The quantity of dirty and unfit naira notes in circulation and scarcity of small denominations of N10, N20, N50 and N100 notes, is becoming a major concern to Nigerians, especially those engaged in commercial transactions.
These days, even over-the-counter and Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) transactions are disbursing dirty and unfit notes, just as commercial banks and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) trade blames over who is responsible, directly or indirectly, for the situation.
More worrisome to banks' customers is that ATMs have not only become outlets for these dirty and sometimes, unfit notes, but are also deliberately mixing them with few new notes and once dispensed, even the same bank do not accept them back when presented in the banking hall.
A customer of one of the top three banks in the country, who identified himself simply as Sampson, told The Guardian how he withdrew money across the counter and hurriedly left, but later discovered that two bundles of N500 notes were almost unfit.
"When I brought it back to them, they rejected the money and denied ever paying the money to me. I avoided creating a scene in the banking hall and could not push further because I was in a hurry to join a bus coming back to Lagos from Enugu," he said.
Taofeek of Festac Town, Lagos, also told The Guardian that he went to deposit money in another top three bank, but the bulk teller rejected some notes and told him that if she collected them, the amount would be deducted from her salary.
"The notes were weak and some dirty, but the numbers are there and that was how I collected them, too, from others.
"In fact, one of my customers withdrew some of the notes in my very presence from the ATM and paid me. Why are they doing this?" he queried.
The Guardian's poll of customers in 24 branches of 11 different banks, including the top five banks, across Lagos, showed that there are more of dirty notes and some near unfit ones than clean notes in many banking transactions these days.
Another bulk teller said that his boss has told staff that the CBN charges banks for the unfit notes when returned for replacement.
But spokesman of the apex bank spokesman, Mr. Isaac Okorafor, has consistently debunked this, saying banks have deliberately refused to sort the dirty and unfit notes and return them to CBN and instead choose to mix them up and when this happens, it will be sorted by the CBN and the banks charged as such.
"They are playing tricks. They will see unfit notes and re-issue them again, because they don't want to make investments in sorting the money.
"It is their duty to return unfit notes to us and we will replace them with new ones.
"If banks sort the money before bringing to CBN, we don't charge them, but if they don't, we will sort and charge them.
"It is only when they mix up the unfit and good ones together, which is what they do, that we charge them for sorting.
"But it is our duty to issue new notes in place of the unfit and that we have been doing," he said.
He advised any person with such complaints to direct it to CBN's consumer protection department through email@example.com, stating the name of the bank.
Okorafor reiterated that the problem for rejection should not be the dirtiness of money, but if the numbers on the money are complete, adding: "If the numbers are complete, no bank has any right to reject the currency, no matter how dirty it is."
Across the country, shortage of small denominations is gradually affecting commercial activities and transactions, thereby affecting the economy of the middle and low-income class.
It is also breeding disagreement between service providers and customers, and "marriage of inconvenience" between transporters and passengers.
Happiness, a tricycle operator in Enugu, charges his passengers according to their distance. Most operators of tricycle charge N50 per trip. However, "it is always a problem, especially, in the morning hours, to get passengers, who would pay you the exact fare," he said.
Asked how he has been coping with the development, he stated that he either abandons the passenger with the N50 note or look for those he would drop on charter.
He told The Guardian that getting lower dominations of the naira is now a difficult thing, adding that in some cases, they pair passengers to enable them settle for a higher denomination before they are taken to their destinations.
Michael Dibia, a resident of Ahoada, explained that the scarcity of smaller denominations have led to increase in the price of foodstuffs and transportation.
"I have observed of recent that you could barely buy spices used for cooking soup at N5 or even N10. I blame this on the non-availability of smaller denominations. Most traders prefer to sell them at N20 or N50 and above. Before a customer buys something in the market these days, the seller will ask whether the customer has the required money. Very often, the customers, like me, have to compromise to buy what I don't intend to buy because of change. This is affecting the cost of living for people like us," he said.
Similarly, Tonye Oruwari, who owns a grocery in Port Harcourt, stated that in the absence of small denomination currencies, the grocery shops have evolved a unique way to address the issue by offering chewing gums and sweets against balance, in place of the small denomination currencies.
Also in Kwara State, while some traders complained of the scarcity, they agreed that it had assisted in swelling their profit margin.
Alhaja Afusat Wakilu popularly called "Iya Azeez" at Lanjoorin Street, Murtala Mohammed Way, Ilorin, said many of her customers often forfeit their balances with her without realising the magnitude of gains conceded to her.
"For instance, if you buy a sachet of water that used to be N10, few months ago, some customers would insist on getting their N10 balance while many others would not even wait for it. The implications of this is that such buyers without them knowing has added over 100 per cent gains to my profits margin," she said.
This has forced many traders to go to churches on Sundays, after services, to look for these denominations, from offerings, to enable them transact their businesses conveniently.
A source from CBN, who pleaded anonymity, said the concern now should be more about preserving the currency and the law enforcement agencies being alert to their duty, as notes are being destroyed by the activities of currency hawkers, who make brisk business at various party centres across the country, particularly, Lagos State.
Investigations showed that the sale of the clean notes for older ones currently goes for as high as 20 per cent of the value being exchanged, that is, exchanging N800 new notes for N1000 old notes.
The source cited CBN Act 2007, Section 21, sub-section 3 and 4, which said: "For the avoidance of doubt, spraying of, dancing or matching on the naira or any note issued by the Bank (CBN) during social occasions or otherwise howsoever, shall constitute an abuse and defacing of the naira or such note and shall be punishable under Sub-section (1) of this section.
"It shall also be an offence punishable under sub-section (1) of this section for any person to hawk, sell or otherwise trade in the naira notes, coins or any other note issued by the bank."
He urged Nigerians to embrace the alternative payment solutions being provided, such as the Point of Sale (PoS), Internet and mobile money services to reduce cash-based transactions and preserve the available notes.