By ELVIS EROMOSELE
THE amount of queueing Nigerians have been subjected to in the last couple of weeks is unprecedented. It is equally unbecoming. It’s almost like the country had gone back four decades. Fights have broken out in queues at bank facilities, filling stations and INEC and LGA offices across the country. There are trending videos of people stripping naked in protest inside banking halls, others hitting each other with queue dividers and one person has been confirmed dead inside a banking hall, somewhere in Asaba. Nigerians born in the 2000s, GenZs, should be forgiven for thinking the end of the world is here. On a typical day, a person will queue to collect new currency notes at the bank, rush to queue at the filling station to buy supposedly subsidised petrol at exorbitant prices and then drive to the closest INEC office to queue for permanent voter cards, PVCs. This is not sustainable.
The worst part is that no one is accepting responsibility for the inanity. The CBN governor has consistently held that the banks are given enough stock of the new naira notes. The endless queues in and around banks question the veracity of this claim. The CBN has now alleged sabotage by the banks and has deployed a monitoring task force to keep an extra eye on their operations. This shows the frosty state of the relationship between the banks and its regulator. The CBN inspection and ICPC teams have caught a couple of banks hoarding the new naira notes. They should continue the good work that they’re doing to maintain control.
The reality is that the suffering is real, the pain is widespread and anger is rising to a boiling point. The CBN must act to ease the pain. It is a case of demand and supply – make more new naira notes available across the banks, monitor the deployment and see the relief across the land. The naira redesign, according to the CBN, is expected to strengthen the economy, reduce the expenditure on cash management, promote financial inclusion, and enhance the bank’s visibility of naira supply. It also seeks to drive the quest for a truly cashless society. It is a good thing. It is a change management issue. The CBN ought to have managed it better. In systematically phasing out the old notes, it should have introduced the new notes earlier and ensured availability in ATMs all over the country with a restriction on the amount that can be cashed per time.
The cashless policy beyond the cash supply challenge is a digital banking infrastructure issue. Digital banking deals with everyday essentials, including checking balances, reviewing transactions, making payments and transferring funds, whether using USSD, banking apps or online/web-based systems. It is thus a sad commentary on the actual state of the nation’s digital financial infrastructure to see apps and servers collapse under the strain of increased traffic. It shows a lot still needs to be done to strengthen the system. Transactions are not completed; alerts fail to arrive and all sorts of strange messages occur for the first time.
During this season of madness, some banks have been heard whispering to customers that the network fault that they are complaining about is failing from the telecommunications side. Telcos do not need to respond to this allegation. They simply need to work closely with financial institutions to make the transactions seamless. The first step in solving a problem is recognising there is one. One more thing, the CBN must also look at removing all charges for online and POS transactions in the short term. It can later look at a reduced fee for these transactions as volume has risen. The N100 and N50 notes are not being redesigned, they should be widely available. CBN must stick with the deadline and work assiduously to ease the flow of cash. The cashless economy cannot happen overnight. We can admit that progress has been made.
On the fuel queues which have persisted for over five months, the NNPC Limited consistently claimed it had enough fuel and urged the public to shun panic buying. The problem has remained. The DSS, in December, gave the NNPC Limited and marketers 48 hours to end fuel scarcity. We are still here. The House of Representatives also gave the NNPC Limited a week ultimatum to end the artificial scarcity of petroleum. It has long expired without any respite. The Presidency has equally waded in with little success. The problem has proven intractable. The economics is difficult to follow. How can government be budgeting trillions for fuel subsidies and Nigerians are buying at double the approved price? Something is not right here. In a season of a global oil boom, Nigeria may be the only oil-producing nation with citizens queueing long indeterminate hours for fuel. Something is missing here. Someone is not telling Nigerians the truth. Between NNPC Limited and the major marketers, there is a gulf. The citizens are being made to suffer and pay for their failings. In addition, the Federal Government cannot continue to pretend to be unaware of the problems that Nigerians are going through. It must, as a minimum, look to fix it, apply necessary sanctions and ensure the availability of petroleum products across the country.
The queue for PVCs is another battle Nigerians are currently contending with. News reports indicate that no fewer than 6.7 million Nigerians have yet to collect their PVCs less than four weeks before the general elections. Over two million of this number are in Lagos and Abuja alone. Before we heap the blame on the citizens, let us remember the reports of missing PVCs, poor communication about collection points and claims of extortion against INEC officials since the collection of the cards commenced on December 12. Some people have complained on social media of discrimination from compromised INEC officials stalling the release of PVCs to people from a particular tribe, especially in Lagos State. Many people were told their PVCs had not been printed after over six months of registering. That is untidy on the part of INEC. Bank ATMs cards are now printed on demand why should PVCs take forever?
Thankfully, the umpire has been responsive. It set up collection centres in the wards, started sending text messages to people to ease the process and even extended the collection deadline. These are good steps. But INEC can do better. INEC must do better. Registration and collection on PVCs should be open all year round in its offices. This ad-hoc, fire-brigade approach doesn’t cut it any more. The PVC queue is important. It is expected to prove useful in determining the next leader of the country. February 25, 2023, Nigerians will have to queue to cast their votes. Let us queue patiently on the day. When we queue and vote wisely, we can take back Nigeria.
Eromosele, a Corporate Communication professional and public affairs analyst, wrote from Lagos.
Comments expressed here do not reflect the opinions of Vanguard newspapers or any employee thereof.