By Dan Agbese
At long last President Buhari condescended to address his fellow Nigerians on his controversial monetary policy – the so-called redesign of three denominations of the national currency, on February 16. He did what he should have done from the beginning to inform and educate the public on why he chose to do it and what the economy, the people and the country stand to gain from it. But given his famous penchant towards rulership instead of leadership, he tends to treat his policies as divine imperatives beyond question by mere mortals. The air has gone of out his know-it-all balloon.
And then this one blew up in his face and he was forced to do what he hates to do – talk to his fellow Nigerians – in an effort to do the ultimate damage control himself. The damage to our national economy and his own image is by now extensive. Protests over naira scarcity has led to avoidable deaths and destruction. Angry fellow Nigerians denied the right to get their money from the banks after waiting in line for hours, took it out on some branches of the banks and torched them in various parts of the country. There is anger and there is hunger and there is poverty imposed on the people.
A flurry of litigations against the federal government flooded the Supreme Court as parts of efforts to legally force the president and his alter ego, the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, to appreciate the telling fact that their policy had become a clear and obvious danger to the people and the country. They refused to listen to anyone and stuck to their collective self-righteous wisdom when leadership rather than rulership recommended itself for their due consideration.
None of this should have happened, at least not at this time and in the manner the policy was rammed down our throats. The policy is a pile on on our distress as a nation. Our misery index has naturally risen towards the stratosphere. We are spending hours at fuel stations daily. That in itself is a huge challenge and one that has been with us for as long as anyone can remember.
The economy is reeling from nearly eight years of poor management. With some 77 trillion-naira debts on its scrawny neck, the spin doctors are hard put to present it as healthy. The softness in the national economy has consequently sunk more and more of Buhari’s fellow Nigerians below the poverty line. At the last count, some 138 million of us were officially classified as poor. We still remain the poverty capital of the world, a feat achieved under Buhari’s watch.
Our country, whatever the president’s spin doctors might say, is confronted with a multitude of challenges that cannot be tackled with a policy decision that aggravates them. This country is the least ready of nations for a cashless economy. There are no infrastructures for its implementation in the urban and rural areas. What has taken other developed nations years of a gradual process to address must be made to bend to our kia-kia mentality. A cashless economy cannot reflate our national economy, let alone respond to the many challenges it faces.
The president might have meant well, as he tried to educate us in his broadcast yesterday but still, the following stick out. One, it has aggravated our national poverty. Buhari does not need this in the twilight zone of his presidency. He is leaving us with the legacy of a poorly managed economy. That is bad enough. It was unconscionable to pile it on because he aims to reign in the use of money as a tool for elections. Elections everywhere in the world cost lots of money. In only rare cases do those with deep pockets fail to win the trophy. Money fought for his election in 2015 and his re-election in 2019.
Two, I can think of nothing that made the redesign of the national currency an urgent imperative in the management of our national economy. An economy in the doldrums does not rise up with the repainting of the national currency. The scarcity of the redesigned naira is punitive in conception, intent, and implementation. The redesign has not turned the naira into gold and therefore so scarce it is out of the rich of the struggling masses.
Three, whatever good intentions the president has must have been ruined by the conspiracy theories that have virtually spurned out of control. The presidential candidate of the president’s party, APC, Asiwaju Ahmed Bola Tinubu, believes he is the target of the policy. Not a few people agree with him. That is bad. Neither the president nor his spin doctors have offered convincing proof that this is not so.
Four, from the totality of public opinions, the policy was conceived by the president and the CBN governor in secrecy and, therefore, cannot escape the charge that it was ignoble in conception, ignoble in intentions and profoundly ignoble in its harsh implementation. It was not and could not have been intended to help improve the economy. For the first time in recent memory, a monetary policy is being used as a dangerous tool in the primitive political struggles to achieve certain political objectives as many knowledgeable people have pointed out. As usual, the elephants are fighting, and the people are being trampled under their feet.
Five, the current change in stance with the old N200 naira notes remaining legal tender until the end of April has solved no problems and might have a) come too late to be effective in that the banks have already mopped up the old notes or b) undermined the policy itself. If the old notes are no longer available, what would the extension achieve but more frustrations for the people who can get neither the old nor the new notes?
Six, what is the wisdom in making the new notes scarce as a legal tender? Why should a man be restricted to N20,000 of his own money daily? The endless queues in banks by people who wish to withdraw their own legitimate money cannot be a plus for the president and his administration. These are the consequences of a policy shot through with ill-will. If the policy was meant to deny some criminal elements a lifeline and the politicians the right to let the people eat some crumbs from their polished dining tables, then the people have become collateral damages. A monetary policy conceived with noble intentions should take this possibility and the unintended consequences into due consideration in its implementation to at least ensure that the people are not damaged victims.
Many of us wonder why Buhari chose to conceive of and implement a monetary policy that anyone could see has the potential to damage whatever legacies he intends to leave for his fellow Nigerians. The man came into office in 2015 with the best goodwill in the world. The people responded to him in a manner that none of his predecessors in office enjoyed. They believed in his promise of change to clean up the governance system, chain insecurity, kill corruption and set the nation on the path of a steady economic and social growth.
He has managed, quite remarkably, to squander the public goodwill. He is unable to find the icing on the cake of his eight years in power as president. There is chaos everywhere; criminals have the best times of it; the corrupt have the best times of it. Everything that did not need to go wrong went wrong. What needed to be fixed were not fixed because he has not provided the kind of leadership the nation needs to heal its many gaping wounds and unite the people for a common cause, the cause of a nation with the commonality of interests, opportunities, ambitions, and aspirations.
We are more divided than ever before. We are divided along ethnic and religious lines and our fault lines have widened. That Buhari would ignore all these and push ahead with a monetary policy this damaging to the national economy, the country, and its hapless citizens, is not just unfortunate, it is tragic. Whoever succeeds him in May this year, will have more than he bargained for on his plate.
This article was originally published in The Guardian