Politics by other means, By Bolaji Adebiyi

It is rather paradoxical that THISDAY Newspapers, which have been very supportive of the new monetary policy on the redesign of three of the nation’s eight Naira notes might have inadvertently laid the foundation for the political colouration of the implementation of the policy. 

Engaging in its habitual interpretative approach to news, it had run a banner headline, “In Ambush of Vote Buyers, Ransom Takers, CBN Voids Naira Notes by End January,” suggesting that the policy was targeted at politicians, who had built up a war chest to buy votes during the general election scheduled for 25 February and 11 March 2023. 

But Godwin Emefiele, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, had explained during his 26 October 2022 announcement of the new policy that the main objective of the policy was to drastically mop up the huge cash in circulation in aid of his sundry monetary policies aimed at reining in inflation and shore up the value of the Naira. 

“This move is to enable the Central Bank of Nigeria to have control over the size of money in circulation,” Emefiele explained shortly after the unveiling of the new notes by President Muhammadu Buhari on 23 November 2022, saying, “There is no need to think that the programme is targeted at anyone.” 

The policy stipulated 31 January 2023 as the deadline for the swapping of the old and the new 1,000; 500- and 200-Naira notes even when the latter was only released to the public on 15 December 2023. The bank further directed that the new notes should only be disbursed through the Automated Teller Machines, forbidding over-the-counter dispensing of cash.   

Though fears were expressed by several economic experts and public policy analysts that the notice and the deadline for implementation were too short, Emefiele insisted that the apex bank had made adequate arrangements to ensure the smooth implementation of the policy that many of the experts agreed was good on paper. 

“As of 2018, we had 86,000 touchpoints nationwide where Nigerians could deposit and withdraw money. In October 2022, that number has risen to 1.4 million touchpoints,” he argued, adding rather confidently, “That is to say we have over 1.4 million bank branches, POS points, and other ancillary outfits to enable Nigerians to return the old notes.” 

The central banker’s position received the backing of the president who in a couple of media interviews and public engagements contended that three months were enough for anyone who had legitimate cash to return them to the bank for safe-keeping or swap. 

However, two weeks before the deadline, it became obvious that the implementation of the policy had run into troubled waters with citizens who could not access the new notes after depositing their old ones grumbling loudly. Long queues like those of fuel had welled up at the front of bank ATMs. In spite of this, Emefiele insisted there would be no shift in the deadline, an obstinacy that began to fuel the suspicion that the policy actually arose from politics rather than economics. 

Politicians, particularly of the All Progressives Congress stock had been hostile to the policy. That hostility manifested on the floors of the two chambers of the National Assembly, where senators and representatives adopted motions requesting the CBN to extend the deadline to June 2023. The bank with the support of the president was adamant. 

With the mass of the people now grumbling stridently, Bola Tinubu, presidential candidate of the ruling APC, had to raise the alarm about the danger of the hardships, caused by the twin crises of acute shortage of cash and fuel, to his electioneering. He actually suggested that the persistence of the shortages was an act of saboutage by fifth columnists within the party in cohort with the opposition Peoples Democratic Party. 

The trend since the alarm tends to corroborate his claim of political saboutage. Although increased public pressure forced Emefiele, after a meeting with Buhari two days to the deadline, to grant a 10-day extension to 10 February, the crunch nonetheless worsened with citizens unable to access any cash at all, old or new. 

If the political motif of the policy was understated at the initial stage, what is going on now clearly exposes it as a mere political tool to disadvantage a frontrunner in the fray. Fearing that further public pressure might force further extension of the deadline, 14 opposition parties under the aegis of the Conference of Political Parties, a political group put together by the PDP in the pre-2019 general election as part of a coalition against the APC, on Monday threatened to boycott the general election if the deadline was further shifted. A day after the threat, four of them, the Action Alliance, Action People’s Party, Allied People’s Movement, and National Rescue Movement, obtained an order from the court of Justice Eneojo Eneche of the Federal Capital Territory, restraining Buhari, CBN, Emefiele and 27 commercial banks from extending the deadline for the death of the old notes. 

The opposition politicians’ fears were real because following pressure from APC governors, the president had asked for a seven-day window to enable him to resolve the cash crunch and fuel shortages. In the meantime, riots had broken out on the streets of Ibadan, Abeokuta, and Benin with the threat of spillover across the country as the people’s patience is been stretched beyond limits. 

In the meantime, Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi, co-frontrunners and presidential candidates of the PDP and the Labour Party, blew the muted trumpets, asking the people to endure the hardships. 

The APC responded on Tuesday with three of its states, Kaduna, Kogi, and Zamfara, applying to the Supreme Court to put on hold the deadline. The apex court obliged them on Wednesday, asking the parties to maintain the status quo ante bellum, and adjourned the matter till 15 February. Without a doubt, the suit at the apex court would give the anti-deadline politicians a breathing space as it might not be concluded until after the election. 

It would seem though that those who are insistent on removing cash from the public space before the election would not relent as many of the banks that are supposed to be dispensing cash had by Wednesday shut down ostensibly to avoid the anger of the suffering public. Meanwhile, the CBN, the regulator, who was supposed to rein them in, appears to be missing in action. 

The emerging irony in the crisis is quite interesting though. Despite Tinubu’s vocal opposition to the policy enunciated by an administration controlled by his party, Atiku and Obi have continued to openly support it even in the face of the widespread hardships being experienced by the people. Yet, on Wednesday, Abubakar Malami, the attorney-general of the federation and minister of justice, raised an objection to the Supreme Court’s restraining order. What’s going on? 

Why are the opposition candidates the ones publicly supporting an unpopular policy of the ruling party? Could they be working with the APC administration to undermine the ruling party’s candidate? Tinubu has since answered the question in the affirmative just as the actions of principal officials of the Buhari administration concur.     

Adebiyi, the managing editor of THISDAY Newspapers, writes from bolaji.adebiyi@thisdaylive.com 

Source: First published in THISDAY Newspapers

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