VIEW FROM THE GALLERY BY MAHMUD JEGA
When a wise African elder, a dottijo, takes a firm stand on an issue, should he stand by his word, or should he go back on it? Pondering over this cultural-philosophical puzzle reminded me of Danzuru, the bulky steward who used to clear plates from the dinner table during our student days at the University of Sokoto.
Danzuru was a jovial fellow who went about his work with elan. In addition to efficiently clearing plates, he was also known for intruding into dinner talk. One evening, Danzuru arrived at our dinner table and overheard a discussion about an elderly man who refused to give out his daughter in marriage to our friend despite the intervention of other elders. Danzuru promptly barged into the discussion. He said, “A dottijo is known for taking one stand. A dottijo is also known for taking two stands.”
We were annoyed by Danzuru’s intrusion but as youngsters, we were also puzzled by it, so we asked him for an explanation. He said, “Normally, when a dottijo takes a stand on a matter, he is expected as a matter of honour to stand by it. But if a dottijo takes a stand on a matter and everyone comes and says that stand he took is not the right one, then the dattijantaka [the mark of a wise elder] is to go back on it.”
President and Central Bank Governor, you take a firm stand on naira redesign policy. You mopped up all our old notes. The new notes are in severe short supply. Banks are accused of hoarding them. Security agents swoop on banks and find some hoarded bundles. A black market springs up to sell new naira notes. Long queues form at ATMs. Fights break out in the queues. Desperate customers ran amok in banking halls, with one woman stripping to the waist and one man going stark naked. Riots break out in some cities. Some hoodlums storm banks, burn and loot them. Big banks responded by shutting down branches for some days, which aggravated the problem. Artisans and small traders’ businesses collapsed because they insisted on collecting new notes and few people had them. Many restaurants, hotels and superstores also demanded payment in new notes. Some said they will accept old notes which they could still bank but no one had old notes. Meanwhile, e-services of all banks became epileptic, with many crashing for days on end. Prices of perishable foodstuff fell because few people had money to buy them. Chamber of Commerce, Manufacturers Association and renown economist Bismarck Rewane all warned that an economic contraction is at hand this quarter.
National Assembly asked that old notes remain legal tender until June. Nigeria Governors Forum, its members from three political parties, called for an extension until end of the year. Several civil society groups called for an extension, as did some major politicians. Major opposition party candidates however opposed an extension, saying it will favour moneybag ruling party candidates. While some groups were rioting, another group demonstrated in front of the Central Bank, saying it should not extend the deadline. One NGO obtained a High Court order to stop CBN from extending the deadline. Three state governments then went to the Supreme Court and asked for an ex parte order to suspend the deadline. Three more states later applied to join them. Supreme Court granted the prayer, said old notes should remain legal tender and all should come back on February 15 to hear the case.
Some lawyers circulated “legal opinion” on social media saying the Supreme Court order “is irrelevant” because CBN Act empowers it to decide on currency matters. Pray, who in Nigeria has the power to quash a Supreme Court ruling, however objectionable it is? There was suspicion because the first online medium that reported the “legal opinion” attributed it to CBN. The medium later scrambled and said it was not CBN but an anonymous legal opinion, apparently when its attention was drawn to the dangers of associating CBN with it.
After 24 hours’ delay, Attorney General of the Federation said Federal Government would obey the Supreme Court order but that he had already filed an objection to get it overturned. In practice the Federal Government did not obey the order, because CBN refused to announce that old notes are still legal tender and by Friday no trader will accept them. Zamfara and Kano State governors threatened to arrest anyone who rejected old notes. To compound matters, some traders reported on Friday that banks refused to accept deposit of old notes, even though the original notice said they should continue to do so for a week after they cease to be legal tender.
On Friday, the Council of State, the country’s most eminent advisory body, met in Abuja. Although Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and General Ibrahim Babangida did not attend, three former Heads of State/president did, including the 89-year-old General Yakubu Gowon. Gowon, by the way, is an authority on currency change because he was the one that replaced the old pounds, shillings and pence with naira and kobo in 1972/73. He did it in two steps; released five and 10 kobo coins in April 1972, then released naira coins and notes in January 1973. There was no crisis that time; old man Gowon, who had concluded the Civil War just two years earlier, was not one to start another crisis.
In addition to ex-presidents, former Chief Justices of Nigeria are also members of the Council of State and there is no way they will encourage disobedience of Supreme Court or any other court order. Apparently President Buhari misjudged the mood of Council of State members; he did not get the outcome he wished for. The part of the resolution that the Presidency liked, which it got some media houses to play up, was that Council of State “expressed support for CBN’s cashless policy.” In the next breath the grand statesmen took this “support” away because they said if CBN cannot make enough new notes available, it should allow old notes to circulate. For the next 48 hours neither the Presidency nor CBN said whether they will heed that advise. The danger is real that grand old men will no longer come to NCS meetings.
Instead, a dispute arose over a leaked document, said to be the presentation that CBN Governor Godwin Emefiele made at the Council of State meeting. He was reported to have said that the Mint, which has the contract to print the new notes, did not have enough paper to print the N500 and N100 notes. That it went to the paper manufacturers in Germany and UK and they put it on a long waiting list. It was a very alarming claim which CBN hurried at the weekend to disclaim, saying Emefiele said no such thing at the meeting. Instead, it said the Mint has enough paper to print new notes. The question that immediately followed this assertion was, if it has the paper, then why didn’t it print enough notes since October, when this plan was first announced?
Wonder of all wonders, World Bank and International Monetary Fund [IMF] called for an extension of the deadline, the first time ever that Bretton Woods institutions surpassed our local authorities in showing empathy with the people, a 180 degree turn from SAP era. The initial argument that opposition to the naira redesign deadline was coming only from the elite and vote buyers has since been discarded because elite figures always find their way around, while it is ordinary folks that are trapped in queues.
Let us go back to the counsel of Danzuru, which clearly arose out of centuries of native rural African wisdom. Ordinarily it is good for an elder to stand by his words. However, the last time that I remember a solid cross section of Nigerians coalescing against a government plan was in 1985, when the Federal Military Government was about to execute Bartholomew Owoh, Bernard Ogedenge and Lawal Akanni Ojuolape who were convicted by a Special Offences Tribunal for cocaine pushing. More than 100 national organisations including prominent clerics, labour and CSOs appealed, not because they supported cocaine pushing but because the decree that made it a capital offence was back dated. FMG however said Nigerians were being sentimental and the men were shot at Kirikiri.
This time around, the “decree” that outlawed old naira notes was not backdated but it was front-dated when replacement notes were not ready and are unlikely to be for weeks and months to come. One banker said CBN never intended to print nearly enough new notes to replace the nearly N2 trillion it mopped up in old notes because it wanted to force an overnight cashless solution on the economy. But then, we have already seen how weak the banks’ e infrastructure is. So why can’t we simply respect the Council of State grandees’ advice and have our old notes back in circulation, until such a time that there are enough new notes? By crashing the economy, are we not actually encouraging vote buying, since desperate folks will now do anything for money as a general election is due in 12 days’ time? When you take a stand on an issue and everyone says it is not the right one, the true mark of a wise African elder is to go back on it.