No Paean Without Pain, As Nigerians Voted Despite Naira Redesign Miasma

Before delving into the nitty-gritty of today’s engagement, I would like to encourage readers with an excerpt from a piece written and published in the Daily Times newspaper on 1st January 1964 by one of the foremost socialists and activists that Nigeria ever produced, Dr. Tai Solarin of blessed memory.

He wrote:

“Life, if it is going to be abundant, must have plenty of hills and valleys. It must have plenty of sunshine and rough weather. It must be rich in obfuscation and perspicacity. It must be packed with days of danger and apprehension.”

Readers would agree with me that the “days of danger and apprehension” described in Dr. Solarin’s seminal essay, written over half a century ago have come upon us as it is currently playing out in today’s Nigeria.

And based on the admonition of the renowned educationist, Dr. Solarin who can be characterized as Nigeria’s version of the German philosopher Karl Marx, Nigerians should elect to face with equanimity buoyed by a sense of candor and spirit of patriotism, the current hardships engendered by the triple evil of extremely traumatizing experiences engendered by the unavailability of the redesigned naira leaving most of us without means of putting food on the table, persistent scarcity of petrol detaining folks in petrol stations in anguish perpetually; as well as the harrowing experience being passed through by patriotic Nigerians in order to obtain Permanent Voters Card, PVC for which they literally walked through balls of fire and eyes of the storm to be able to cast their votes for their favorite candidates.

Those virtues of endurance and perseverance exposed by Tai Solarin are exactly the values that l would like to implore Nigerians to exhibit as they deal with the fallouts of last week’s polls to elect their choice of the next president of Nigeria and National Assembly members.

Such rugged sense of purpose professed by the highly esteemed educationist, Dr. Solarin should shape our mindset as we prepare for the 11th March date for the election of governors and members of state parliaments.

Having sent that message of courage to Nigerians who have become the heroes of the 2023 elections owing to the exceptional sense of patriotism and resilience exhibited during the 25 February balloting exercise,l would like to align myself with the aggrieved Nigerians that the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN’s efforts at transiting our country from a cash-based economy to a cashless one has brought upon hardships, in the manner that BREXIT (exit of Britain from European Union, EU) became a hard landing to Britons.

That is simply because like UK’s decoupling from the 27 members EU that was done without finalizing agreements on key issues. Hence, the UK economy got into a tailspin, from which it is still struggling to get stabilized. In Nigeria, CBN appears to be forcing a cashless society – or what I would like to refer to as ‘cashlessfication’ on our country without the required infrastructure to support a sophisticated cashless economy.

And that action of forcing a cashless system on the society at a time that Nigerians are not ready has resulted in the unhinging of the economy which was already in a sick bay owing to amongst other reasons, the unsustainable petrol pump price subsidy estimated to have gulped a total of N20 trillion in the past eight (8) years.

Another reason for the economic doldrums that our country’s economy is mired in, is the massive crude oil theft by international criminal syndicates resulting in a massive drop in export of the commodity and a sharp reduction in foreign exchange flow into the CBN as well as the resort to the borrowing of funds from local and international markets, pilling up to a total debt stock of an unprecedented N77 trillion.

The scenario portrayed above is responsible for the financial hole into which our country had sunk. And it is a sordid situation that has been made worse by the naira redesign initiative that degenerated into a sort of fiasco with the poor masses as victims.

The Nigeria Interbank Transfer Services, NIBBS has released data showing that 108 million transfer actions were carried out on its platform in January, indicating that a significant amount of transactions have migrated online and trillions of naira have been paid through the platform. Nevertheless, what the CBN’s naira redesign policy has thrown up is what I would like to tag as “premature cashlessfication’’. So far, the experience is that the adoption of the cashless policy can be likened to the birth of a premature baby that comes with lots of pains and complications, requiring that the baby be put in an incubator.

It is easy to see that the implementation of the cashless policy is premature as it is being foisted on Nigerians at a time when they are unprepared for it given the dearth of infrastructure and acute lack of financial inclusion, as validated by statistics indicating that about 35-40% of Nigerians are unbanked.

Worst still, the unbanked are mainly folks in the rural areas of our country, specifically micro-entrepreneurs that are severely affected as they do not have the platforms to receive payment for their services, except cash. Apparently, by omission or commission, the CBN did not take the category of Nigerians into consideration. Hence, a huge number of those dwelling in rural areas have been left behind.

