THAT almost everyone in Nigeria now is going through hardship, pain and frustration is no longer debatable. It is a cold fact being cuddled by even the most insensitive: insecurity in some parts of the country, epileptic electricity power supply nationwide, general scarcity of petrol across the country, long queues at Permanent Voters Card (PVC) collection centres, and now scarcity of physical cash in the public space. The last has added a straw which has turned out to be a load on the already burdensome heap on the people. Nigerians are now like the proverbial beast of burden.
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) in exercising one of its statutory functions decided on the redesign of higher denominations of the country’s currency, a development welcomed by financial experts who also were concerned about the timing as the country is moving towards a general election already scheduled for February and March. They applaud the move but decry the timing. But the authorities believe the timing is right and in fact the best period to gain the desired effect of driving unbanked money into the formal financial system and preventing loose funds from being used to fuel more security crisis and sabotaging a free and fair election process.
As the arguments rage, the people feel the pains, as the otherwise good intensions of the currency redesign project has become a burden; a direct result of lack of strategic thinking in the area of synergy with other support structures like the telecommunications networks whose capacity have always failed during periods of high traffic. One of the desires of the CBN is to birth a cashless regime in financial transactions, but it does not seem to have considered the capacity of the technological backbone to support the cashless project on different delivery terminals. The e-payment platform which it relied upon to drive the process collapsed embarrassingly in the last two weeks leaving the people in serious distress.
Coupled with the lingering fuel crisis, the economy of the country and the livelihoods of the people have been seriously threatened. As usual, there was no contingency plan on ground to arrest any eventuality and the result has been the pains and frustrations the people have been subjected to at fuel stations, banks and other financial transaction points like Point of Sales (POS) outlets across the country. The frustrations visited on the people, especially in the last one month, is reminiscent of the late 2000s which prompted the reggae maestro, Ras Kimono, to release a hit music album Under Pressure, in June 2010.
The CBN cannot honestly claim it did not know the wobbly status of the country’s digital infrastructure, because it has always been problematic during the yuletide season when message traffic is often high.
The result has been the pain inflicted on the people, the weight of it being felt across board all over the country. The people are crying out in anguish and even the politicians are doing same. Some politicians believe that there are fifth columnists inside the government working with the opposition to rubbish the political party in power, whip up resentment against the party and undermine the chances of its candidate in the forthcoming general elections.
More worrisome is the propensity of certain Nigerians, fuelled by greed and sheer sadism, to inflict pains on compatriots. There is an apparent lack of patriotism among Nigerians, even if not all. There are Nigerians who are always poised to exploit every bad situation, from the elite to the ordinary persons including bank staff, fuel service station operators, POS operators, commercial vehicle drivers, traders, civil servants, artisans, among others.
The banks have been accused of playing the biggest role in the scarcity of the new bank notes. The Central Bank is placing the blame squarely at the door steps of commercial banks, insisting that reasonable amount of cash is given to banks on a daily basis but the commercial banks prefer to hoard and do business with them. Some are working in league with the elite to push out cash. Discoveries by inspection teams, working with other financial crimes’ agencies have so far confirmed the claim. POS operators also claim they buy cash from banks, which is why they demand higher charges from their customers. The new currency has also been seen displayed in very frivolous manner by unscrupulous persons; and they must have received the cash through the connivance of dubious bank staff.
Some bank staff have been arrested so far for hoarding the new currency notes supplied to them, while customers throng the banks in vain search of the much needed cash. At a bank in Abuja, a was reportedly arrested by ICPC for refusing to load the Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) after receiving her branch allocation for the day. Another was arrested in Osogbo, Osun State for loading the ATM machine with wrapped notes apparently to forestall dispensing cash. It was also discovered by a surveillance team that a bank’s branch hid new notes meant for customers behind stacked old notes with ulterior intentions. Another was busted in Ado Ekiti, where a bank left more than N6 million worth of new notes in the vault, claiming the bank was yet to reconfigure its ATM machines.
Kaduna State Governor, Nasir El’Rufai, who has severally accused a group in the seat of power of orchestrating the sabotage to stall the chances of the presidential candidate of his political party, also revealed that a particular state governor withdrew N500 million of the redesigned currency notes from a bank recently. He was not opposed to the currency redesign, which he noted was not peculiar to Nigeria, but insisted that the timing was not only wrong, the time space for the swap was too short. However, the saboteurs often get away with their acts, which is why the country’s laws, government policies and actions are always flouted and frustrated with impunity.
Chapter 2, Section 14 (b) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) clearly states that “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government”. In the face of all these happenings and suffering, including the apparent impunity and free reign of outlaws and saboteurs, the question now is: where is the government in all these? On the surface of it, it seems government does not care about what the citizens are going through. Without any visible action to end the fuel problem, crumbling of businesses because of power issues, breakdown in telecommunications; and now the cash crunch in the system with very slow remedial action from government, it is like the people are on their own. We seem to be a nation without any form of governance going on; everyone is doing his or her own thing. Saboteurs, racketeers, fraudsters, criminals are all on the prowl, and the people are at the receiving end.
The consequences could be very telling, if the situation is not urgently addressed. Already, there is tension in the land. Elections which are barely three weeks away may be scuttled if the country goes on the boil; and that would precipitate serious constitutional crisis as there is no definite provision in the constitution for either extension of tenure or interim government. An attempt to invoke the Doctrine of Necessity may backfire and further escalate the crisis.
Even if we succeed in having an election, the current situation might have a very negative impact on the incoming government. It is like setting up the next administration to fail. A new government cannot just come in and suddenly change things. It is going to be an uphill task.
Following persistent pressure and subtle threats from some quarters, government decided to extend the swap period for another ten days and promised a review, but that does not go far enough. Government must learn to think through policies that affect the generality of the people before embarking on implementation. Those who flout rules must be seen to be penalised, to act as a deterrent.
A lot of the challenges in this country are orchestrated because sanctions are hardly applied. Our situation is akin to sparing the rod and spoiling the child. When crisis merchants are allowed to operate freely, then a climate of impunity becomes imminent. Impunity thrives because there are no consequences. It boils down to having the political will to do what is right, no matter whose ox is gored. The political will to do the right thing and to punish infractions is a fundamental problem in Nigeria. The sanctity of the rule of law must be protected and the laws must be enforced to have a sane and progressive society.
Government should talk to the people regularly on policy issues and carry them along at all times. It should employ all avenues and organs, including the CSOs, to engage with the people on critical national issues. The National Orientation Agency (NOA) seems to be missing in action. Government should increase its response rate to challenges facing the people. Nigerians themselves need a new orientation. People should learn to do what is right at all times, or be compelled to do.
A lot in the country is hanging on the coming election. The ability to conduct a free and fair elections depends so much on getting all the variables right. In this regard, government has a responsibility to drive the process