Looking out of a shuttle window going into the campus from Ogige market Nsukka, the incredibly long queues at the banks along University market road, had no real meaning for me until recently. Even with news reports of the anger and disappointment of Nigerians evoked by the new naira scarcity, the exigency of the situation still did not sink in.
With the general election round the corner, conversations about the failure of the present administration and the state of the country since 1960, has taken over public discourse. Inflation rate since 2015 has become more topical and Nigerians have been reminding one another of how deep a mess they are in. But not even our understanding of the pitiful socio-economic climate we existed in, prepared us for the emerging difficulties; the gratuitous misery that citizens have been plunged into with the redesign and circulation of the Naira notes.
On November 23, 2022, president Muhammadu Buhari, launched the new naira banknotes which finally came into existence after intense legislative debates. Dissecting the prospects of the Naira redesign, many Nigerians believed that it would serve to mitigate the circulation of counterfeit, as well as control cash circulation. There was also the more appealing prospect that it would thwart the plans of politicians who disburse hoarded cash to relevant stakeholders as well as voters in order to manipulate the voting process.
For most Nigerians however, the most attractive utility of the new naira banknotes, would be its proposed role in curbing insecurity in the country. Prior to the redesign of the Naira, kidnapping and banditry had risen exponentially in the country, with targets cutting across diverse social classes and ethnic groups.
According to reports from Nigeria’s leading geopolitical intelligence platform, SB Morgen, 2,371 persons were kidnapped in Nigeria in the first half of 2021, which meant an average of 13 kidnappings a day. Between July 2021 and June 2020, no fewer than 3,420 people were abducted across Nigeria, with 564 others killed in violence associated with abductions.
In another special report published by SB Morgen in 2021, the financial worth of the kidnapping industry was examined, which revealed that the sum of ₦6.531 billion was demanded in exchange for the release of captives while a fraction of that sum ₦653.7 million) was paid as ransom in the period under consideration.
The 21-page report also stated:
“We have taken care not to include the later ransom payments for the Abuja-Kaduna train incident as most of those victims were released in July 2022. It was reported on 25 July, 2022 that eight Nigerian hostages parted with 100 million each, while a Pakistani hostage paid 200 million.
With every part of the country and every class of citizen vulnerable, whatever policy that could tackle kidnapping, was regarded with excitement. Hence the initial acceptance of the Naira redesign by many Nigerians. The call to embrace a cashless policy is certainly not fundamentally disadvantageous. As with many other governmental policies and programmes, implementation makes all the difference.
Nigeria has indeed gone cashless; but in a most unexpected and unbecoming fashion. In implementing the redesign policy, the warning from the World Bank that the short transition period of the Naira redesign policy may add to the challenges of poor households and small-scale businesses fell on deaf ears. As a consequence, the currency redesign created a much worse situation than the World Bank had even predicted.
In Nigeria today, nothing is left of the unwritten rule of decorum in bank premises. The riotous nature of Nigerian markets has found its way into commercial bank territories. Outbreaks of fights within banking premises, and vandalism are no longer uncommon sights. To say little of the novel display of stark nudity in banks by Nigerians who wish to register their discontent and frustration remarkably. On February 3, a man in Agbor, Delta State, slumped and died after queuing for many hours at a bank to withdraw the new notes.
With the scarcity of the new banknotes, Nigerians turned to mobile banking as an alternative means of processing monetary transactions. The sudden pressure on virtual banking, worsened its already precarious state. Mobile banking in Nigeria, which relies on an already erratic network system, completely collapsed in many parts of the country. With poor circulation of cash, zero possibility of mobile banking, and an overwhelming queue in banks the sort that could kill you, POS operation became the new oil money.
When Point of Sales (POS) first made their appearance in Nigeria in 2012, and began to spread rapidly in 2013, Nigerians believed that the end of bank related challenges had come. It was the dawn of ease in cash transactions because it meant less queues in front of commercial banks’ Automated Teller Machines (ATMs), and made for card payments at shopping malls with the facility. More importantly, it also unlocked a new portal for commercial banks to extend financial services to remote and largely illiterate communities, which lacked the amenities to attract and sustain real banking establishments.
It was all in keeping with the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) commitment to drive her cashless policy. In 2022, the Nigeria Inter-Bank Settlement System (NIBSS), reported that the value of transactions carried out via POS terminals across the country had increased by N1.05 trillion. According to the data published, POS transactions had hit an all-time high in 2022 in a period of 7 months, soaring by 29% of 3.56 trillion and 4.61 trillion in 2021 and 2022 respectively.
The irony is that today, the very same POS, conceived to provide a more convenient alternative to direct banking, has turned turned into a cash cow at the expense of Nigerians.
POS operators now charge 20% on cash withdrawals of N10,000 and above a rate, unrivalled by traditional bank charges in its exorbitance. For a country with a minimum wage of N30,000 ($65), and 63% of its citizens multidimensionally poor, a 20% charge on POS transactions is too high a price to pay. While riding to town in a cab, I listened to a woman lament the postponement of her wedding because she couldn’t afford a POS agent’s charge for a cash withdrawal.
Amidst the rising economic challenges, Nigerians are beginning to come to terms with a more disappointing factthe similarity between ourselves (the people) and our leaders.
For too long, we have tried to shut out the truth about our own depravity by giving more attention to the irresponsibility and failure of our government. For too long, we have attempted to consider inconsequential, the traits of corruption and exploitative tendencies running through the veins of the average Nigerian, which bear a marked semblance to the typical Nigerian political class character. In this time, we can no longer afford to ignore the common tendency to exploit unfortunate circumstances for personal gain. A flaw, which always rears its head up in times of deep economic crisis, and personal misfortune.
It is tragic enough that the new naira note is nowhere to be found. Even worse with the fact that mobile banking has become a question of luck. But the exploitation of Nigerians by POS agents presents a deeper ethical issue.
Nigerian leaders are not some independent monolith absolutely dissimilar to the populace. In more ways than we would like to admit, Nigerians are indeed very similar to their leaders.
In Chinua Achebe’s The Trouble With Nigeria, the author wrote:
“On the morning after Murtala Muhammed after Murtala seized power in July 1975, public servants in Lagos were found “onseat” at seven-thirty in the morning. Even the”go-slow”traffic that had defeated every solution and defied every regime vanished overnight from the streets Why? The new rulers reputation for ruthlessness was sufficient to transform in the course of only one night, the style and habit of Nigeria’s unruly capital. That the character of one man could establish that quantum change in a people’s social behaviour was nothing less than miraculous. But it shows that social miracles can happen.”
Social miracles can also begin in Nigeria with the refusal of one man to yield to the pressure of ugly times and become an ugly man. Social miracles can start with our refusal to further exploit wretched situations and further deprive fellow Nigerians of hope and healing.
We have had enough of our leaders in our leaders. The last thing we need is to find our leaders in ourselves.
Iwoba, a graduate of Mass Communication, wrote from the University of Nigeria Nsukka, UNN.
Anulika Iwoba: POS Terminals: Inside Nigeria’s new oil money