In defence of ATM charges

Most Nigerians don’t get the message in some of our wise sayings. Awoof de purge belly is one of our contemporary sayings we have in mind here. If at the end of the Civil War in 1970 we had treated free oil money as haram, a lotus eaters’ haven that Nigeria has become today wouldn’t have been our portion. Politics wouldn’t have become a do-or-die affair and there wouldn’t have been so much corruption, killings, kidnappings, cultism, carpet crossing by politicians and all forms of unimaginable fraudulent practices. Many of our industries wouldn’t have packed up or producing far below installed capacity due to acute shortage of electricity. Many artisans wouldn’t have been sleeping the days away in their workshops due to this same acute shortage of electricity. The unemployment rate wouldn’t have been so high and poverty, hardship, anger wouldn’t have been so prevalent in the land. Since we have not learnt that all this was due to free (awoof) oil money, some mischievous Nigerians still want us to continue with yet another free item that will worsen our collective haemorrhage in the near future. Under the pretext of protecting the poor, these vocal Nigerians want us to continue withdrawing cash from the Automatic Teller Machines without paying a kobo!

Ordinarily, most poor persons have no business with the banks and the reason some persons have appointed themselves as their advocates in the Central Bank of Nigeria’s new policy on ATM cash withdrawal remains unclear. As what they earn is far below their basic needs, most poor persons live from hand to mouth. Some of the married ones amongst them live by the grace of their partners while many others live by the grace of generous traders or service providers. Landlords, proprietors of schools their children attend, foodstuff sellers, meal and even liquor shack operators are some of the persons they always owe at one time or the other. The few who are thrifty prefer to patronise a form of banking known in some places as osusu. Individuals collect a fixed amount from them every day and at the end of the month, the collector returns the money for the month less one day which is his commission. It is because some employers especially governments insist on paying salaries of all their employees into banks that a category of the poor is compelled to operate bank accounts.

Since their monthly incomes hardly offset half of their basic needs as well as what they owe, most of the poor persons operating bank accounts usually withdraw all their salary just once. And since the reintroduced charge is N65 after the third withdrawal, there is no way it will affect the low income earner who receives less than N20,000 a month. Even those earning up to N60,000 a month who are not willing to part with the N65 for a fourth and subsequent withdrawals could also avoid paying it by withdrawing all their money thrice. This is because the ATMs dispense up to N20,000 with a single withdrawal. Some ATMs are even programmed to pay up to N40,000 with a single withdrawal and both the low and medium salary earners are not going to be affected by the charges. The elite protesting on their behalf are suspected to have some ulterior motives in some quarters.

A friend of mine who is a natural psychologist believes the elite who are against the new policy want us all to return to the cashiers in the banking halls. According to him, this is because they hate the machines which they see as no respecter of persons. They loathe the way both the affluent and the poor are made to queue before the machines and to wait patiently for their turn. He went on to say that many playboys like dating female cashiers who, after seeing their fat bank accounts, are always too willing to fall for them. These rich playboys are therefore unhappy the ATMs have robbed them of this source of respectable partners. The machines don’t also select crisp notes of specific denomination for any particular person as some cashiers often do for the mighty. They dispense what they have without discrimination. According to the psychologist, many affluent persons who are not contented with dominating only their homes and offices hate these attributes of the machines. They want them to pack up so that we can return to banking halls where corrupt managers and cashiers defer to them to the detriment of the poor.

Remember that before the advent of ATMs, it could take a whole day for the poor man to withdraw his meagre salary from most banks and this was largely due to the corruption of the bank staff by “big men”. Before 8.30am, when some banks usually open for business, the poor man could be seen already queuing at the gates. Another queue awaits him at the sluggish security doors that groan as they open or close. Inside the bank, the mother of all queues awaits the client who wants to withdraw money. People start queuing up even before the cashiers were ready for them.

On certain days, long queues would snake all over the place in some popular bank halls and temper used to be brittle. This is because the cashiers were always few and harried. They only smiled when an affluent client who tips them generously was seen. They would ignore those in the queue to attend to such generous clients. Branch managers and other highly placed officials of some banks were the worst offenders. They used to pass behind to give cheques they had collected from their rich friends to the cashiers and within a minute, they would be cleared. Protest from those queuing patiently is like water thrown on the back of a duck. It has no effect and before the poor man knows it, he has spent the whole day at the bank.

In some months, it could take two or more stressful days before the poor man collects his paltry salary from cashiers in those pre-ATM days. One of the occasions this could happen includes when some workers, NYSC members or pensioners who have been owed many months descend on some banks after finally being paid something. Sometimes, it could be due to what the bankers call system failure. The poor man who had been pushed and shoved around all day would be told, as it was nearing his turn, that there was no more cash to pay anybody. He was usually asked to leave his passbook or cheque leaf behind and come back the next day.

On getting back to his place of work the next day, some bosses would want to know why the poor man was absent throughout the previous day. Some bosses will not believe him if he says that the bank could not, due to the throng of clients, attend to him throughout the whole day. The poor man would then be reprimanded verbally if not given a written query to answer. If quantified, the physical and mental strain this wreak on the poor man as well as the loss of working hours to his establishment could be far above the ATM withdrawal charges which some vocal persons are criticising as a punishment for the poor. Even if no withdrawal was exempted from the charges, most poor persons will gladly pay the N65 when they remember their pre-ATM days’ ordeal.

Another common anomaly of some ATMs is the unwarranted seizure of users’ card. It has been observed that it is only when several users whose debit cards have been seized start complaining before bank officials become aware of malfunctioning machines. There are also too many prolonged system failures and some machines are also very slow. If critics of the new policy on cash withdrawal charges are sincere, they ought to know that these and other costly flaws of some ATMs are due to lack of qualified staff. They also ought to know that well-trained computer engineers are not cheap to come by and banks need money to hire them. In this new world where almost everything has been computerised, allowing our ATMs to malfunction because of our penchant for free things will do us more harm in the future as free oil money has been doing!