Money Manoeuvers in West Africa

It’s not just mosquitoes that suck your blood
West Africa

CFA Franc

Most of these countries are ex-French colonies, and with Equatorial Guinea (ex-Spanish) they all (except Mauritania and Guinea-Conakry) use the Communaute Financiere Africaine (CFA) Franc, called the “ceefa” and pegged at CFA100 = FFr1, which is especially convenient for the French, and profitable for their state.

For the rest of us, a convenient approximation is CFA 1,000 to a pound and CFA 500 to a US dollar, though it does vary. French Francs in cash can be changed almost anywhere with almost anyone at almost any time quite openly; there is no black market. Thus you can cross many borders without having to worry about changing money. But you needn’t expect to be able to change CFA back into Francs at all easily, certainly not outside West Africa though maybe, just maybe, in France.

Less convenient is that there are two sorts of CFA, for West and for Central Africa and although they are on par, they are not interchangeable, except at the border. Since this meeting place, the only meeting place, is along the Chad/Niger border where there are no roads (or even tracks), just desert, and involves a particularly difficult journey, you probably won’t try this unless ultra-determined.

Otherwise, Nigeria stands as the intermediary. On entry to Nigeria, change all of your remnant CFA into Naira, and on exit from Nigeria on the other side, all your remnant Naira into the other CFA. Each such transaction is easily effected at the border (and only the border) with your chosen moneychanger, and all the usual cautions apply.

If you miss out on this, you will have to get creative. Aside from the chance of encountering a fellow traveller going the other way, a supposed ploy is to try the staff in, say, Cameroun Air at an office in Abidjan in the hope that someone about to go home might want to buy some of their homeland’s CFA. Good luck.

Once inside Nigeria, you will probably be better off dealing in

cash, with caution. Some Nigerians have given their countrymen a

reputation for fraud, and it is the tricksters who are likely to seek

you out.

In my case, a combination of holidays and inconvenient timing

meant that banks were not much use to me. It started with a Saturday

evening arrival at Port Harcourt, and as the night is dangerous, no

street moneychangers operated nor should they be sought. So I felt

obliged to try an expensive hotel near Amon Lodge, and their cashier

smugly offered 76 Naira to the US dollar rather than the 80+ I had

calculated from the border exchange of CFA. And if I changed only $20,

then 72. My hotel boss had suggested I tried at the airport, but that

would have meant a taxi ride each way.

With hindsight, I should have let him hold my $20 as a deposit for the pre-payment for my room, and then redeemed it after changing the next day as it turned out that the next train to Jos did not depart that morning, as I had feared, but on Monday morning. It would have been less risky too. On my way back to Amon Lodge, a car driver stopped to offer me a ride as the streets are dangerous, but I assured him that I had only a short way to go.

On arrival in Jos I was ready to try a bank. The Central Bank

declined travellers’ cheques, and in the First Bank (ex-Standard &

Chartered, I was told) there is confusion. A rate of 75 is mentioned,

but I can’t get clear whether this is for cash, or travellers’ cheques.

Then the bank clerk introduces me to a friend who wants to deal big.

Alas, for only $100 the rate is “Not important”. It is to me. He

doesn’t fuss over 80, so it should have been higher, but he has

accepted my offer so I am committed to it.

At his home I blink as he shows me at least fifteen thousand pounds

in a wad of banknotes, and other currencies too. He’d prefer pounds,

but dollars are acceptable. On a £40,000 business deal, about two weeks work, he would make a profit of £25,000 whereas in Europe, less than £4,000. He does have special overheads to cover. Besides the

substantial wall around his home’s compound (a neighbour’s is topped by barbed wire coils), he incurs special fees to his contacts amongst

officialdom, especially the customs officials who decide what duties

are to be levied on the goods he is importing, and whose intercessions

maintain the profit margin by which they all fatten. My transaction is

small potatoes, but even so, he gives me a ride back to town.

My next transaction is in Maiduguri, where as I wander through the

market area I hear the whisper “Change money?” We agree on 83 and

retire to a nearby draper’s stall, but when his friend returns with a

wad (the largest banknote is N50, but N20 is the more common and useful denomination), he starts talking about the “Weak dollar” and wanting 82. Selective understanding of English is deployed when I ask “So why did you agree to 83?”, but once I rise to depart, he re-accepts 83 and we deal. Then his runner wants a N50 tip, but I suggest his boss is the one to ask, and hurry away in case someone had been loitering.

The train gets me to Lagos in time for a three-day public holiday,

so once again a street deal is required. Lagos is rather worse than

Port Harcourt: there is no prospect of venturing outside at night. Even to go around the corner from the Ritz Hotel to the telephone office at 9pm has my receptionist saying “No”.