That is despite the apex financial institution’s declaration that it has dispatched money agents to the rural areas. The truth is that most of them do not have access to electricity to power their telephones or even the Internet to conduct online transactions.

Perhaps, my personal experience with the artisans back home in Delta state where I went to prepare to vote on 25 February would help shed more light on, and bring a human face to the plight of the rural dwellers who are mainly artisans, petty traders, and farmers alike.

Upon observation that the wheels on the gate to my country home had come off and had become dysfunctional, we engaged a welder to replace the rollers to embark the gate slide or glide. We bargained for a cost and offered to pay via transfer of cash to the artisan. But the welder declined simply because he is one of the 35-40% of Nigerians that do not have bank accounts.

When we also decided to service the electricity generator and the air conditioners in the house, as well as fix some electricity bulbs that had burnt out including taking care of plumbing challenges in the house; the artisans were ready to do the work, but had issues with the mode of payment for their services, since they have no bank accounts.

Even those that had bank accounts were not prepared to spend the whole day that they could have devoted to eking out a living in the bank struggling to collect a maximum of just N2000 which is the sum allowed.

Given the fact that the house had to be made habitable, we were left with no choice but to desperately seek a point-of-sale, POS service provider to patronize at the rate of a 30% charge to obtain cash to pay the artisans. When we located a POS operator, it was only the N200 naira notes that were availed. And we received not more than N20,000 at every point in time that we wanted cash.

What applies to the artisans showcased above also obtains with the sellers of condiments like pepper, okra, onions, salt, and fish as well as essential foodstuff retailers of items such as rice, yam, beans, garri, etc., who have no bank accounts and are unable to receive payments via electronic methods except cash.

Often times they are unable to make sales as they offer unable to find customers. In such unfortunate situations, they are stuck with their goods which are often perishable.

The consequential effect of not selling perishable goods is that what the market men and women are unable to sell, to say the least, constitutes a huge loss of income to these rural folks who are the so-called ‘micropreneurs’.

In fact, as a result of the desperation of the people and as a tribute to the creative imaginations of these rural dwellers, they are finding it easier to survive by almost returning to the age or era of a trade by barter, than relying on our newfangled paper money regime.

So, what the cash crunch scenario above demonstrates is that as a country, we appear to have decided to run before walking by suddenly introducing and strictly enforcing the cashless policy without first of all ensuring that the infrastructure to support it was already in place.

Ideally, the minimum requirement for a painless change to a cashless economy as envisaged by President Mohammadu Buhari and CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele is a robust Fintech ecosystem which unfortunately is a sort of utopia in Nigeria at this point in time.

That is basically because the non-bank payment infrastructure that currently exists is fragile and not sturdy enough.

That is evidenced by the collapse of online payment platforms and POS systems which owing to the sudden demonetization policy of CBN or confiscation of some currencies that were in circulation as some critics like to characterize it, Nigerians were forced to migrate to online payment platforms resulting in the massive implosion of users which made the system to collapse because of the weight.

It is a veritable proof that the online or electronic payment system is grossly inadequate or insufficient.

And the cash crunch situation did not improve in any significant way, even after payment of maximum of N20,000 from bank counters to customers was approved by the CBN.

That is because in reality, banks are only disbursing between a paltry N2,000 to N5,000 which is grossly inadequate to sustain a man on a daily basis, even if it is assumed that an average Nigeria lives on less than two dollars a day.

So, it is unsurprising that it appeared as if hell had practically been let loose in the economy as evidenced by the distressed Nigerians suffering from all forms of frustrations and deprivations who arising from their inability to carry on existing without money, literally went berserk on different levels.

By and large, the naira redesign initiative might have achieved the goal of bringing back some of the huge cash estimated to be about (N2.7t) outside the banking system with up to (N2t) that the CBN has stated as having been returned into the system as at 31st January.

And the initiative might have also reined in currency counterfeiters, just as it could have even reduced inflation and discouraged kidnapping for ransom which are some of the objectives of the policy.

But with regards to the initiative of naira redesign making Nigerian economy cashless, and the adjunct goal of preventing vote buying by politicians in this election season, the outcome has been a monumental disaster with cataclysmic consequences on the masses and economy. As it has turned out, politicians who are irrepressible resorted to using the alternative cash which is United States dollar, USD to buy votes.

