Wisdom of the Holy Guru




In one episode of the 1970s British sit com Mind Your Language, the Sikh man Ranjit entered the cafeteria, went straight to the gambling machine in one corner and inserted some coins. Nothing came out. Having ran out of coins, he rushed to a classmate nearby and asked to borrow some coins, saying he was sure he will win in his next try. Before he could return, his Pakistani classmate and chief adversary Ali Nadim [they imported the India-Pakistan conflict into the classroom] entered the cafeteria, went straight to the gambling machine, inserted a coin and pronto! A lot of coins gushed out. Ranjit charged at him and said it was his money. As they were about to fight, their English teacher Jeremy Brown walked in, heard what the problem was and advised that they should share the win. To which Ranjit looked gratefully at Mr. Brown and said, “You have wisdom like the Holy Guru!”

The situation prevailing in Nigeria today seriously needs the wisdom of the Holy Guru. On Thursday last week, President Buhari asked APC governors to give him ten days to resolve the impasse of the currency redesign exercise caused by the severe shortage of new notes. Up until recently, it was widely thought that Central Bank of Nigeria was the main power behind the currency redesign palaver, but many Nigerians now think that the president himself is the main force behind it. Not surprisingly, state governors reached that conclusion earlier than the public did, which was why, first the Nigeria Governors Forum and then Progressive [i.e. APC] Governors Forum went directly to him on the matter, after having had inconclusive talks with the CBN Governor.

The seven days’ grace period to take a decision will only be worthwhile if, within that period, the new notes become widely available at ATMs, across bank counters and through roadside POS operators. That seems unlikely; the naira-to-naira currency black market is now flourishing more than the old naira to forex black market. Right now, the public is not sure who is responsible for the new notes’ scarcity. Even the president does not know the answer, because he told APC governors that he will consult with CBN and bankers to find out what the problem is.

Is it CBN, as bankers privately allege; is it the Mint that does not have the capacity to meet CBN’s orders, as some suspect; was it the president’s decision to print the new notes strictly at home, as he told APC governors; or is it the bankers that are hoarding the notes, as CBN and the anti-corruption agencies now allege? ICPC was able to prove some of the latter charge because it leaked a video of its agents entering one bank’s vault, only to discover new notes neatly hidden behind a stack of old money.

The only thing we can say is that, just as is the case with fuel, fertilizer and jobs, hoarding is done because there is scarcity. When a commodity is in short supply, people responsible for supplying it are tempted to take advantage of the situation for their own personal gain. Nigerian bankers have never been candidates for sainthood. Yet, they were not known to hoard the old notes all these years because there was no imperative for it. The only part of the old notes that they hoarded were the “mint,” the brand-new ones that bankers sold through hawkers to people who were going to birthday and wedding parties, where they “sprayed” it.

In fairness to bankers, they are under the same social pressures that those who award contracts, control employment, distribute fuel or fertilizer and other scarce goodies are subjected to in Nigeria. A big customer will phone the bank manager and demand the new notes. In all the queues prevailing at ATMs and bank counters, you don’t see a big man or madam. If a bank manager fails to meet the big customer’s request in this time of need, he or she will pay a price when it comes time for “marketing”, trying to convince wealthy customers to deposit more money in their accounts so that the manager will meet the stiff annual target imposed by his or her top management bosses. Bank managers did not settle me to make this case for them, but I can imagine that it happens. The same way that petrol station managers hoard fuel in their tanks, drive ordinary motorists away by saying it has finished, only to reopen the station in the wee hours and fill prized customers’ and friends’ tanks. No need to do that when fuel supply is plentiful.

The presidency’s deep involvement in the currency change scheme increasingly suggests that the political motive of catching some politicians flatfooted and curbing vote buying triumphed over CBN’s economic motives of curbing inflation, curbing naira depreciation at the official and unofficial exchange windows, as well as mopping up trillions of naira outside the banking system, which makes monetary policy management difficult. As is so often the case with political motives, they are often irrational and they end up catching the wrong person. Some people have already said that if President Buhari was truly concerned about vote buying, he should have unrolled these measures in 2019, when he was a candidate in the election. Instead, he enabled Vice President Yemi Osinbajo to enter markets all over the country, with cash in bags, and distributed it to market women and artisans in the name of Trader Moni and other official vote-buying schemes. No wonder the Vice President was stiff-lipped last week when he spoke about the currency redesign, sounding more like an NGO activist than a top government official. Even NISRAL loans and Anchor Borrowers rice growing scheme served a lot of pre-2019 vote buying purposes.

The President is by now reaping the wages of inadequate consultation before he approved this scheme. Remember that the minister in charge of finance, budget and national planning told a House of Representatives committee the day after the scheme was announced that she did not know about it. Apparently, the matter was not discussed at the National Economic Council, otherwise state governors wouldn’t be trooping to State House now and asking for a change. Okay, it is slightly understandable that some secrecy is needed for a scheme like this. Buhari achieved that in 1984 when only himself, Chief of Staff Major General Tunde Idiagbon and the then CBN Governor knew about the impending currency change. Twenty other members of the Supreme Military Council apparently knew nothing about it, because the wife of one of them was caught flatfooted with a lot of money in her farm.

The big difference is that in 1984, Buhari was a military ruler who did not need anyone’s vote. This time too he does not personally need anyone’s vote but his party does. APC candidates at all levels fear that the chaos at banks and ATMs and the collapse of POS points could affect them in the election now less than three weeks away, hence the stampede by APC governors to get the president to alter course. It has also led to a most unusual situation, with APC leaders alleging that a cabal within the presidency is out to sabotage their election chances. Kaduna State Governor Nasiru el-Rufa’i, whose mouth is the deadliest in Nigerian power circles after Governor Nyesom Wike’s, publicly made this charge last week. It is not clear if other APC governors share his thoughts, but none of them has contradicted him.

The situation left PDP presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar in an awkward situation. Ordinarily, he should be the one who is criticizing the policy and aiming to reap benefits from the anger it has caused in the public. Instead, he urged CBN not to extend the February 10 deadline, clearly because he did not want to take the same stand as APC governors and its presidential candidate Asiwaju Tinubu, all of whom have criticized the policy’s timing. Atiku suspects that an extension of time could work to APC’s financial advantage.

So, the situation is confusing. Which is why we need the wisdom of the Holy Guru in order to get out of this situation. Right now, the options are to stick to the announced deadline, as Emefiele said on Friday will be done; to slightly extend the deadline until after the election, as some Presidency folks are said to be contemplating; to extend it by six months, as both chambers of the National Assembly have demanded; to extend it until year’s end, as state governors are demanding; or to extend it indefinitely British-style and gradually withhold old notes that enter banks, as some others have suggested.

I don’t know the answer. One danger of waiting for a week is that the “solution” implemented by the mob that sacked and looted Wema Bank’s Agodi, Ibadan branch could spread like wildfire EndSARS style. Where is the English teacher Jeremy Brown to broker a solution with the wisdom of the Holy Guru?

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