By Muyiwa Adetiba

How do you feel these days when you give a beggar a small change? Do you feel self-conscious or even apologetic? I went to a neighbourhood supermarket recently. I decided to use cash since I was buying just one or two items and I felt cash would be quicker for me.

The result was that I received some small denominations as my change. I put the notes in the car hoping to ‘bless’ the less fortunate passers-by with them. I placed the smallest denomination on top of the pile. At one of those intersections where the traffic light holds you longer, a beggar appeared. He was a familiar figure at the intersection which meant I would have reached out to him in the past.

The smallest denomination on the small pile was a 20 Naira note. I gave it to him. He refused to my surprise and anger. I thereafter resolved not to give him any money again. But the effect that exchange had on me was that I became conscious of giving a single small note out to a beggar. I would now lump them rather than distribute in singles to three or so beggars.

Yet, it didn’t seem that long ago when 20 Naira was the highest denomination Nigeria had to offer. I still vividly remember a time in the mid -eighties when I was given a bundle of 20 Naira notes on my way home. I felt so uncomfortable – I still am uncomfortable with large cash on me – that I branched at a friend’s hospital to hand the bundle to him for the night. 

It seems preposterous and unbelievable that in just about forty years, the same 20Naira note would be turned down as worthless by a beggar.

Those born in the 70s and beyond, in other words, those who are currently in the active work-place, would find it very difficult to believe that a 350Naira monthly salary was once good pay in Nigeria. This was at a time when a flat in a good location was 200Naira; monthly repayment for a car loan was in the region of 50Naira; a bottle of whisky was 4Naira and a bottle of beer was 40kobo.

The same 20Naira that is being rejected by beggars today was more than good for any outing including a trip to a nightclub or supermarket. I remember the period I earned about 350Naira a month with nostalgia because I had a good time and could afford the basic necessities of life. Today, it would cost in excess of 10,000Naira, almost the annual salary of a CEO in the 70s, just to fill the tank of some cars. And that is without petrol being deregulated.

Next year will probably cost twice that with price deregulation. With food prices going up – thanks to floods and terrorism – and petrol prices going up, the country might have to print more currencies to meet domestic needs. Then you’d need to be a multi-Millionaire to afford a basic television or any electronic gadget. You’d need a Ghana-must-go bag of cash just to shop at the market!

The pressure on the Naira started with increased importation and poor fiscal policies. The more we imported, the more home made goods disappeared and the more the inability to defend the Naira. The less the attention we paid on infrastructure, the less attractive foreign companies found the country leading to even more importation.

We eventually found ourselves in that unhappy but inevitable stage of printing currencies to meet domestic demand. And in doing this, we have found ourselves in company with some Banana Republics.  We have not quite gotten to where Uganda, Zimbabwe and Lebanon got to, but we are not too far away. Who would have thought seven years ago, that a dollar would exchange for almost a thousand Naira?

Who would have thought that under the regime of an anti-corruption Czar, the country would be losing almost a million barrels of crude oil to theft?Who would have thought that any Central Bank Governor would allow such a gap between the official rate and the market rate of a Nation’s currency?

He was warned by his predecessor much earlier in his tenure, that he was toying with the country’s financial future by pandering to the whims and pockets of the rent seeking elites with such a gaping dual rate policy. He didn’t listen. Instead, it got worse. That this shoddy management of the country’s Fx didn’t cost him his job probably meant he satisfied the interests of the powers that be. And I guess staying on his job means more to him than his professional legacy.

I have always been against foreign exchange speculations for patriotic reasons. But recent developments have shown my inclination to be merely sentimental or playing the ostrich at best. Those who are engaged in safe-guarding the Naira and protecting the economy are probably active in foreign exchange speculations. This could explain why the huge disparity has lingered.

Many people, including bankers, have made a killing. It is therefore foolish for a pensioner or the elderly with a static income not to store his treasure in a more stable currency. I’ll explain. If for example, your severance pay was 20 million Naira ten years ago and you converted it to dollars at the time, it would be about 17000 dollars. Today, it would be a third of that.

Today’s monetary policy would have impoverished the pensioner by about 70%. That would count as part of the legacies of Emefiele, the banker who became so smug that he did not consider the impact of his tenure on people especially retirees and the elderly before opting for the presidential soapbox.

 It says a lot about how this country is being run that such an important decision as redesigning the currency did not carry the Finance Minister along -the open discord between the Finance Minister and the Central Bank Governor is embarrassing and disconcerting to those who have faith in the country.

It says a lot about the regard the handlers of our currency have for us that the pros and cons of this important step on the short and long term interest of the people have not been spelt out in detail – the experience of certain African countries in this regard has not been too good. It says a lot about transparency that the total cost to the nation of this currency design is only for a few ears only.

Something tells me there is a lot more to this currency design than has been let on.

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