The member of House of Representatives, in a trending social media viral video, allegedly arrested in Port Harcourt with about half a million dollars with a list of the beneficiaries of the funds who range from INEC officials to security agencies is pointer to the fact that the usual vote buying actually happened, but with dollars instead of the naira.

And that reality has rendered the strategy of making the economy cashless because of the ongoing elections puerile and of no consequential effect on politicians as envisaged.

But, even if that is not the intention or the target of the demonetization initiative, it is only the masses that have mostly been suffering the worst hardships as mayhem has literally been unleashed on hapless members of the society.

What the unfortunate situations described above reveal, is that the licensed non-banking platforms are not sufficient. Hence, Nigerians, (rich and poor) were so distressed that the line between anger and insanity became blurred for some people whose threshold for absorbing pains is low.

And it is the psychological trauma stemming from the hardships suffered while trying to obtain cash to meet their essential daily needs that is driving a good number of Nigerians into running amok.

Thanks to social media, we are all familiar with the stunning calamity of fellow country men and women who were ‘cracking up’ and ‘going nuts.’

Alarmingly, some have been contemplating suicide as evidenced by trending videos of a young man who was about to jump off third mainland bridge into the lagoon until some Good Samaritan saved the day. There is also the case of a woman who practically stripped naked in a petrol station, grabbed a petrol dispenser and started splashing petrol all over with the intention to set the station and herself ablaze. We cannot also forget a man and a woman, who at the height of the redesigned naira shortage in different bank branches, stripped themselves naked in the full glare of bank patrons inside banking halls in demonstration of how desperate they had become owing to denial of access to their own money in the vaults of banks due to the naira redesign policy.

What the highlighted selected catastrophic incidents indicate is that the process of replacing the old naira notes with the redesigned denominations, particularly with respect to implementing the cashless economy policy has not only been psychologically traumatizing. But it has also been dehumanizing on a significant number of Nigerians who have either attempted to commit suicide or became temporarily insane arising from the distress caused by their inability to gain access to their hard-earned money to meet their basic needs due to the CBN fiat. By its own admission, the CBN never envisaged the challenges that the exercise has thrown up.

That much was made known by the deputy governor, operations of the CBN who is responsible for the roll out of the new notes, Mr. Folasodun Adebisi Shonubi. During a recent presentation at a forum, he made the following statement:

“As you know, Nigerians are very ingenious. And we created a whole new line of business for people that we never envisaged.

“An aspect of that is queuing, where you sell your position on the queue for money. Night crawling, where you wait till night, collect numerous cards from your friends and family and go to an ATM and empty them using different cards and then take the cash to sell.

“So, it’s been a bit stressful to be honest because we did not anticipate this kind of behaviour.”

However, Mr. Shonubi vowed that the CBN will do everything within its authority to ensure that it salvages the current situation and make the challenges become a thing of the past as soon as possible.

Clearly president Buhari believed that with the naira swap policy, he was striking a blow against the evil empire of economic saboteurs like naira counterfeiters, bandits collecting cash as ransom and other agents of economic and political sabotage.

But his antagonists allege that he is sabotaging his own party by not smoothening its path to victory because he made it difficult for politicians to have unfettered access to naira which some suspect they may be applied in buying votes.

Consequently, the incumbent president was accused of subverting the ruling party’s presidential candidate chances of winning the contest. Such is the level of absurdity recoded in this 2023 presidential elections that have created upsets of monumental, if not Olympian proportions with a new crop of legislators replacing the old order.

In his 16 February broadcast to the nation appealing to Nigerians to endure the hardships foisted on them by the naira redesign policy, president Buhari announced that the old N200 note is now re-recognized as a legal tender till 10th April, while the N1000 and N500 notes remain banned as legal tender.

It was hoped that it would give Nigerians some breathing space. But President Buhari had doubled down on his mission to bequeath to our country a free, fair and credible election process by calling on the electorate to vote for candidates of their choice:

“To further ease the supply pressures, particularly to our citizens, I have given approval to the CBN that the old N200 bank notes be released back into circulation and that it should also be allowed to circulate as legal tender with the new N200, N500, and N1000 banknotes for 60 days from February 10, 2023, to April 10, 2023, when the old N200 notes cease to be legal tender”.

To drive home his mission of bequeathing to Nigerians a free, fair and credible elections, President Buhari had appeared not to be partisan, which is a gesture that was quite strange, but courageous.

But on Election Day, he voted for the candidate of his party and showed his ballot paper to dispel the fake news circulated by LP devotees who had claimed that the president voted for their candidate, Mr. Peter Obi as president.

