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Column No.6: CBN’s ‘green light, red light’ game

After getting home from work yesterday, I sat down, sweating. The air-conditioner was in great condition, but my own condition was far from optimal. I…

After getting home from work yesterday, I sat down, sweating. The air-conditioner was in great condition, but my own condition was far from optimal. I was like many Nigerians from all walks of life, thinking of how to get cash. Not money, mind you: Cash, the physical, printed paper which smells glorious, and is currently the scarcest commodity in the land. As the numerous horror stories I had heard from others played in my head, and as my own nightmare experiences looped, I saw the news. In a unanimous judgment, a seven-member panel of justices held that the directive by President Muhammadu Buhari to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for the redesigning and withdrawal of old notes of N200, N500 and N1000, without consultation with the states, the Federal Executive Council and the National Council of State, was unconstitutional.

Boom! Just like that, my anxiety and anguish subsided. It began to ‘sweet my belle’ (please me to no end, in Pidgin English) when it was further reported that the CBN itself observed that no reasonable notice was given before the implementation of the policy, as provided under the CBN Act. Also, the lead judgment dismissed the preliminary objection by the federal government challenging the jurisdiction of the apex court to hear the suits by the 16 states challenging the currency policy. The ‘old’ naira notes have been declared valid till December this year! At that point I almost dropped my sleek, fragile smartphone on cold, hard marble tiles as I attempted to dance. It was a most heartening development which meant our money woes were over, right? Boy, was I wrong!

Let us flash back a little, to when even party guests who wanted to ‘spray’ money on newlyweds resort to bank transfers which offer no spectacle and result in zero drama for loud guests. The act, frowned upon by the government, had finally found a natural death, perhaps. But what it also meant was that celebrants got less cash gifts, which in many cases are essential in offsetting post-wedding expenses and in some cases even debts owed to wedding planners, caterers, decorators, and others. Even more harrowing, was the report of a lady who died at a hospital, while waiting for treatment which depended on a bank transfer that was hanging. Networks had as a result of being overloaded been acting crazier than usual. I also have my own personal horror stories which I may share another day.

Some of the lighter ones include a situation familiar to most Nigerians, in which they would have to buy naira notes using naira notes. The joke/maxim that even the laws of Physics work differently in Nigeria was in full, real force. I even drew a cartoon which went something like ‘The naira is the only currency in the world exchanging higher than itself in a parallel market of itself’, or something like that. Pardon me if my memory is fuzzy, as I’m suffering the kind of PTSD that only a Nigerian living in Nigeria today can understand. Scratch that: Even foreign diplomats are feeling the ‘cash crunch’. I’ve heard of a WhatsApp group for a number of embassies, on which they share info on naira sellers or other unconventional ways of getting much-needed local currency. All this might sound funny, but it is not.

Isa Abdulmumin resumes as CBN Ag. Spokesman

Isa Abdulmumin resumes as CBN Ag. Spokesman

I know what you will say, that the currency redesign is politically-motivated, so vote-buying will be paralysed in order to cripple a certain candidate or certain candidates. Conspiracy theories, while sometimes ending up true, tend to be too wild for me to believe, much less peddle. But do you know when I got really alarmed? When the EFCC’s boss screamed blue murder, claiming over N500bn in old naira notes are yet to be returned to the CBN. It was after that, when unverified reports flooded in some traditional and most social media, of massive vote-buying and inducement from almost all quarters. It became even harder to know what to believe anymore.

I’ve gone full-on nuclear on this issue in the recent past, and declared the currency redesign and its timing one of the biggest displays of misplaced priorities I’ve ever heard of. The CBN governor Godwin Emefiele had infamously 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. But even way back then, I did not go as far as imagining the major problems it would cause, or the hardship it would plunge the nation into. There are levels to the resultant hardship that are simply unbelievable. Maybe, like I said, that’s for another day.

The outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari, also infamously implored citizens to give him seven days to resolve the cash scarcity. Shocking no-one, he has done practically nothing. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem, as Nigerians are used to being lied to by the government. At the point we are at now, with the reported landmark judgment of the Supreme Court, maybe the end has come of the ridiculous game of green light/red light which the CBN –  and by extension the Federal Government – is playing with Nigerians. Is it too much to ask, for that most basic of things – legal tender – to be available to one and all?