By Oludayo Tade
After two weeks of protests over the inability of Nigerians to withdraw and access cash in banks, President Muhammadu Buhari has reviewed the implementation of the naira redesign policy. From now till April 10, 2023, the old ₦200 note is to be recirculated into the economy as legal tender alongside the new redesigned denominations. However, ₦500 and ₦1000 old notes ceased to be legal tender. Those still having them are to take them to Central Bank office in their respective states. The President’s address provides hint into how this reviewed strategy is oriented towards checking vote buying by politicians who may have stockpiled their homes with billions of the old ₦1000 and ₦5000 denominations. By rendering them illegal, politicians who are unlikely to have stored the ₦200 old notes may not find the latest presidential order palatable. There is the need for proper governance of the latest order so that politicians and banks will not hijack it again and suffer depositors.
About two weeks ago, a video of semi-nude, light-skinned woman went viral on the internet. She was inside her bank to access her money but could not achieve her goal. After efforts to achieve her aim fell on deaf ears, there was nothing more to hide – she stripped herself. She lamented her inability to withdraw her money which has not allowed her children to go to school for two days. Left with bra and pant, this woman contested and angrily demanded that her account be closed and her deposit released to her. Few days later, the video of a man totally naked inside another bank went viral. Blended with messages of hopelessness and the futility of efforts to withdraw his savings to save his wife and children from dying from ill-health and of hunger, the nude-male protester proclaimed that he was frustrated to go unclothed after he had appealed to top executives of that bank without result. He wanted his ₦520, 000 naira which he saved with the bank released to him. He said “give me my money let me go. You frustrated me. You frustrated me. Give me my money. My wife is in the hospital…about to die. There is nothing again. How old are my children? Seven years, four years…give me my money. I don taya. And when a policeman was brought-in, he said: If una wan shoot me, shoot me make I die. Let them bury me make I forget the problems. Make dem shoot me make I die…. make I forget my wife, make I forget my children…make una shoot me. Give me my money let me go. If you see me here again, kill me. Let me go and take care of my family”.
Semi-Nude or total nude protests are not exclusive to Nigeria. It has been reported in Zimbabwe, Australia, South Africa, London and the United States of America. Where getting justice in law courts becomes difficult people resort to protest to show displeasure and their unpleasant experiences on their inability to move/transport, purchase goods and withdraw money just because the Central Bank of Nigeria with the approval of President Muhammadu Buhari decided to redesign three denominations of ₦200, ₦500 and ₦1000. By protesting nude, these depositors did not only show they have nothing again to hide, they also show how government policies affect the downtrodden who save little for trading and survival. It further shows the weaponization of the body for the extraction of action, sympathy and ultimately halt an unpleasant event. Despite the fact that people in the banking halls were more interested in recording, observing and sharing their nude videos than covering them, the nude protesters challenged institutional authorities and imposed themselves on spaces they would not have dared. They represent millions of Nigerians who were tricked to deposit their money into the formal banking system before they were literally stripped, disempowered and rendered beggars to access their own monies.
That the President eventually reviewed his stance on the policy is victory attributable to the protests within banks and those on the streets. Sadly, with destruction of properties and loss of lives, protests are democratic rights to engineer social change. The protests brought to the fore the inner sufferings and feedbacks of a poorly implemented policy which presidential aides may not be able to tell the president. How do we ensure that those in hospitals and need care are not allowed to die because of loopholes in a currency redesign policy? What digital infrastructure has the CBN put in place for smooth transition to digital payment systems? How do we strengthen security to check frauds and cybercrimes? How will people who cannot withdraw the new legal tender eat, transport themselves and perform other mandatory roles in their lives? Nigeria needs to learn how Kenya and countries in the global north are achieving this feat. India started this policy around 2016-2017 which they called demonetization with the almost similar objectives as Nigeria. Today, India is experiencing remonetization with cash.
The Naira redesign policy of President Muhammadu Buhari and Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Godwin Emefiele failed to appreciate the unintended consequences that come with the policy by not anticipating the massive informal economy that thrives on cash. The primacy of cash for economic, social and cultural uses in Nigeria needs to be appreciated in making interventions. In an international study with my colleague, the Acting Head of Marketing and Consumer Studies, University of Ibadan, Dr Oluwatosin Adeniyi, we found that uptake of digital naira in Nigeria was low because it failed to add anything new to the functions already served by existing payment systems. Indeed, we found that fear of fraud in digital transaction, large informal economy based on cash, and poor digital infrastructure to support transition affects the uptake of digital naira and affects the drive for financial inclusion. The report of the global study can be found at https://dci.mit.edu/research/011323. Our findings align with what is happening to the naira redesign policy. Stories from those who have opted to use transfer or Point of Sales (POS) payment options are not different. Its either the bank Apps are not working, or the transfer is hanging or not delivering. When you transfer, you have to wait for minutes for confirmation. God help you if your confirmation comes early but our research documented that some people had to wait for more than three hours! Furthermore, our study found that while some are receptive to accept transfers, poor infrastructure challenge, fake alerts, and delayed crediting of account frustrated such acceptance. Traditional practices and informal economy are still heavily cash-based despite the fact that the young educated persons prefer transfers to old people who associate more with cash. When policy is poorly-conceived and badly executed such as this, it creates extortion opportunities to the extent that the Nigerian naira now operates in the black market!
Every policy must first understand what problem exists before designing intervention. In the case of Nigeria, we have the cash-dependent, less cash-dependent and digital users within the financial space. Product and policy design must factor in these end-users. We cannot have one size fits all policy if our aim is indeed to include all and not exclude people. Poor understanding or appreciation of the variety of financial product users (including the financial literacy level, poor rural penetration, and unbanked populace) is what is driving the present crisis occasioned by the naira redesign policy. You cannot aim to drive financial inclusion by fraudulently bringing people in and denying them access to their money. What the CBN and banks have done is the tyranny of intermediary control and denial, a strategy used to lure people to deposit old naira into banks with the intention of not giving them access to their money as they would love to. It may also pass for cash seizure, cash-arrest, cash-kidnapping or cash abduction simply because the owners now pay ‘ransom’ (using naira to buy naira) to be able to access a fraction of their money, usually at a loss!. The ongoing crisis should teach the CBN that they underestimated the importance of cash in the financial ecosystem of Nigeria and failed to prepare for this backlash.
•Dr Tade, a sociologist wrote via email@example.com