By displaying the ballot paper to show who he voted for, Mr. President seem to have breached an aspect of the electoral act 2022 because it is supposed to be a secret not an open ballot.

With the current disputations by the political parties on why the election results were not transmitted from the polling units via the BIVAS to INEC server or data base as had been advertised by the elections organizing agency, it is being suspected that the integrity of the 2023 election results might have been compromised.

And if that is the case, then president Buhari’s avowed goal to bequeath a free, fair, credible and transparent election would have become a nullity, if not a pipe dream.

On the heels of Mr. President’s 16 February broadcast to the nation, the apex bank governor, Mr. Emefiele who had stated on Monday 13 February that the 10 February date that the old currency denominations stopped being legal tender is sacrosanct, had to adjust his position reflecting the return of the old N200 notes into the mix of currency denominations with legal tenders as announced by President Buhari:

“I can only appeal to Nigerians, let’s allow this policy to work. This policy is one that goes to solve the problem of reducing corruption and illicit financial flows.

“This policy goes to resolve some of the problems in the economy, and also goes to reduce the issue of insecurity in the country.”

Continuing with his plea, he said:

“These three issues which are the tripod of this administration’s policy are all embedded in this policy.”

The lesson for the CBN is that it should have engaged more in scenario building which means that it could have made plans for robust contingency actions.

Granted that the apex financial institution has introduced e-naira and licensed a large number of non-bank payment firms, the hiatus arising from the current cash crunch demonstrates that the measures so far taken are inadequate.

That is because going cashless is a matter of culture change which has a long gestation period and a span of a mere three months window given by the CBN for Nigerians to imbibe the culture is obviously too short for the required change to take hold.

Therefore, the CBN should as a matter of urgency mandate Deposit Money Banks, DMBs to issue out more POS beyond the medium and small-scale enterprises. MSME down to market women and men selling basic items in the open markets or micropreneurs. And banks must go down to the markets to open accounts or wallet for them.

One is not unaware that the originally stiff conditions for opening bank accounts have been lowered. But that has not made a significant impact, otherwise 35-40 of Nigerians would still not be unbanked.

To bridge that gap, I would like to urge the CBN to get banks to embark on a mission of getting every Nigerian to have a bank account in the manner that they pursue high net worth individuals to become their bank customers.

And some incentives should be created in the manner that CBN used to reward banks for having the highest number of rural branches. Back in the day, the CBN used to host award ceremonies for winning banks. One wonders why such a germane policy of yore which promoted rural banking was scraped.

While I seek no payment for the advice that I have offered which is gratis because I feel obliged to offer the suggestions to ease the pains of the poor urban and rural dwellers, I would like to further suggest to banks that they should copy GSM telephone service providers who are constantly in all the markets wooing traders with free sim cards.

Clearly, telecom services providers basically believe in big and small customers because they see them as potential customers that must be onboard into their network because they do not want to leave any value on the table.

I am also quite cognizant of the fact that with banks, the conglomerates and multinationals are more lucrative customers, as they are stress free. But sometimes, the purpose of being in business should not only be for profit making. And issuing all Nigerians with bank accounts is one of those occasions.

It is the same logic or principle that compels electric distribution companies, GENCOS to have separate tariff/rates for low-income customers in poor neighborhoods.

Regarding government’s role, given that some state governors are reportedly counteracting the order by directing security agencies in their respective states to arrest those rejecting any of the old currency notes and insisting that they should accept all old denominations, while going as far as shutting down supermarkets that complied with CBN directives: is our country not heading for anarchy?

Although the Inspector General of Police, IGP, Alkali Baba, has promised to investigate and bring to book those who violated the laws of the land, the situation is complex because the governors have equally accused President Buhari of not obeying the order of the Supreme Court by announcing that the N1000 and N500 notes are no longer legal tender which is contrary to the Supreme Court order that all parties should maintain status quo antebellum.

Hopefully, by the time the elections are over, the matter would be pursued to legal and logical conclusion for clarity, so that there would be precedence that could be on record for future reference.

The very gutting aspect of the whole shenanigan of naira redesign or premature cashless policy foisted on Nigerians, is that the masses are once again bearing the brunt of the leadership indiscretion on display by president Buhari that must have hastened the introduction of the policy to achieve a political goal of curtailing votes buying by unscrupulous politicians; and unnecessary grandstanding of the governors that are defying the constituted authority of the CBN that is charged with managing the monetary system which is a function reserved in the exclusive list for the FGN and clearly out of the purview of the governors.

