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By Oludare Mayowa
LAGOS, Jan 10 (Reuters) - Nigeria's bureau de change operators set their first ever reference exchange rate for the naira at 399 to the dollar on Tuesday, saying they wanted to help reduce the gap with the official interbank rate.
The government has been pressing retail operators to narrow what it says is a damaging gulf between the naira's official rate - currently at 305 to the dollar - and the parallel rate - as weak as 490 in recent days.
Bureau de Change association president Aminu Gwadabe, who is due to meet central bank officials later on Tuesday, said his members had agreed to set a weekly reference rate to improve liquidity and help rebuild investors' confidence on the economy.
"Once liquidity improves, the wide margin between the parallel and official market rates will be bridged," Gwadabe told reporters.
He said the naira's outlook was "promising" as crude prices have started to rise. Low prices have dried up the oil income that makes up 70 percent of government revenues, cutting the dollar supply and pushing Africa's largest economy into recession.
Retail currency operators account for less than 5 percent of total foreign currency trading in Nigeria. But with liquidity poor on the official market due to low oil revenues and the central bank left as the main dollar supplier, the bureau de changes have done more business.
Gwadabe said the body was seeking approval from the central bank to access dollars from exporters and has recommended suspension for some of its members for failing to submit documents on forex purchases from money transfer agents.
The naira lost a third of its official value against the dollar in 2016. (Writing by Chijioke Ohuocha)