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Column No.6: As Nigeria finally gets a cashless economy

Back when the currency redesign was announced, I immediately had strong opinions about its pointlessness. Here was a naira that over the past eight years…

Back when the currency redesign was announced, I immediately had strong opinions about its pointlessness. Here was a naira that over the past eight years has received a brutal battering, all within an economy that seems to be spiraling further downwards by the day. But even way back when I was kicking against the policy, I did not go as far as imagining the major problems it would cause, or the hardship it would plunge the nation into. I have decided to suspend my irritation at the redesigned notes, and focus on the actual process of rolling them out into the general public’s hands. Even that proved to be a colossal nightmare that is still unfolding, even as I type this.

I’m going full-on nuclear, to declare the currency redesign and its timing one of the biggest displays of misplaced priorities I’ve encountered in a while, which is saying a lot coming from a nation like ours. The Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, has said it is targeted at controlling currency in circulation as well as curbing counterfeit currency, and ransom payment to kidnappers and terrorists. I have not heard a more ridiculous attempt to justify a ridiculous endeavor such as this in a very long time. At the moment, our nation has no time for cosmetic measures or optics. We need solid policies and ideas that would help the naira gain value, not just look pretty.

Then in recent times, the whole thing has taken on a political dimension, with candidates coming out to say, blatantly, that the redesign is targeting their ambitions come Feb. 25th in a couple of weeks. And can you blame them? I never side with politicians because they are almost always in the wrong, but how can anyone explain that this their notion is nothing but a fever dream? Because it does look and smell like the politicians are for the first time 100 percent right.

Now, to make things even more ridiculous, President Muhammadu Buhari has implored citizens to give him seven days to resolve the cash scarcity that has become a problem due to the inefficient way the roll-out is being handled so far. Shocking no-one, a group of governors visited the Aso Rock Villa, to seek solutions. Through a statement, he addressed it by first of all stating the obvious, expressing doubts about the commitment of banks in particular to the success of the policy. Again, unsurprisingly, he mentioned that he said he had seen television reports about cash shortages. The twist in this tale? He gave himself 7 days to resolve the mess.

Now, that ordinarily wouldn’t be a problem. The thing is Nigerians don’t have the luxury of a whole week waiting for government or the president to do something. The scarcity is affecting everyone and everything, with the masses being the worst-hit as a sizeable number of that level of society operate wholly cash-based personal economies. Many of them don’t even have bank accounts, much less ATM cards. Also, how about rural Nigeria? It looks like all the eggheads coming up with fancy ideas to save the economy are unaware of the existence of that segment of Nigerians. Never mind that President Buhari said: “I will revert to the CBN and the Minting Company. There will be a decision one way or the other in the remaining seven days of the 10-day extension.” Those words do not inspire hope.

Politicians being what they are, proceeded to tell the president that, they were becoming anxious about a slump in the economy, and (surprise surprise) the coming elections. And for whatever reason, I found it hilarious that they proceeded to plead with President Buhari to use his powers to direct a “peaceful coexistence” of new and old notes till the end of the year. At this point, I am getting exhausted by the sheer zealousness of all parties involved in this ridiculous drama to make it even more ridiculous. All I want is for there to be legal tender for me and other ordinary Nigerians to live our already difficult lives.

Speaking of difficult lives, here’s my personal experience from a few days ago: I ran out of petrol, and the queues all over were insanely long, so I opted for the ‘black market’ option, right in front of the big shiny headquarters of the NNPC. Three thousand naira for 10 litres, but I had no cash, and banks either had no money in their ATMs, or the few which had were besieged by long queues of tired, hungry, broke and angry people. I mean, look what happened in Ibadan yesterday when a Wema Bank branch was vandalised by a mob protesting naira scarcity. But I digress.

So I asked the ‘black market’ fuel seller if I could transfer to his account, and he said sure. I made the transfer, and was debited so he let me go, but after I gave him my phone number ‘just in case’. He wasn’t credited because banks were mostly having their own crisis probably due to the large number of e-transactions, due to the ‘cashlessness’ of the nation brought about by the ill-motivated and poorly-timed currency redesign. To cut a long story short, I managed to successfully transfer the young man’s money three whole days after I bought his wares.

In all this, my personal favourite justification which the CBN governor gave in a speech has got to be that ‘the naira has not been redesigned in the past 20 years’. Billions of dollars will be wasted so our struggling currency can look fashionable. And still, it is not readily accessible to citizens. For a nation that has been clamouring for a ‘cashless’ economy, we sure are cashless right now, in the most painfully literal way. In closing, I remember the part of President Buhari’s statement to the group of governors that visited him. He said he needed to go back to find out what was actually happening. I’m not holding my breath on that one.