It is trite to state that the filibustering actions of the governors issuing counter orders amount to courting a breakdown of law and order, which can degenerate into not just civil disorder, but constitutional crisis.

Clearly, the frustration of Nigerians is being further exacerbated by the highlighted inconsistencies of both the federal government and the subnational governments stance on the matter of currency swap which we are agree is desirable requires better preparations before implementation.

With obfuscation of rules happening at a critical period in the life of our beloved country, when a consequential general election is afoot, are our political leaders not walking our beloved country into a cul-de-sac and are the governors that are suing the FGN to court not unconsciously working towards scuttling the elections and creating an unnecessary quagmire of the dimension precipitated in 2010 by the sudden death in office of president Umar Yar’Adua of blessed memory that prompted the introduction of the ‘Doctrine of Necessity’ to resolve the constitutional lacuna that was triggered?

In my column of 26th January 2023 in the article titled “Why Are Heads of CBN And INEC Under Siege By Security Agencies” l had raised the concern that the 2023 elections is exhibiting some characteristics that were common in the infamous 12th June 1993 and 2015 general elections.

In the first instance, the unfortunate incident of 2015 appears to be manifesting with the threat of disruption of activities at the national election collation center in Abuja.

That is signposted by the altercations between INEC Chairman Mahmud Yakubu and Senator Dino Melaye, agent of the PDP in the manner that then minister of Niger Delta Affairs, Mr. Godsday Orubebe challenged then INEC chairman Prof Atahiru Jega during the collation process in 2015.

Against the backdrop of the current walk out on INEC chairman by the agents of PDP, LP and other parties at the International Conference Centre Abuja, where the results of the elections were being collated after Professor Yakubu declined the request that the results being presented to him should have been extracted from the BVAS Machines and they should also have been displayed on IReV portal for public viewing as the election management body had promised, the aggrieved political parties are calling for the cancellation of the entire election process.

One window that from my observation, the INEC chairman seems not to have closed is that he is yet to actually declare any of the presentations from the states as the official results by endorsing it with his imprimatur. Rather, I took note of the fact that he was referring to the state results as mere presentations by the state returning officers.

So, it is likely that the results presented to him would be reviewed after taking into consideration the complaints that multiple party agents led by Senator Dino Melaye have vociferously registered. And I am hoping that I would be proven right when INEC chairman addresses the complaints as he has promised.

Now, the loud calls for the cancellation of the 2023 general elections result echo the sad events of 12th June 1993 elections which ended up being annulled by then military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida. And former military head of state and later, democratically-elected president of Nigerian, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo has also called for the cancellation of 2023 election.

Here is how I had expressed my concerns about the strange occurrences in the polity during the run up to the current election process in the earlier referenced piece.

“It is also necessary to recall that after June 12,1993 elections, late Chief Arthur Nzeribe and a certain Abimbola Davies riding on a civil society platform known as Association for Better Nigeria, ABN, went to court with the intention of scuttling the process of transition from military to multi-party democracy.

“Based on the nefarious activities of ABN, civil rights and democracy advocate, Beko Ransome-Kuti (of blessed memory) went to court to obtain an injunction against ABN that was allegedly engaged in subversive activities inimical to democracy.

“And ABN was then restrained by a court judgement issued by Justice Dolapo Akinsanya.

“But, late Nzeribe and his group, two days before the election, approached a high court in Abuja headed by Justice Bassey Ikpeme, which granted them an order lifting the restraint.

“The rest they say is history because the June 1993 election that is believed to have been won by Moshood K.O Abiola of blessed memory degenerated into a debacle that has had a reverberating and highly consequential effect on our country some thirty (30) years ago.”

In light of the reality currently playing out in the national elections collation center in Abuja, followed by the press conferences and counter press conferences being held by the leading political parties vilifying the INEC for not relying on the election results captured by BIVAS and displaying same on the IReV portal, in the spirit of transparency, even as some of the ruling party’s spokesmen-Dele Alake, Festus Keyamo, and Femi Fani-Kayode amongst others are also insisting that INEC is in order by not extracting the results from BIVAS and its server: our country is actually currently not in a good place.

And the elders in the room must step up to plate to douse the tension and by so doing diffuse the brewing storm with their wise counsel.