Christmas Rush: Cash Crunch Hits Port Harcourt Banks

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Ernest Chinwo in Port Harcourt

Joseph Ibemere, a 54-year-old worker in one of the construction firms in Port Harcourt, had planned to travel to his Ikeduru hometown in Imo State on Saturday morning.

He had hoped to get money from the bank using the automated teller machine (ATM) point since his company had paid his salary into his bank account.

On Friday afternoon, he rushed to the ATM points in Woji Community in Port Harcourt metropolis. He was jolted by the crowd he saw. He however joined the queue hoping to get the necessary fund for his travel. After spending five hours on the queue, the ATM ran out of cash. It was 11.15pm, a disappointed Ibemere went home to start the process all over the next day.

He had to try banks at the Trans-Amadi Industrial Layout yesterday morning. After trying five banks, he settled at Stanbic IBTC Bank where he met about 50 persons on the queue. As at 3pm, he was still on the queue hoping to get cash.

Ibemere is not alone. John Onyeulo and Miss Josephine Ibiwari have similar tales. Onyeulo had spent four hours at the bank and had not succeeded to get cash for his travel. Ibiwari also said her trip to her village in Akukutoru Local Government Area of Rivers State had been hampered by lack of funds.
When THISDAY visited Mile 1 Ikwerre Road branch of First Bank PLC at about 3.30pm yesterday, there were more than 150 persons trying to access cash through the ATM and only one out of the six points was dispensing cash.

“Other years, it used to be queues at filling stations but this year its queues at bank ATMs. We voted for change, this is what we have got,” lamented a middle-aged woman who would not wish to give her name. “I can’t but things in the market. How do I buy things for my family even when I have small money in my account,” she cried in frustration.

This is representative of the plight of residents of Rivers State, especially Port Harcourt metropolis as heavy cash crunch has hit the city as residents now have to queue for days before they can withdraw cash from banks either directly across the counter or using the ATM points.

The queues which became noticeable when the MMM was in vogue got worse in the week heralding Christmas. The queues had built up for weeks but it reached the climax on Friday and Saturday. On Friday, most banks were filled to the brim with customers trying to access cash. Even queues that were meant to be for privileged customers like “Fast track” had more clients than the normal ones.
There were however no explanations from officials of the banks leaving room for speculations.

Onyeulo told THISDAY that he initially thought the queues in Port Harcourt banks were due to people who patronised the MMM online investment platform.

“Initially I thought it was the MMM issue but it has continued even after MMM suspended operations. I don’t know why this is peculiar to Port Harcourt. Could it be that CBN (Central Bank of Nigeria) refused to send money to Port Harcourt because of the rerun elections but the elections are over,” he said.
Ibiwari on her part believes there is a deliberate plot by the Federal Government to punish Port Harcourt residents especially during this Yuletide season. “If not why is it that only Port Harcourt is affected by this cash wahala?” she said.

Sources within the banking industry however placed the blame for the cash crunch on the Port Harcourt branch of the CBN. A highly placed source who would not wish to be named said the CBN had refused to release cash to banks to meet the anticipated rise in demand for cash during the Yuletide.
“The CBN did not release cash to banks as requested by the banks to meet the rising demand for cash especially as people would be travelling for Christmas. This rise in demand for cash was expected as this happens every by this period every year.

“As the Port Harcourt branch of the CBN refused to release cash, the banks could not go to other branches of the CBN to get cash because of the huge cost involved. So that option was not appealing to the banks especially now that banks are not making much profit. So, most banks now depend on cash deposits from customers to meet the demands of those wishing to withdraw cash,” he said.