So in the morning I stroll along the quiet streets towards the infamous Bristol Hotel, and the hisses start. Plus the usual games. “What rate do you want?” is the hopeful question: “What rate do you offer?” is my occasional response. Offers of 80 are ignored, as is 82, but when a fellow steps up to 84 as he trails me, I accept, though reproving him for first offering 80. This is a delicate issue. If the offer is too high (say 90?), you are being set up for a swindle. Keep greed suppressed! You’re on their ground, walking into their area of expertise and pre-preparation. It is unlikely that you would succeed in swindling the practiced swindlers. You are better off dealing with Muslims. If you agree to a bad rate, that’s your lookout, but outright robbery is unlikely. And unnecessary to a professional.

We retire to the foyer of some building and the counting begins. All N20 notes! For $100 that means 420 notes, in wads of a hundred. Pox. But the N50 notes are too large for most transactions so I don’t make a big fuss, just a groan, which he shares.

With my back to a wall where I can see the doorway I sit on a bench

top, counting, and find some wads overstuffed. This might be a more

subtle ploy than the usual understuffing – you complain, apologies are

offered, notes are added and you are happy, except that more notes have been subtracted as well. Perhaps I am expected to accept the error, and then be confounded by a subsequent denunciation. Or maybe it was just an honest mistake. I take the path of simple directness: after recounting with the same result I say “I count six notes extra” and hand back the wad. He recounts it while I count another, subtracts some notes and returns the wad, which is placed on the ‘to-be-counted’ side where I’m sitting.

A second such overcount is dealt with likewise, but eventually we’re done, so I hand over my last $100, from my neck pouch. I am not

carrying any other money. He is impressed by my leg pouch (another

reason for wearing long trousers), which however can barely hold two

hundred notes. I return to my hotel to spread the wads around, and also to sort them into dirty notes for spending here, and cleaner notes to hold to exchange at the border, as moneychangers can be fussy at times.

Ghana, surrounded by CFA countries, has its own money (Cedi), and there are foreign exchange offices (“Forex”) at the borders just within Ghana, and throughout Ghana. Once within Ghana it is slightly better to deal with banks for travellers’ cheques; only in central Accra would any Forex office deal in them, but they are open for longer hours. Otherwise cash only, in a variety of currencies. There is no need to deal with any of the ambulant moneychangers at the border who hope to make a fat profit off you.

If you are returning to the CFA zone anyway, you can hold your CFA as it is a stable currency (except for in early 1994 when the French government devalued it from 50/Franc to the current 100/Franc. Ow!). With the impending replacement of the Franc by the Euro in early 2002, the CFA will be linked to the memory of the Franc, via the fixed Euro – Franc exchange rate of 6.55957, so that one Euro will exchange for CFA 656, no longer a nice round number (and alas, not quite 666 as in the Book of Revelations), for as long as this link is maintained.

Within the CFA zone you will save yourself a great deal of trouble by having your travellers’ cheques denominated in French Francs. Nothing else. If your home currency is not Francs, it is still well worth your while and expense to buy at least the money you expect to use in the CFA zone in French Francs, and as FFr are globally convertible, erring on the high side will not be a problem.

The CFA countries are expensive for Africa; prices in Ghana and Nigeria are often less than half. And with the conversion being a convenient 100:1 you can watch all the fun ways that banks suck your blood. Commission, (percentage and a flat fee) and a per-cheque fee; all will be encountered in various combinations that would make comparison shopping difficult as well as time-consuming were it not that often only one bank will deal (or exist) in towns other than the capital city.

With French Francs, the banks can’t play games with their choice of exchange rate for your transaction, as they normally do, and their fees are easily noticeable. Painfully noticeable. If you think that a credit card or the like would be better, remember that such services have their own fees (and games with exchange rates), are severely less available (capital cities and top end hotels, at best), and will likely consume an inordinate amount of time (like an hour) even if you find a bank that says yes.

So, when preparing to set out from Cairo, I argued the Thomas Cook agency into selling me travellers’ cheques in French Francs rather than the US dollars they thought universal, and was ready to enter into contention. I took only FFr 500 cheques, the highest denomination.

For simplicity, I generally changed FFr 1,000 so I should have received CFA 100,000. A charge of 5,000 therefore represents a 5% slurp. And this is how the slurping went:



  • The only bank was defunct. This was why I had cash, and had changed a fair wad before leaving Khartoum. (No faith in Nyala).


  • BIAT took 3,350 which I though excessive untilÂ…



  • Credit Lyonnaise wanted 5,350.

  • BCIC only 5,000 but were very slow, so cash at a shop.


  • BCIC wanted 6,000.

  • Credit Lyonnaise took 5,350 though for FFr 2,000 CFA 7,000 was offered, but I feared theft.

