Wanted: A Cashless Economy or Naira Redenomination

On that day, I was tempted to commit my first murder at one of the banks. On the counter, I was next to a young boy – a boy no more than 17 years old – who went to withdraw N17million cash. He was politely invited to the back of the counter, but that did not stop me from being an eyewitness to the transaction.

When the cashier turned the computer screen to his direction, apparently to prove to him that the signature on the cheque (or whatever) was somehow irregular, I caught a glimpse of the account owner’s balance: N460-something million! Even the bags used to load the stuff were large enough to attract attention. To worsen matters, they did not give him many bundles of N1, 000 and N500 bills; there were mainly N200 and N100 bundles.

Thanks to education and maturity, I have grown above envy. That day, however, I briefly contemplated seizing the boy by the neck and asking him what job he did to earn N17million. As he left the hall with the “loot”, everyone looked at him.

But then, I thought again, the boy was not to blame. It’s to his father or mother who sent him that I should have directed my anger. The owner of that account is probably a director in one of the federal government agencies, an ex-minister, an ex-governor or a government contractor. I probably wouldn’t have begrudged the young man if I had had millions in my own account. But I had gone to the bank to withdraw N20, 000 from my miserable account; I didn’t use the ATM then.

That was just before the Central Bank started enforcing the cash withdrawal limit six years ago. I had applauded the policy because I felt it would curtail the use of cash – and avoid the usual envy and crimes that accompany it. Perhaps, armed robbers would start looking elsewhere for their victims, I thought.

As they always do, the banks have been violating the CBN’s rule with impunity. I don’t know why the son of the oppressor I saw that Friday risked carrying loads of cash. Another “big man” would have called the bank manager who would take the money to his home. Some would ask their police orderly to cash the cheque and return with siren-blaring vans. That’s why we don’t often meet ministers and governors and DGs in banking halls. The man or woman who sent their son that I met must have been avoiding the prying eyes of non-relations and perhaps the EFCC.

That boy made me see a naked masquerade! I can’t remember ever seeing that quantity of cash – except on television during the Obasanjo era when loads of cash in Ghana-must-go bags were displayed in the chambers of the House of Representatives and labelled “bribe money”. Till date, nobody has told us the source of that money or what happened to it afterwards.

The need to curtail cash display reminds me of another good policy announced by Professor Chukwuma Soludo as CBN governor. It was suspended by then President Umaru Yar’Adua. Soludo had sought to redenominate the naira by striking out two zeros and ensuring the reintroduction of coins.

The CBN led by Godwin Emefiele should now reconsider that proposal. Nigeria is perhaps the only country in the world where coins are not legal tender. Where is the kobo that I used to exchange with six balls of akara? About this time in 1977, I bought 48 cigarette cups [about 15 mudu] of garri with N1.

There is now a need to strike out three zeros, not two as Soludo proposed. If N1, 000 is converted to N1, then, N100 will become 10k, N50 becomes 5k, and N10 becomes 1k. It’s of no use turning everybody a millionaire, yet everybody is poor as in Zimbabwe: you need Zimbabwean $2billion to buy a loaf of bread!

If Soludo had been allowed to remove two zeros, sachet water producers wouldn’t have increased the price of the commodity from N5 to N10 (100 per cent increase); they would have increased it from 5k to 6k, a 20 per cent increase. Similarly, bus fares would have risen from N1 to N1. 05k or N1.10k, not from N100 to N200. Ghana that adopted a similar policy has been enjoying much lower inflation as a result. Is it said that nothing good would be allowed in Nigeria?

We either have a cashless economy or redenominate the naira. A colleague’s experience at another bank shows how having a cashless economy would calm tempers even in banking halls. He had gone to find out whether his salary had been paid, and then withdraw some cash. As the deputy managing director of a radio station, he was treated well. He was well-dressed and looked well-fed. By sheer coincidence, another haggard-looking man was also at the same bank to confirm his account’s status.

Everyone, including the other bank customer, called my friend “Oga” (Master). And “Oga” overheard the banking officer asking the other man, who looked like a technician or watchman in his company, how much he was expecting as monthly salary. “Five-eighty (580),” he replied. The DMD turned to examine the man who was paid “580” (meaning N580, 000), while he, the supposed “big man” from a radio station, was expecting N160, 000 as his salary for that month. In anger, he left the bank and didn’t bother to withdraw money anymore.

Though success in the apex bank’s cash withdrawal limit is still farfetched, I agree that more obstacles have been placed in the way of treasury looters. They will need to share the loot with some bankers and supposed anti-crime fighters when they flout the rules: The banks are required to notify the anti-drug and anti-graft agencies whenever an individual or a corporate body is withdrawing more than a certain amount. The rule is violated every day, but we have not heard that any offender has been caught.

Were I CBN governor Emefiele, I would bring back the kobo by striking out three zeros and changing the faces of the currencies. An alternative would be to retain the zeros but abolish bills higher than N20 (any worthless material could be used to make lower denominations as long as they have the right security features) so we can watch those withdrawing N17million as they charter several trucks for moving the money.

Nobody would want to withdraw even N1, 000 cash if, for instance, the CBN abolished all bills higher than N20, after it had struck out three zeros. Only N20, N10, N5 and N1 should be bills; 50k, 25k, 10k, 5k and 1k should be coins. Civil servants would then be talking about N18 (not N18, 000) as the minimum wage.


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