February 4, 2023

Sadists in high places

By Muyiwa Adetiba

I had never felt that vulnerable in a long, long while. It was the beginning of a weekend. I had functions to attend, long standing obligations to fulfill, but I was, to all intents and purposes, grounded because I had no fuel in my car and no money in my pocket. I can’t recall the last time I had no funds or access to funds to meet my pressing needs. Even in my young travelling years as a journalist, I knew I would always survive as long as I had Traveler’s Cheques in my pocket even if I could not speak the language of the country I was visiting. Now in my old age, and in my own country, I found myself involuntarily grounded because I had no access to funds. It was a new, miserable experience for me; one that played melancholic games in my head because I was home alone in what was going to be a long, lonely weekend. Worse, it didn’t look like there was an end to the problem in sight. It was also, like a friend said, a humbling experience because we were perhaps experiencing for the first time as adults, what many of our fellow Nigerians have experienced all their lives.

Last Thursday, barely five days before CBN’s original deadline when old notes would seize to be legal tender in the country and banks would stop receiving them – a directive that was in itself illegal according to CBN statutes and abnormal according to standard practices around the world – I had spent my last cash like a good citizen in obedience to government. I was so certain that at least one of the more than half a dozen ATM machines at Ikoyi Club would dispense money. I was wrong. On my way home, I stopped at my favourite Zenith Bank branch. The security guards at the ATM points know me. They told me there was no money. I don’t know what got to me; the words or the way they were said. But I began to feel uneasy. My fears crystalized the following day when the driver told me we didn’t have sufficient fuel for the weekend movements. Ordinarily, we would have bought fuel on our way out but these days, the shortest queue at petrol stations would be a mile long, literally.  The only option was to give him money to join the seemingly interminable queue. We drove around the neighbourhood banks looking for a dispensing ATM. We found just one. The queue there and the jostling for vantage positions meant only the young and fit could survive. I am neither. We went home.

Being home alone meant I had time for introspection after the initial frustration of having money in the bank and not being able to access it at my convenience. I began to count my blessings because we are in a country where what should be a right becomes grace. At best, I don’t go out much and therefore have little need for cash. I have food in the freezer and regular light from a communal generator – ‘Power Holders’ have become scammers, promising steady light for premium payers and delivering darkness. I am therefore in a better position than most to sit the no money-no fuel-no light- chain out once I can wrap it around my head that we are witnessing the symptoms of a failing and an uncaring State. I tried to put myself in the position of a young entrepreneur by remembering my publishing years when we needed to put at a dozen vehicles – including motorcycles -on the road everyday for distribution and 24/7 light for production – it would have been a nightmare. I tried to think of vendors who live off their commission. I then thought of the many value-chains that this no money, no fuel predicament would have disrupted severely. These thoughts led me to the plight of subsistence traders who turn over their ‘capital’ everyday and really do not have any spare cash to put away. And to mothers who can’t send their children to school because there is no transport fare. And to the husband who lost his wife at childbirth because there was no money to deposit at the hospital. I tried to think of peasant farmers in remote areas who have never seen the inside of a bank before let alone have bank accounts, let alone have ATM cards. I was with my thoughts when an aunt who lives in highbrow Lekki, sent a message that she could not buy her regular weekend papers – yes, some people still enjoy reading hard copy – because she had dropped all her old notes and couldn’t access funds from her bank. From simple inconvenience to life and death emergency, there are stories from all who have been left high and dry because they complied with CBN directive! Yet new notes have found their way to event centres and ‘owambe’ joints. And possibly to the very politicians the whole macabre operation was supposed to starve of money! 

CBN says there are enough funds; yet the cries on the streets and in homes say differently. The apex bank is quick to tell us how much of the old notes have been retrieved; yet reluctant to tell us how much of the new notes it has pushed into the market and what each bank has received so far. We need the figures for the sake of transparency, accountability and credibility. Basic Economics tells us that there will always be a market disequilibrium when demand outstrips supply.

   Today, everybody is being made to queue for something – cash, fuel, PVC. Two years ago, at the height of Covid19 when WHO encouraged people to stay away from crowded areas, someone in government had the bright idea to give an unrealistic deadline for the procurement of NIN. The punishment was the denial of access to phones; the one thing people of all persuasions find indispensable. This resulted in crowding, long queues, jostles and in some cases, fights. You can’t help thinking there are sadists in high places who enjoy seeing fellow citizens suffer. The tension in the land today is palpable – borne of poverty, hunger and insecurity. It is inconceivable that the administration will add to this tension by embarking at a huge cost – financially, politically and socially – on a cause that in the end, makes very little economic or even political sense. I am sure there would be a calmer, more rational way of preventing excessive use of money during the coming elections should that be the motive, than dislocating the economic and social life of the populace. I suppose it is a military mindset that sees nothing wrong in blowing up a vital bridge that a whole town depends on just to stop a bandit from having access. A mindset that is based on expediencies and expendables.