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Column No.6: The only thing scarcer than the naira

I’ve written about this before, probably three or more times. It is quite possibly the most-revisited topic by this column, ever. I’m referring to ‘naira…

I’ve written about this before, probably three or more times. It is quite possibly the most-revisited topic by this column, ever. I’m referring to ‘naira scarcity’, a phenomenon which would have sounded like a cruel joke months ago before it came into existence. While it should by now be a distant, unpleasant memory, the news is awash with the latest nightmare scenario it has triggered, while we are still living it real time. I hear that even top-level politicians are feeling the crunch (more so as we are at the peak of election season), but I find that hard to believe. Now, someone could argue that there are many other things in Nigeria that are scarce right now, maybe even more than the naira. But isn’t the naira itself the solution to most problems in Nigeria right now?

Another scarcity I noticed is that of beggars. Yes, you read that right. It used to be that at every point you went to a supermarket in Abuja, you would be accosted by a large number of them. But for some time now, due to the scarcity of cash, their numbers have dwindled. Even security guards at public places, who used to beam ‘Happy weekend!’ in hope of a tip, now keep to themselves, as they are aware there is no ‘change’ to be handed to them. It is indeed sad, as many of them rely on the kindness of patrons to augment ridiculously low wages, but that’s a topic for another day. In essence, the worst-hit are regular citizens, as well as those living in areas where banks and banking systems are yet to reach.

These, the best examples, are innocent Nigerians grappling with the harsh realities they have found themselves in. How wrong you are if you think I won’t mention the worst: Our friendly neighbourhood police. I mean, not all of them, but you know. At checkpoints they can be friendly, jovial, clownish, rude, menacing, or even dangerous, depending on who they’re interacting with, and what the response they’re getting is. Said response, of course, is the exchange of naira from motorists to the hands of cops. Now that cash is scarce, I can only wonder what is going on. Although, last night, at the checkpoint just before AYA roundabout if you are coming from the Aso Villa area, I saw cash exchange hands, though I couldn’t make out the denomination. Maybe old notes which are magically legal tender again?

Also suffering, are the people who are called ‘POS Operators’. Their means of livelihood has been severely affected, and they in turn are afflicting high charges upon regular citizens who have no choice but to patronize them. Their relevance, for now – or before CBN boss Godwin Emefiele comes up with yet another toxic policy – is still valid, as even ATMs at bank branches and payment apps fail regularly. This has also seen the rise of young fintech companies who offer wallet and payment services, with Gen Zers trooping over to enjoy them. Even fuel stations (custodian of a different, notorious kind of scarcity) have devised weird methods of getting paid for their liquid gold. The trauma of going through it does not inspire a recollection, so accept my apologies instead.

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President Muhammadu Buhari has made a promise to deal with the situation ‘in a week’, but has not. Even when long after that statement he rolled up his sleeves to do the deed, it is still not working. Conspiracy theorists have said a good chunk of the old notes have already been destroyed. But tell that to The Poultry Farmers Association of Nigeria (PFAN), which says its members have lost “more than N30 billion worth of eggs due to the lingering cash scarcity in the country”. The association’s leadership stated yesterday that the poultry industry was on the verge of total collapse and extermination. This kind of tragic effect is simply one of many.

Many Nigerians are still complaining of naira scarcity well over 48 hours after the CBN directive that old N200, N500 and N1,000 notes remain legal tender. The deadliest scarcity in Nigeria, however, has got to be that of one of the most important commodities in human existence, and that is common sense. Especially with decision-makers that make – or are supposed to make – things happen. Which is why with all this, and much more going on all over the country, all I can think of is how today in Nigeria one can make totally ridiculous-sounding statements, but they would totally make sense. Like ‘I have money, but I don’t have cash’. And here’s where I’m going to have to stop.