By Prof Hope O’Rukevbe Eghagha
It was with mixed feelings that Nigerians first received the news in October last year that the federal government was redesigning certain denominations of the nation’s currency. From December 15, 2022, the new notes would be in circulation, the CBN governor Godwin Emefiele promised. It was also announced that by January 31, 2023, the current N1000, N500, and N200 notes would no longer be legal tender. Government explained that some unscrupulous politicians had accumulated billions of naira in private vaults and would deploy the illegal funds to compromising the general elections scheduled to start on February 25th. What has become of those billions?
Owing to the level of distrust between the government and the people, conspiracy theories surfaced with ‘stupendous alacrity! The Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed did not help matters when she openly disassociated herself from the new policy announcement. She asserted that her ministry ‘was not consulted before the policy was announced and she believes the policy is wrongly timed”. CBN Governor countered by saying that he did not need clearance from the Minister to initiate new policies, adding that he was accountable to the President.
This aspect of the controversy was only laid to rest when President Buhari’s spokesman Garba Shehu issued a statement that ‘the president said the CBN’s decision had his support and he is convinced that Nigeria will gain a lot by doing so! The government explained that the policy would compel persons who had stolen monies and had hidden same in vaults, septic tanks, and warehouses to deposit same in the banks before January 31. Limits as to how much could be deposited per day by individuals and corporate bodies were specified. The National Assembly had tried on different occasions to make the CBN extend the deadline. They have not succeeded so far. What exactly is going on?
Suddenly, Emefiele became a target of arrest for possible prosecution by EFCC. A narrative that he was a financier of terrorism was pushed into the national space. He was accused of massive corruption. Push backs came from counter forces. Emefiele was being persecuted because he had hit the big money bags in society with a harsh policy. It was reported that Emefiele was on the run like a common criminal. A court refused to grant an order to EFCC for the arrest of Emefiele. The general question on the lips of everyone was: what exactly is going on? While this charade was ongoing, news came that the CBN governor had secretly returned to Nigeria. Men of the DSS raided the governor’s office but did not arrest him. Another report came out that the Chief of Defence Staff had deployed soldiers to guard the embattled governor. Two arms of security fighting a battle of arrest and protection? Who gave orders to the Army? Who gave orders to DSS? Is the president aware of the madness at large? Who wants the head of Emefiele and why?
The uncertainty and controversy around the CBN governor are unsalutary. In other climes, the economy would take a nosedive. Perhaps because the economy is already sick, there is nowhere to fall into. He that is down, like the Nigerian economy, needs fear no fall! But there is great confusion in the land that foreign investors no doubt would be watching out for what would happen next. Emefiele himself had got himself into many controversial actions, one being his attempt to contest for the office of the president while heading the Bank of bankers. It seems that because he in the good books of the powers-that-be, no harm can befall him.
It’s a few days to the deadline. There are still many questions. The most important question right now is: where are the new notes? As a corollary to this question, why are the banks reluctant to dispense the new notes? Is it true that some Point of Sale (POS) operators have the new currency while banks claim they do not have the same currency? How much has entered the banking system since the October announcement? How can the banks be monitored for compliance? What are hard hit politicians planning to do next?
APC presidential candidate Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu recently cried out that the currency and fuel scarcity was met to sabotage the February elections. Buhari has asserted that he wants to leave a legacy of free and fair elections, not tainted with money. He has somewhat withdrawn himself from the political fray and directed that money should not be allowed to determine the winner. Some irony here. Our president now wishes to distant himself from the system which gave him the presidency and sustained his rule for some eight odd years. How the politicians will react is not clear yet. But it is possible to become a statesman after experiencing the rot of the system at close range.
For the common man, the main question is: where are the new currency notes? I am yet to set eyes on the N200 notes. I didn’t have access to the N1000 note until two weeks ago. This has exacerbated the level of desperation in the land. Suddenly changing the currency has its advantages especially if the security of the nation is threatened. One of the first groups to ask for extension of time was Miyetti Allah. They claimed that because they keep a lot of cash, they would need more time. Fittingly the government has stuck to its guns. No compromise. Kidnappers and bandits who keep huge sums collected as ransoms from their victims must be caught in the web.
The Central Bank of any country is insulated, should be insulated from politics and politicking. It ought to be the last economic institution standing tall even when all others collapse. But the CBN under Emefiele has been hijacked by powerful interests who do not have the common good at heart. Emefiele symbolizes that takeover. History will judge him harshly. But for now, Mr. CBN Governor, let hapless and hungry Nigerians have access to the new currency. If the CBN is unable to enforce its directives to the banks, it will be because the bankers see that institution as a weakened and weak one that can only bark without the capacity to bite. Let us end the uncertainty now!
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