by Chinedu Asadu
ABUJA, Nigeria — No one in Godgift Inemesit’s family of eight is sure when they will eat each day — except for her three kids, two of whom have malaria. She can’t pay for the drugs they need or feed the rest of her family regularly.
Like most Nigerians, the family’s savings are trapped in the bank. A changeover to redesigned currency has plunged Africa’s largest economy into crisis just ahead of a presidential election: There aren’t enough new banknotes in a country reliant on cash.
For Inemesit, 28, the shortage of cash means even basics like food and medicine are getting trimmed for her husband, mother, kids ages 4 to 8 and two other relatives. One recent afternoon, only the children had gotten bread and hot drinks.
“We usually eat three square meals, but now we eat once sometimes because there is no money to use,” Inemesit said in her house in Banana village, an overcrowded shanty town tucked in the southern corner of the Nigerian capital of Abuja.
“We were told to drop the old currency (notes) in the bank and that new one is coming,” she said. “But we don’t have the new currency and no old currency. Everything is just tough.”
Customers are waiting all day at banks and ATMs to withdraw only enough money — called naira — to last a day. Fights have broken out in bank halls, angry customers have attacked workers and protesters have set financial institutions on fire. Businesses unable carry out transactions have been forced to close, and people are illegally selling new currency notes at higher rates.
As people become more desperate for cash, the impact is likely to spill into the Feb. 25 presidential election. Nigerians hope to elect someone to fix challenges ranging from a security crisis that has killed thousands in the past year to an ailing economy.
The shortage of currency “has already created significant hardship, which could make a greater number of voters vulnerable to vote-buying and ratchet up election tensions even further,” said the International Crisis Group, which works to prevent conflict.
Facing increasing pressure to find a solution, President Muhammadu Buhari, who has reached his term limits and leaves office in May, said he directed the Central Bank of Nigeria to “deploy all legitimate resources and legal means” to ensure people “enjoy easy access to cash withdrawal.”
“I am deeply pained and sincerely sympathize with you all over these unintended outcomes,” he said, while still defending the changes.
Experts blame policymakers for a “rushed” introduction of the new naira notes. Central bank leader Godwin Emefiele argued that some government officials are “buying the new notes and storing them for whatever purposes.”
The central bank has said the revamped currency would help curb money laundering before the election, transform the West African nation into a cashless economy and fight inflation of over 21%, a 17-year high.
Inemesit said she — like many others — have started losing interest in the election, dampening hopes of increased voter participation after years of steady decline in turnout.
She voted in 2019 when only 34% of registered voters cast their ballot for president. But as this year’s election draws closer, her vote and hopes for a better country have been dashed.
“With what we are facing now, I don’t have the aim of voting again. When you don’t have the strength to walk to where they are voting, how will you be able to vote?” she said.
The cash shortages have made life even more difficult in Nigeria, where 63% of the population is poor, 33% is unemployed and as of 2021, only 45% of adults had a bank account, according to the World Bank. The crisis has added to the woes of surging inflation and a weakened currency.
The three top contenders in the presidential race have made pledges to deliver democratic change to Nigerians. The ruling party’s Bola Tinubu has said he is seeking to “renew hope,” while the main opposition party’s Atiku Abubakar wants to “rescue” Nigeria. The Labour Party’s Peter Obi — who leads the crowded field in recent polls — has p romised to “rebuild” the country.
Lack of access to cash has affected consumption patterns and trade for small and medium businesses in the informal sector, a major employer that includes farming, street and market trade, and public transport, said Joachim MacEbong, a senior governance analyst at Stears, a Nigerian intelligence company.
The central bank’s yearslong push to make the economy cashless led digital transactions to increase 150% last year. However, unreliable digital payment platforms have forced many businesses to use paper naira.
“The cost of denying people access to cash far outweighs any benefit,” MacEbong said.
At ATMs, people are making choices they never would have imagined: Sunny Eze, a father of two, was hungry but was saving the little money on him for transportation if he couldn’t get cash. Esther Ugonna waited for about 10 hours to withdraw 10,000 naira ($22). Nasir Yusuf closed his shop for the day, devoting his time to trying to withdraw cash he needed.
Inemesit, meanwhile, waited in line until 8 p.m. one day last week and returned home empty-handed. Like dozens of others, she was told the bank branch had run out of new banknotes.
“If someone were to tell me that I can have the money but I cannot make use of the money, I would not believe it,” she said, frustrated and downcast. With her 1.7 million naira ($3,680) in the bank, “you have the money, but you cannot see it.”
The family’s income from selling bags such as luggage and backpacks has fallen drastically as Nigerians with little cash on hand are prioritizing food over other needs.
“People will not leave feeding their family to come and buy bags,” she said.
The crisis has left Inemesit too tired and frustrated to think of the upcoming presidential vote.
“The government failed us very well. They disappointed us,” she said, grabbing her 4-year-old who was coughing incessantly. “Things are difficult and everything has been increasing prices.”