  • Standard & Chartered wanted 20,450! And this despite it selling Thomas Cook cheques! Maniacs! A record, untilÂ…

    Equatorial Guinea


  • CICIC wanted 26,880 after a long calculation. Wasted.

  • BIAO stated 3,000 per transaction so I stepped up to Fr 1,500 and yes, the commission was 3,000 butÂ… a fee of 640 and a further 8,000 “For the Thomas Cook branch in Paris” so 11,640. Bah.



  • BOA took 1,050. A relief!


  • EcoBank wanted 2,500 and the same to sell me FFr in cash.

  • BOA took 1,050 and converted some to FFr cash, no charge. Yay!

    Ivory Coast


  • BIAO took 250 from FFr 500. But I was holding out forÂ…

    Burkina Faso


  • BIB took zero! And this in one of the world’s poorest countries. So much for the “Thomas Cook bank in Paris”!



  • BDM – a fellow ahead of me turned back, saying “Over 5%”.

  • BIAO took 3,450 as a fixed charge.


  • BMCD wanted 4,250.

  • BDM wanted 5,750.

  • BIM took 3,450.

    And after that I was done changing travellers’ cheques in CFA country, so I can’t report on Senegal, nor did I need to change money in Togo.

    In The Gambia there was no particular problem. The bank in Basse Santa Su, Standard & Chartered, asserted “No commission” (cf Douala!), but no doubt enjoyed their choice of an exchange rate. I didn’t get to the other Guineas due to the civil war in Guinea-Bissau (Sierra Leone and especially Liberia are out of contention), so I cut short the southwards loop to start heading north, scuttling along the edge of the Sahara again.

    Mauritanian Note

    In Mauritania, there is semi-tight currency control. When I saw the mob in a bank’s lobby in Nouakchott, I went for a walk, and was soon accosted by a whispered “Change money?” Don’t deal on the street! The premium is about 20% for illicit transactions so that means that enforcement is stern. They will, of course, attempt to exchange at the official rate unless you know better, so you had better know better.

    The banks had posted about U28 for FFr 1 (and charge a commission), and this was the rate offered in the first whispers heard. I finally agreed to 35, and later, when I rebuffed another street dealer saying that I had changed at 35, he said that he would have offered 37, but I suspect that this would have been the bait for a swindle.

    Instead, I went into a café/restaurant, both to be less conspicuous, and also so as to have a place to which I could return and cause trouble as opposed to some stretch of street where I had dealt with some stranger that nobody knew anything about. In this regard, dealing with a shop owner is best, as he has a real desire for avoiding subsequent entanglements.

    Although cash would have been easier, I was retaining my cash for later need. To my surprise, a travellers’ cheque was acceptable. However, he had to “Go somewhere” to deal with it then return with the money, a scheme that would normally be rejected outright. But the café boss vouched for him (“He is Muslim”), and it worked. When finished, we agreed that we all remembered nothing about nobody.

    Naturally, such a transaction does not involve official receipts nor official entries on your currency declaration form. On entry from Senegal at Rosso (it straddles the Senegal river), I was called upon to declare all money, and details were noted on a sheet of paper (they had run out of the form) that was then rubber stamped in the usual manner. Adjacent to the customs post there were money-exchange shacks, but they dealt only in cash (e.g., my remnant CFA) and did not make any adjustments to my official form nor issue a receipt. So I might just have well have dealt with the moneychangers, as locals did. I was worried about searches, and the supposed prohibition against bringing Ouguiya into Mauritania.

    As I departed Mauritania via a clandestine nighttime trip from Nouadhibou, I can’t report on what currency checking there might have been if I were to have left via the airport. Other travellers had not obtained any form of declaration, so this feature may be on the way out, and is at least arguable.

    Once in Morocco, there was no trouble in changing money; the southernmost bank is at Dakhla.

    You might think from all this that the best bet is to carry cash. Well, it is certainly the most convenient form of all, but you are running the risk of theft, especially if it becomes known that travellers are likely to be wandering about with a fat stash of cash.

    Avoiding this was the justification for travellers’ cheques in the first place. I was fortunate enough not to be robbed out in the streets, only inside banks. For what it is worth, I have written a grump letter to Thomas Cook about these matters. Remember that it costs you 1% to buy the travellers’ cheques, and then, all the time that you are carrying them, the issuing company enjoys having your money as an interest-free loan. That is why they encourage you to save any uncashed cheques “Until your next trip”. Bloodsuckers!

    Enough for a Meal

    So, if you are travelling across West Africa, some thought can save you some money. The sums may seem small, but for example, at the Horizon 2 streetside restaurant in Ouagadougou on Ave. de la Liberte, near Hotel Le Pavillon Vert, I was able to eat a substantial dinner of beef stew (with potato), a plate of salad, and a bottle of cold Coca-Cola for CFA 1,000 and very tasty it was too.

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