By Abimbola Adelakun
On Wednesday, Nigeria’s President, Maj. Gen Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), along with the governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, Godwin Emefiele, and some other high-ranking public officials formally unveiled the re-designed N1,000, N500, and N200 notes. Such a gathering is, of course, expectedly full of festivity, bluster, and the regurgitation of the same vapid and soulless speeches that typify these public gatherings.
At the end of it all, one can conclude that no other official action typifies the many bitter disappointments, artificiality, and even the abject lack of self-reflexivity that has characterised this administration better than redesigning naira notes that increasingly buy you nothing. Those notes will, of course, appear much prettier but will still be worth far less than the paper on which they are printed. It should be ironic but approaching serious economic issues in such a cosmetic manner has been the standard means of this present regime. When faced with a serious political or economic crisis, they paper over their failures and even apply some glossy lipstick. In this case, the naira whose value they cannot raise can at least be made fancy enough for Instagram. They have done that several times, and their persistent superficiality is no longer worth satirising.
The worthwhile story of the re-designed naira ceremony is that while much money and efforts were expended on improving the appearance of the notes, its corresponding value has kept on depreciating. Perhaps the best description of the shaved value of the naira came from a tweet that circulated months ago and which posited that even $0.00 has a higher value than N0.00. Indeed, some nothings are weightless.
The ever-diminishing value of the naira is as much of political and social crisis as it is an economic concern. What is at stake is not a simple matter of foreign exchange rate that local folks can afford to ignore as some diehard supporters of this administration serially encourage. No, such indices cannot be overlooked because the consequence of dwindling currency value is the severe discounting of the labour of Nigerians who get paid in naira. Without going into a complex economic analysis, we can unanimously agree that people’s purchasing power is directly correlated to their political and social worth (even in an economic construct like Nigeria that brutally quantifies your worth without a viable objective means of calibrating value). When people now have to work twice as hard in order to buy things at twice as much, it becomes evident that their lives, which they have invested in the work that earns them wages, have been severely shrunk in value. It is an uncomfortable truth, and you could not have heard that during the silly little speeches at the Wednesday ceremony.
Addressing the problem of the falling naira has been tossed around but nothing much has come out of it. In September last year, Emefiele laid the blame of the continuous fall of the naira on abokifx, a blog that reports parallel currency rates. It was perhaps the most curious thing you would ever hear – the CBN governor blaming a virtual entity for the instability of the nation’s currency. If Nigeria were ever a serious country, Emefiele should have been asked to resign immediately after that public address. If a blog that merely reports the black market rate of the naira has the power to fix the value of the national currency, then the work that all the professional economists and financial analysts working in the CBN do every day must be redundant. The most logical course of action would be to fire every single member of the CBN staff and then concentrate our attention on the viability of the national economy through what the oracle of the abokifx divines for us every day. Speaking of which, whatever happened to Emefiele’s threat to arrest and prosecute the owner of abokifx for sabotaging the economy?
Nowhere has the fall of the naira been more viscerally felt across the board than in the rising costs of foodstuff, especially the two food staples—rice and bread—that cut across cuisine culture in every part of the country and whose globality makes them quite susceptible to the vicissitudes of economies in crises. Curbing the rising rates of rice especially resulted in another cosmetic attempt when the grand spectacle of the rice pyramid was launched in January. Resulting from the partnership of the CBN (through its Anchor Borrowers’ Programme) with the Rice Farmers Association of Nigeria, the grandiose display of rice pyramids was supposed to be the beginning of local production and ultimate extrication from the whims of global economic fallouts that sends food prices spiraling.
The ABP project reportedly gulped billions and some 4.8 million farmers got loans from the initiative, but it is hard to determine its impact on either the cost of rice or even other food products. The cost of food prices, including rice, keeps soaring. The prices will likely go even higher when the general elections get closer, and politicians buy them in tonnes to hoard in their warehouses and distribute among their constituents. By the time the 2023 election phase passes, rice and bread will be so priced that they will be out of the reach of many of those still able to afford them. Meanwhile, the same Emefiele almost contested for president, abjuring prescribed ethics that prevent someone holding his position from venturing into partisan politics. The mere announcement that RIFAN coughed up a whopping N100m to buy him a presidential nomination form should have been enough reason to make him step down from his office and the whole ABP project investigated thoroughly. That did not happen because, well, this is Nigeria. There are no standards, no decorum, not even a baseline of integrity structuring our public engagements.
Those re-designing a naira that can no longer buy you anything did, at least, leave us with one irony to masticate. At a recent event, an Akpama Uket representing CBN Director of Corporate Communications Osita Nwanisobi reminded us that defacing the naira remains an offence. He noted that the new notes must be handled dignifiedly because they are a symbol of national pride. This would be hilarious if it were stated any more seriously. A society that does not treat its humans with dignity wants those humans to respect pieces of paper on which it printed some value that does not correspond to reality. Does it ever occur to these CBN officials who insist on respect for the national currency that these frequent reminders would be unnecessary if the naira has any actual worth? Has anyone ever heard the US Federal Reserve bank begging people to treat the dollars with dignity? Why bother when everyone knows that those bills carry economic, cultural, and even moral weight. How many owambe parties has anyone ever been to and seen people spraying and dancing on $100 bills the way we do with N1000 notes? Money is respected when it has value, and…