed service challenges in Lekki, Oniru, and Victoria Island areas of the state, but that it was trying to resolve the issue.
In a statement released on its official Twitter handle @MTN180, the Telco, said: “We are truly sorry for any difficulty you may have connecting to the network in parts of Lekki, Oniru, and Victoria Island at this time. This is due to the loss of auxiliary power supply at a hub site in the area.
“Our engineers are working to resolve these challenges as quickly as possible, although they are constrained by the prevailing circumstances which limit access.”
In an action that buttressed people’s claim that the communication outfit disrupted its services intentionally, MTN deleted its tweet of acknowledgment and is yet to release another statement.
Narrating her ordeal, Miss Joshua, an Airtel subscriber in Anambra State, said: “I have been finding it difficult recharging my line. I subscribed to the N1000 Airtel data plan a day ago, and today, I’m weeping. It’s all gone.
“I do not even know how to express my grievance. To crown it all, airtime vendors added N20 on the price of each recharge card since the unrest began.”
Meanwhile, there are fears in some quarters that these incidents could trigger a return to cash transactions, and slow down the financial inclusion drive being championed by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN).
Recall that CBN, in collaboration with stakeholders, launched the National Financial Inclusion Strategy in October 2012, aimed at further reducing the exclusion rate in the country to 20 per cent by the end of 2020.
Specifically, adult Nigerians with access to payment services were projected to increase from 21.6 per cent in 2010 to 70 per cent, access to savings from 24.0 per cent to 60 per cent, access to credit from two per cent to 40 per cent, insurance from one per cent to 40 per cent, and pensions from five per cent to 40 per cent, within the same period.
However, Enhancing Financial Innovation and Access (EFInA), an organisation that conducts biennial reports on Nigeria’s financial inclusion drive, has said CBN’s target to get 80 per cent of Nigeria’s adult population financially included by year-end is unachievable, as its data showed that Nigeria’s exclusion gap was widening.
It maintained that although data from its 2018 survey showed there was growth in Nigeria’s financial inclusion drive, the pace at which it grew did not match the rate of the country’s population growth.
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