February 12, 2015 / 3:57 PM / 3 years ago

Nigerians flee naira as politics casts 'dark shroud'

* Nigerians buy up dollars, sterling as naira suffers

* Wealthy elite looks at property abroad

* With few options to remove cash, most bunker down

By Tim Cocks

ABUJA, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Nigerians are dumping the naira currency as it skids lower by the day, driven by fear of the unknown after authorities pushed back the date of a presidential election.

Already mauled by a halving of oil prices since last June, the naira this week fell through the key level of 200 to the dollar, forcing people like Boyin Akinteye to seek ways of protecting their savings.

In the up-market Dunes shopping mall in the capital Abuja, the freelance gift designer and mother of two young children was buying dollars and moving them into her Bank of America account in the United States.

"The naira's way down," she said. "We're uncertain when or where it's going to end so my husband and I, we took action."

When electoral commission chairman Attahiru Jega revealed on Saturday that national security chiefs had urged him to delay the poll by six weeks to March 28, it reminded many of the cancellation of a 1993 election by the military government then in power. Some wonder if the vote will take place at all.

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote in an editorial that "it has cast, at least for the next six weeks, the darkest possible shroud over our democracy: uncertainty."

That uncertainty has already sent foreign portfolio investors scurrying for the exit. But for Nigerians that exit is not always easy to find.

Wiring money abroad is difficult as the central bank caps transfers at $10,000 a day and other countries often ask for proof of how the money was earned and taxed, said a wealthy Lagos-based businessman who asked not to be named.

Since a lot of the big bucks in Nigeria are earned in shady or corrupt business deals, using shell companies to avoid tax, such proof can be hard to produce.

Spot checks on Nigerians at airports mean smuggling cash out in a suitcase is not an option, the businessman added.

While some middle-class Nigerians keep dollars in onshore accounts, he said he and his friends were worried about the risk of capital controls that could limit withdrawals later. Some, he said, were taking their dollars out now and stuffing them under the mattress.

MARKET ALARM

Despite a call for calm by Central Bank Governor Godwin Emefiele, the markets are jittery: foreign exchange dealers suspended electronic trading in two consecutive sessions on Wednesday and Thursday because of the pace of the naira's fall.

The currency is already over 20 percent weaker than the central bank's target rate of 168 to the dollar, and black market traders are selling for around 210.

Rates on derivatives contracts suggest the naira could fall another 30 percent in the next 12 months.

One well-connected member of the elite, who declined to be named, said friends were looking at property in London, Dubai and the United States. Dubai is favoured since authorities ask fewer questions about where the money came from, he said.

Nasser Mohammed, the chief executive of a small oil and gas firm, is holding much of his savings in dollars and pounds, while opting not to repatriate cash from operations in London.

"The only way to save your money right now is to keep it in dollars or pounds. Otherwise, it's going to vanish," he said, tucking into a roast chicken lunch at an Abuja restaurant.

The head of strategy at one bank said he was approached by a customer with 3 billion naira ($14.7 million) who wanted to hold some of it in dollars. He advised her against it in case the naira stabilises and she loses out, especially with a wide spread and high bank charges.

The central bank last devalued the currency in November but a further devaluation has already been priced in, he said. On Thursday the bank said it had burned through $1 billion in nine trading sessions in its efforts to defend the naira.

Foreign companies with earnings in local currency are likely to take a hit, although most try to hedge against currency declines by recycling naira locally.

Soap maker PZ Cussons told Reuters: "While there is uncertainty surrounding the election, PZ Cussons remains confident about the medium- and long-term opportunities."

Diageo, for whom Nigeria is the biggest market for Guinness stout, declined to comment.

Many Nigerians are greeting uncertainty, as they often do, with a fatalistic shrug of the shoulders.

"The rich guys are moving money out but I earn in naira, so I'm keeping it in naira," said construction engineer Michael Akinyemi. "What's the point unless you're fleeing the country?" ($1 = 204.0500 naira) (Additional reporting by Ed Cropley in Johannesburg, Chijioke Ohuocha in Lagos, James Davey and Neil Maidment in London and Katharina Bart in Zurich; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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