Far from the middle ground, By Bolaji Adebiyi
Only a political novice would have failed to anticipate the growing violent protest of the implementation of the new naira notes monetary policy. Once it was perceived as a political initiative to disadvantage a front-running presidential candidate, there was bound to be a political response. Those that understand the game know very well that the fastest way to extract concession in politics is to mobilise the streets in order to demonstrate the minimum capacity for damage.
This, perhaps, was what played out yesterday when President Muhammadu Buhari had to beat a retreat from his obstinacy over the rigid and provocative implementation of the deadline for the swap of the old and new notes. After a lengthy rehash of the Central Bank of Nigeria’s reasons for the policy and its three-month implementation tenure, the president decided on a middle ground apparently aimed at calming frayed nerves on the streets.
No doubt, the success of this middle-ground approach would depend on the attitude of the hawks who engineered the offensive policy on the eve of an important election. This is because they appear to have developed the belief that with power and the machinery of government in their hands, they could get away with open defiance of constituted authority and due processes. Obviously, this kind of thinking must be responsible for the disobedience to the 8 February restraining order of the Supreme Court, which effectively put in abeyance the implementation of the deadline for the policy.
Rather than the attorney-general of the federation, as the chief law officer of the country, directing the CBN to obey the order, he looked the other way as the apex bank practically shut down currency circulation by neglecting to supply the new notes to deposit money banks and other financial institutions having mopped up the old notes from the system. Worse, Godwin Emefiele, the apex bank governor, openly ignored the apex court order, utilising every speaking opportunity and engagement to insist on the sanctity of the 10 February 2023 deadline even when all the banks had shut down two days before.
With the federal government and its agencies not obeying their own law and the directive of their own court, is it any wonder that the people affected by their partisan implementation of the policy reacted from the streets? It should be unfortunate that it took violent demonstrations in many cities, deaths, and destruction of lives and property before the presidential middle ground palliative could be offered.
The idea of releasing the lower denominations into circulation had been proposed way back in January when it became apparent that either the CBN had no sufficient new notes or the banks were hoarding them and pushing out the soon-to-be-phased-out currencies. If the N1,000; N500 and N200 notes were the problems, why did the CBN and the banks not populate the Automated Teller Machines with N100 notes and dispense the N50, N10, and N5 notes across the counter from the 15 December 2022 commencement date of the swap?
This brazen impunity around the president might have also created the prevailing situation in which his directive extending the lifespan of the old N200 note might have clashed with the order of the Supreme Court. The apex court’s order, which was reiterated on Wednesday, was that the status quo ante bellum be maintained until the determination of the matter. It is the rule that when a matter is before the court, litigants should do nothing to present it with a faith accompli. The implication of the adjournment till 22 February is that all the old notes remain legal tender until, at least that day, or when the matter is finally determined.
Had the president been properly guided by his attorney-general, he would have refrained from giving the directive, which is patently contrary to the order of the Supreme Court. In fact, the presidential speech is a contravention of Section 287 (1) of the Constitution as altered, which mandates all authorities of government to enforce the decision of the apex court. Ordinarily, this is an impeachable offense. Although the president could be excused on the ground that he wanted to calm the streets that had erupted in violence but in a country of laws, palliatives must be provided within the rule of law. If his minders were interested in compliance with rules, the alternative would have been to avoid commenting on a matter before the court and direct the CBN to release the non-contentious legal tenders in large quantities to the public.
Apparently, it is either the obsession with fighting bullion van politics rather than engendering life-saving policies to rejuvenate a dying economy that beclouded the reasoning of the policymakers or they were simply incompetent in the handling of a political matter of this nature. Both inadequacies appear to have plagued the president’s inner cabinet which is using an economic policy to tackle a political problem. For the record, a similar challenge faced President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2007 at the Peoples Democratic Party presidential primaries in Abuja. He resolved the matter politically without having to bring down the roof on everybody but his targeted adversary.
A certain governor who had amassed so many funds was set to coast home to victory against the president’s choice. The party hierarchy expressed concerns that the president’s candidate was about to be worsted if nothing was done to arrest the trend. But as usual, Obasanjo was too calm for the comfort of party leaders who were apprehensive of the consequence of a defeat at the internal contest. What did he do?
He identified money as the staying power of the adversary and went straight for the kill. A month before the primaries, all the accounts of the state government the adversary headed were restrained, while a few days before the elections, the raw cash meant for the intra-party electoral battle was traced to the warehouses where they were kept, arrested and brought into the custody of the security agencies. By the day of the primaries, the adversary had been left high and dry without the naira for the financial shootout he had prepared for. Very few knew what happened. The only thing people saw was the outcome: Obasanjo’s candidate won against the run of play as it were.
Surely, were the hawks at the Presidential Villa been more diligent in thinking, they would have been able to edge out their target at the primaries level. But outmaneuvered within the party they lent themselves as a ready tool to the infiltration of their own government by the main opposition party, which was bent on engendering a debilitating crisis on the eve of a crucial general election. It would be interesting to see how it will all end.
Adebiyi, the managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, writes from email@example.com
First published in Thisday Newspapers