By Owei Lakemfa
A Lebanese man on September 16, 2022, wielding a gun, held up the Byblos Bank in Ghazieh, Southern Lebanon. No, not to rob the bank or its customers. Just to retrieve part of his money trapped in the country’s banks!
So, to retrieve part of his money, he had to hold up the bank and take hostages. As news of the holdup spread, crowds gathered in front of the bank to cheer him on.
Two days earlier, there had been two other holdups in Beirut and the town of Ale. Although all the weapons turned turned out to be toy guns, but nobody will confront a desperate armed man believing the gun he is carrying is a toy.
In August, 2022, a man held up a Beirut bank just to withdraw his own funds to treat his sick father. He went home a free man when the bank dropped its lawsuit against him. Also, a Lebanese woman seized a bank in Beirut demanding her frozen deposits in order to pay the medical bills of her sister.
These were surreal images and I felt sorry that Lebanon, once considered the banking capital of the Arab world, which was why it was called the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” could have become a failed state.
Never in my wildest imagination could I have conceived not too dissimilar scenes in Nigeria just four months down the line. This was because I did not reckon with a man called Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general and former Military dictator who runs the regime in Nigeria as elected President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces.
His regime decided to change the three highest denominations of the Naira with effect from December 15, 2022. The end date was fixed at January 31, 2023. While in compliance, the populace returned the old bank notes to the bank, the new notes did not flow in sufficient quantity. The mass media quoted Kaduna State Governor, Nasir el-Rufai as claiming that while the Central Bank mopped up N2 trillion old notes, only N300 billion new notes were in circulation. Whether this claim is true or not, the fact is that a financial crisis is sweeping through the country and Lebanon-like scenes are being enacted. Although guns have not surfaced in bank halls, they have in the streets where armed policemen engaged citizens protesting the cash shortage and the failure of banks to pay customers.
Also in the historic city of Benin where protesters had taken to the streets, armed soldiers have had altercations with the students of the University of Benin over access to Automated Teller Machines, ATM, which has become the primary means of collecting money.
In Abuja, I saw the trending video of a naked, elderly man in a bank weeping inconsolably because he could not retrieve his money to take care of his family. He ignored the entreaties of bank officials. Rather, he demanded to be killed: “Make dem shoot me make I die. Make I forget my children, make I forget my wife (shoot me and let me die, kill me and let me forget my children, let me forget my wife),” he wailed in Pidgin English.
Some days earlier, a lady stripped to her under pants in a bank hall, demanding access to her money so her daughter can return to school. In another bank, a man climbed the counter, removed his top and decided to sleep there unless he was given some of his money. In another bank hall, a machete-wielding man was said to have been subdued.
In some cities, angry Nigerians took to the streets in protest, leading to the burning of some ATMs and banks buildings.
What is going on is the undisguised sale of the Naira to buy the Naira. As at Sunday February 5, 2023 in Abuja, the Point-Of-Sale, POS, operators were charging at least 15 per cent of whatever money customers were withdrawing.
Also, the POS in almost all fuel stations were non-functional. I observed fuel station operators who insist on cash, counting whatever money they make, and selling the currency to Nigerians at 15 per cent interest rate!
The mass media reported that as at Saturday in Lagos, N5,000 old notes attracted a N1,000 commission while N6,000 new notes attracted as much as N2,000 commission; that is, a Nigerian is forced to lose one third of his money just to have the Naira in his hands!
The Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, claimed enough new bank notes have been given to banks. It followed this up with some clips of its officials leading security men to exposing some banks hoarding the new notes. If this was a serious move, then over 75 per cent of the bank managers would have been behind bars.
Meanwhile, some bank officials are feeding the ATMs with Naira in wraps so currency cannot be dispensed. Many banks are also debiting customers without remitting their money or reversing the transactions. So, what is going on is the mass robbery of Nigerians with no government or security agency to defend them.
The induced currency crisis has crippled small businesses while the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, MAN, says if the currency crisis persists for another three weeks, there is the likelihood of a 25 per cent monthly drop in sale of locally produced goods.
Eleven governors elected on the platform of the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, on Thursday met President Buhari to work out an urgent solution, including the concurrent use of the old and new notes till the end of the year. Buhari, while having no solution, requested that the current state of anarchy be allowed to continue for another one week when the old notes would have ceased to be legal tender. As usual, he blamed others for the failures of his government.
Thirty nine years ago, as Military Head of State, Buhari carried out a similar currency change which was disastrous for many Nigerians. In his 1984 album titled: ‘Owo Tuntun’ (New Money) which is now trending on the internet, Fuji musician, Alhaji Kollington, the Kebe Kwara, sang: “I no longer understand the world. We have ended the new currency swap on May 6 (1984). The currency change has been effected, yet we are all still hungry… A lot of people queued at the banks for 7-8 days without being able to change to the new currency…All times the sinner is made to pay for his sins, the innocent is also made to suffer.”
Africans have a saying that a god that cannot better the lot of the people, should at least not worsen it; the lot of Nigerians under Buhari has worsened. But I am confident that collectively, we shall survive his regime.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), is a human rights activist, journalist, and author.