When Mr. Godwin Emefiele announced in October last year that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) would be redesigning the N200, N500, and N1,000 notes, many Nigerians may have thought that they would have an opportunity to touch clean naira notes. The truth is that the common people of Nigeria never have a glimpse at clean naira notes in Nigeria. Only the rich, the very rich, get to hold clean notes. They are also the ones who buy mint fresh notes for spraying at parties. The rest of us just lick our lips when the extravagant rich engage in that obscene vulgarity at weddings, birthdays, chieftaincy ceremonies. As they spray stylishly the notes drop on the floor and other eager sprayers march them as they take their turn to display their vanity. The date we were to begin to receive the newly designed notes was December 15 last year. With my cheque book in hand I made a tour of three banks that day. No luck. I did not get the new notes. I did not even sight it, not N1,000, not N500, not N200. I said to myself that the first day may prove difficult because of some logistical problems.
The next two days I did a tour of the banks again not just as a customer seeking to get served by the banks but also as a reporter anxious to know whether what the CBN governor had promised us had come to fruition. Na lie. On the third day, I only got some clean old notes, not some clean new notes. I was partially happy having the pleasure of touching clean old notes for the first time in a long time. After one week, I repeated the rounds. Still, no luck. The banks were largely dispensing old notes. A currency crisis was on the horizon. There were stories of fisticuffs between bank officials and customers. There were shouting matches at the bank counters and bank premises. Then the Central Bank thought it had a solution to the crisis. It ordered the commercial banks to pay N20,000 in new notes at the counter to customers. Again, the reporter in me woke up. With a N20,000 cheque leaf in hand, I visited three banks, one after the other. Each of them said they had no new naira notes. I then said, “Okay, pay me in the old currency.” They said, “The CBN said we should no longer dispense old naira notes.”
So, I went home angry and koboless. The third day of the new N20,000 directive, I went out, cheque in hand, to test the efficacy of the new directive. At one of the banks, they were paying N2,000 per person. The bank official seemed to take pity on this old man. She asked that I be paid N3,000. I thanked her profusely for the favour. On the same day I went to another bank with a N20,000 cheque leaf. When I got there, the official said they had no new notes but I could be paid N10,000, not N20,000, in old notes. I accepted what seemed like VIP treatment and collected the dirty old notes and went home tired and frustrated.
I am telling all this as a personal account of a policy that was supposed to reform the banking industry, curb inflation, rein in kidnappers and eventually check vote-buying in the elections next month. The truth, the naked truth, is that this policy has flopped and is most unlikely to achieve any of the objectives because of the immense corruption in the system. Mr. Emefiele blames the commercial banks for the crisis. The commercial banks blame the Central Bank for giving them less money than they need. There is a video of a bandit in Kaduna that has gone viral. He is seen with a huge pile of the new notes in the forest. How did he get them? Corruption. Young boys and girls are selling N20,000 new notes in N200 denomination for N30,000 to party goers. How did they get them? Corruption. So, Mr. Emefiele did not reckon with corruption when he kept crowing that the deadline of January 31 was “sacrosanct.” As the deadline approached and there was uproar all over the place and demonstrations in a few towns, he had to rush to Daura on a Sunday to ask President Muhammadu Buhari to extend the deadline to February 10.
As the crisis got worse even after the extension, some bank customers did something bizarre. They undressed at some bank branches to show the level of their desperation and frustration. Some APC governors trooped down to the Aso Villa to plead with Buhari to allow both the old and new currency notes to circulate side by side until the end of the year. Buhari asked to be given seven days within which to take a decision. As at last week, the volume of currency outside the banking system was said to be N900 billion, down from N2.73 trillion. I do not think 45 days was a long enough period to call in that volume of money in a country where banks do not exist in the rural areas and where travelling long distances by road is an uninsured risk. The 10-day extension will do very little to improve the situation because, since the new notes were not easily available, many people who had the old notes were, and are still, holding on to them for their daily transactions. Those who seek to use their plastic cards get easily frustrated because, since there is a large increase in the number of transactions through this method, there is enormous congestion. Many of the transactions don’t go through even after several attempts.
When Emefiele appeared before the ad hoc committee of the House of Representatives last week, one of the gains he mentioned was the likelihood of its checking vote-buying. Perhaps he is unaware of the fact that most of the major players in the forthcoming elections won their primaries through vote-buying. And what did they use? Dollars, not naira. The major players in politics are major players in the banking industry and this cashless policy is not likely to catch them flatfooted. They must have stockpiled the dollars that they need for the elections. This policy may only affect very small flies in politics and of course the generality of the people who have been pushed to the wall.
At the meeting with members of the ad hoc committee of the House of Representatives Emefiele blamed the commercial banks for the crisis but it is also obvious that the new notes were not discharged into the system in sufficient quantity. All the banks cannot be guilty of what they are accused of. They do not need to witness the anger and agony of their customers as it is beginning to happen in several bank branches. Part of the problem is that the management of the whole affair is shambolic. The second reason is that this policy was enacted without due attention being paid to the poor or inadequate infrastructure for cashless transactions. Nigeria is largely a cash-propelled economy. Seventy per cent of our population live in the rural areas and do their daily transactions by cash. It does appear that this policy may have been designed to achieve more of political results than economic. Mr. Bola Tinubu, presidential candidate of the APC, has said that this policy was targeted at him.
The Governor of Kaduna State, Mr. Nasir El-Rufai, has asserted that some elements in the Presidency apparently do not want Tinubu and the APC to win the election. What I know is that there is obvious confusion at the Presidency about which candidate to support. There was a statement recently from the Presidency that the President is neither for nor against any of the presidential candidates. That is balderdash. The President had said sometime ago that he hopes that he will be handing over to an APC presidential candidate. Recently, he also said that he will campaign in 10 states for APC, including Tinubu. And just a few days ago, Buhari said that Tinubu would be the next President. All of this, I believe, is to dispel the doubt that seems to have existed among some APC top shots on Tinubu’s candidacy. Before the primaries, there was the move to shoe-horn Dr. Ahmad Lawan, Senate President, into the position of presidential candidate of the APC.
This plot failed only because it was not possible to get a consensus presidential candidate even though the coup-plotters had selected Lawan. But at the last minute Buhari gave his nod for the primaries to go ahead and once that was allowed Tinubu got a roller coaster ride to the ticket. But that success did not mean that his opponents had given up the business of trying to derail him. We have only a few weeks to see how the game will play out. It is then we will know whether the behemoth called the Aso Villa is for Tinubu or not.