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Failed to say where they get the wood to make the new
West Africa launches currency switch with little bang for the buck
DAKAR (AFP) - Few people lined up on the first day of a 40 million euro (49 million dollar) campaign to replace old banknotes with new ones across the eight countries of the Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa.
Bank tellers from Dakar to Ouagadougou to Abidjan waiting for hordes of people to come in and exchange tattered old banknotes for new ones, which represent half of the bills in regional circulation, sat idly as the crowds failed to materialize.
"They'll come at midday or later, and anyway, they have until December 31 to change their bills," noted Lydia, a teller at the Bank of Africa in the Senegalese capital.
Come January 1, some 850 billion CFA francs (1.3 billion euros) in bills from the 1992 series will no longer be considered legal tender in Senegal, Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger, Togo, Benin and Guinea-Bissau.
The new banknotes, manufactured in France since last year, incorporate a number of security measures that make them harder to duplicate than the old notes, which were ripe for counterfeiting.
The CFA franc is the common currency of many former French colonies and a few other African countries. Its value was pegged to the French franc and repegged to the euro when it replaced many European currencies.
The central bank decided in December last year to withdraw the 1992 series from circulation, aiming to "harmonize" currency flows across the eight UEMOA countries, according to a statement from the bank.
Critics are finding fault not with the change itself but with the short time frame citizens will have to turn in their old bills, particularly those in far-flung rural areas.
No major public awareness campaign has accompanied the launch of the changeover, though dailies in Senegal were packed with news and tips for residents about how to go about handing in their old bills.
"No one knows anything -- there have been no ads on television, no press releases, nothing," an irate resident of the Togolese capital Lome said.
Others worry that the widespread illiteracy in the zone could make people particular prey for bill-changing scams. A change in color of the 5,000 CFA franc note has also prompted fears that illiterate populations will misidentify the bills and get shortchanged by less-than-scrupulous merchants.
"We are going to have difficulty out in the provinces, we think, because it is hard to get information out," a central bank employee in Niger told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Bank officials have, however, expressed confidence that the deadline will be met on time.
"I personally have no worries that we will not make our goals of completing the exercise by December," Amadou Bachir, director of currency emissions for the central bank, told AFP last week
Armed guards greeted bank clients in Bissau on Wednesday, one of the only places where security was noticeably tightened due to the changeover.
"We will not stint on security during the operation," local central bank director Aguinaldo Embalo told AFP.
Bank tellers in Mali are also on the lookout for bills from the series that were stolen in a string of bank robberies in restive northern Ivory Coast.
Tellers have memorized the serial numbers on the banknotes stolen from central bank branches in Korhogo and Bouake, strongholds of the rebels who retain control of the north of the world's top cocoa producer two years after their failed coup against President Laurent Gbagbo.
Extra security will be on hand to help make sure that stolen bills were not being laundered through the currency changeover, bank officials added.