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Cashless Economy By Fire By Force: The CBN And Nigerians By Bola Bolawole

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The piece you are about to read was written by a former distinguished university professor, former Nigerian Ambassador to a European country, and widower now in his 80’s. His name is omitted here because the piece was circulated within a private (though not a small) private chat group but because the issue discussed is topical and again because salient points germane to the ongoing controversy surrounding the Naira colour change were raised, I felt the compelling need to further escalate the discussion. 

For scripture (Proverbs 11:14) says “Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellers, there is safety” The writer of this piece is one of such counsellors; whether he will be heeded or not is another ball game entirely! Read on!

“As I write this piece I have 500 Naira on me which is what I have had for a week because, at my age, I could not participate in the struggle at the ATMs from which Nigerians are getting money sometimes after queuing up for a whole day. 

Last week the banks in my area shut their doors against the public for fear of their staff being beaten by irate Nigerians who have been made insane by the government policy of Naira colouring and withdrawal of old Naira notes without adequate supply of the new Naira notes. I was able to enter two banks in my area the week before and I was convinced that the new Naira notes were just not available by the looks on the faces of the bankers and by their aggressive demeanour in some cases. 

This strange phenomenon of having money in the bank but not in your pocket has, for me, come with some silver lining. First of all, it has forced me to realize that I don’t have to carry about money with me whether I need it or not. I have become frugal and unusually miserly because I can’t give out money that I don’t have! I have also experienced generosity from a few persons who, out of pity, have stretched their helping hands to me and I will not forget when things come back to normal.

Let me give two examples of two people who have been helpful during this time of cash scarcity. A former student of mine called me to find out how I was doing and I honestly told her my experience of going cashless by force and by fire and how I had been going round the banks in my area without success. 

She was not happy that somebody like me should be expected to go and struggle, in some cases, for ten or five thousand Naira with young people of my grandchildren’s age. Without letting me know, she told her husband to find me money by all means. The young fellow got N15,000 and gave it to the wife who sent her older sister to give me the money. I was actually expecting new money but in the situation I found myself, money, whether old or new, was money. 

I got the money with much gratitude and it went very far in buying stuff for the house. Of course I have credit cards and cheque books but, nowadays, some shops and filling stations don’t accept cards and the claim of “no network” is a common refrain. Secondly nobody takes cheques these days and I don’t know why, though banks continue to sell cheque books. It is also not everyone who can transfer money. Some banks advise elderly people not to do so for fear of our accounts being hacked! This is where elderly people have found themselves in the policy of cashless economy by force. 

Apart from my old student’s generosity, I have found help and solace in my church where one or two people have found out what I was going through and, like old time Christianity of communal living and help, have come forward to help me source for money to keep my car and generator running. Who says a teacher’s reward is in heaven! I am a testimony that if you are a good teacher, your reward is here and now. The kingdom of God that we pray to come every day has really come in Christian fellowship to one another as I have found during these weeks of cash scarcity.

The question to ask is what is the aim of this government imposing needless suffering and pain on the governed? It is strange that a government would deliberately do this. It reminds me of what Jean Jacques-Rousseau said in one of his philosophical essays that our rulers can force us to be free even if they kill us! 

It seems our government, without adequate consultation with us citizens, has decided to impose a cashless economy on us for the overall good of the economy and, presumably, ourselves! We are told this is the way to go and this is the way of the modern world. In fact, China, from where the whole world learnt about paper money, is way ahead of every country in adopting a cashless economy. 

There are some provinces of China where people have not seen paper money for months and years! People have even moved away from cards and transfers to using their phones and wrist watches to transact business. I have personally seen my children doing this abroad with admiration. But do we have the structures, internet, computer infrastructure, etc to do this?

Anyone who has travelled abroad recently will discover that banks will soon be history because they will no longer be needed. I pray we move smoothly to this Eldorado but we must make haste slowly. Nobody can fault all the reasons given by the CBN for the cashless economy. 

They said it will reduce fakery of the Naira, make it easier to monitor the economy, reduce the temptations of criminals to request for millions of Naira from their victims, and it may also bring inflation down and stabilise the exchange rate of the Naira. 

All these aims and goals are desirable but we must plan for it and not jump into a moving stream. At the rate at which we are going, we will destroy the rural economy -if not the urban economy as well – because the percentage of those of us nationally with accounts in the banks is not more than 40 percent. This means, in effect, that our economy is a cash-dependent economy and it will remain so for some time to come. 

This is not the first time we have changed our currency notes. We did this in 1968 or thereabouts during the civil war. We also did in 1973 when we moved from pounds to Naira and decimalised our currency. We did in 1984 when this same Muhammadu Buhari was head of state. We did not go through this hell then because the changes were better planned and, secondly, the economy in Nigeria since then has more than quadrupled. We cannot apply the strategy of fifty or forty years ago to today and expect it to work smoothly.

What our government has done is to withdraw close to three trillion Naira of the old currency notes while printing three hundred billion Naira new notes… with the expectation that without enough notes, people will be forced to use bank transfers, debit and credit cards and, presumably, cheques without regards to how prepared Nigerians  were for this sea change. 

Now it seems the people have rejected this imposed and forced change. The government may not have expected this and it does not seem there is a Plan B. The advice by the National Council of State recommending that both old notes and new notes should run concurrently is based on “if the old notes have not been destroyed”. 

We have heard from the grapevine that the Mint does not have the paper and, perhaps, the ink to print additional new notes. Efforts to secure this from la Rue in Germany or Switzerland have met a brick wall because there appears to be a backlog of countries importing the same security paper for their own currencies. The way out to me seems to be to permit the liberal use of good old cheques as before as well as the continued reliance on the use of debit and credit cards and bank transfers while waiting for new currencies to be printed.

But in all of this, the government must take the lead and talk to the people without hectoring them. Planning to prevent politicians from using the Naira during electioneering campaigns and elections proper is a waste of time. Is it possible anywhere in the world to hold elections without oiling the system with money, whether cash or otherwise? Imposing a draconian policy on the whole nation because we want to prevent politicians from using money during elections is not the best way to uphold the sanctity of our elections; it is, on the contrary, the height of ridicule and foolishness”.

Well said! But will they listen?

Former Editor of PUNCH newspapers, Chairman of its Editorial Board and Deputy Editor-in-chief, BOLAWOLE was also the Managing Director/ Editor-in-chief of THE WESTERNER newsmagazine. 

He writes the ON THE LORD’S DAY column in the Sunday Tribune and TREASURES column in New Telegraph newspaper on Wednesdays. He is also a public affairs analyst on radio and television.


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