By Uchenna Uwaleke
Long queues at the Automated Teller Machines have become a common sight especially during festive periods. Recent reports in the media speak of gruelling experiences that bank customers (especially in Kano and Kaduna) went through in a bid to withdraw cash from the ATMs during the Eid el Kabir celebrations. The reasons ranged from technical faults/machine breakdown to network problem and power failure with some customers reporting cases of “ATM cash dispense error”, a situation where the machine debits a customer’s account without actually dispensing the cash. To make matters worse, several ATM outlets were out of service.
Festive periods are usually associated with high demand for cash balances especially for transaction purposes. As a result, many customers throng the ATMs to withdraw money. Therefore, the banks should recognise this fact and brace themselves to the challenge by providing more ATM points in their various branches. They should also ensure that the machines are regularly loaded with cash whenever they run empty, especially over the weekends. The ATM is programmed to operate on an Uninterrupted Power Supply device. So, the banks should ensure that back-up power (inverter) is made available at all ATM locations in such a way that the machine would not cease operation while in the middle of a transaction. Efficient network connectively is sine qua non.
Just like every other machine, regular maintenance of the ATMs cannot be over-emphasised. Routine maintenance will minimise hardware breakdown. By investing the right amount to keep their systems properly maintained, commercial banks prolong the lives of their ATMs and ensure better customer experiences. Prompt attention to complaints will also help to soothe nerves and reduce long queues. This is made possible through a help desk that is manned by trained staff. Also, the bank’s security personnel and mobile policemen should always be around the ATMs to ensure security of customers and orderliness especially during public holidays that come with festive periods. In order to minimise incidence of cash jam in the machine resulting in the malfunctioning of the ATM, efforts should be made not to load the cash trays with dirty and mutilated notes. Dirty notes generally cause paper dirt to be lodged in sensitive parts of the ATM when it is dispensing cash, thereby resulting in more frequent system faults or currency jams.
The Central Bank of Nigeria’s Standards and Guidelines on ATM operations in Nigeria issued in April 2010 requires that a bank or independent organisation which deploys an ATM for the use of the public should ensure that the ATM is not stocked with unfit notes. But the banks say the CBN is to blame since they can only dispense the currency notes they get from the central bank. Under the “clean note policy” of the CBN, “currency is issued to deposit money banks through the branches of the CBN, and old notes retrieved through the same channel. Currency deposited in the CBN by the banks are processed and sorted to fit and unfit notes. The clean notes are re-issued while the dirty notes are destroyed”.
Despite this “clean note policy”, a lot of torn, worn-out, mutilated, dirty and smelly naira notes are currently in circulation. It is time the CBN stepped up its public sensitisation through the print and electronic media, as well as the bank’s branch network on how not to handle currency notes. Deposit Money Banks also have a vital role to play in ensuring that unfit notes do not go back into circulation. It is a fact that bad currency notes marked for the incinerator can only find their way back into circulation with the connivance of corrupt bank officials. The co-operation of commercial banks is therefore vital in enhancing the quality of currency notes in circulation.
Getting the banked population to make use of alternative electronic payment platforms will also go a long way in reducing the number of bank customers who queue up at the ATM points. It should bug the apex bank that several years after the official launch of the cashless policy in January 2012, cash-based transactions are still commonplace. For example, Point of Sale transactions remain low in Nigeria not least because there are insufficient POS machines in most places where the average Nigerian spends the bulk of his income such as markets, fuel stations, restaurants and so on. There is therefore the need to promote the adoption of POS machines by market women, meat sellers, private clinics, motor mechanics and other players in the huge informal sector of the economy. The CBN can also devise means to incentivise the citizens to use their cards like it was done in India.
Notable among the provisions of the CBN’s Standards on ATM operations in Nigeria are that banks should not allow the ATM downtime (due to technical fault) to exceed 72 hours consecutively and that the ATM vault replenishment should be carried out as often as possible to avoid cash-out. Ensuring compliance with these provisions through the use of appropriate sanctions either in the form of monetary penalties or suspension of the acquiring/processing service or both will go a long way in minimising ‘unable to dispense cash’ notices as well as reducing snaking queues at the ATMs during festive periods.
Uchenna Uwaleke is a Public Affairs Analyst.