March 16, 2023

It’s been a loud silence from Buhari

By Rotimi Fasan

BY the time you’re reading this, it would  have been two full weeks, almost, to the day the Supreme Court overturned the orders of President Muhammadu Buhari, through the Central Bank Governor, Godwin Emefiele, delegitimising the use of the old N1000, N500 and N200 notes as legal tenders.

Since that decision of the Supreme Court up to the time I’m writing this, the only notable word of concern that has come out of the President was to offer his apologies for the hardship Nigerians had endured in the entire period of the so-called cash change exercise. Perhaps the situation would have changed today after the President said on Monday he did not instruct Malami and the CBN to disobey Supreme Court judgement and Nigerians can now go about transacting their everyday business with some assurance that they wouldn’t be subjected to the embarrassment of not finding cash to pay or being stylishly detained at the point of transacting their business until their electronic fund transfers can be confirmed.

Buhari apologised to Nigerians, and, thereafter, promptly hopped on the presidential jet to his next destination on yet another of the series of farewell tours that now constitute the bulk of his foreign trips. But the Supreme Court had in a unanimous decision, delivered on March 3, extended the validity of the old notes to December 2023, time it considered sufficient for Nigerians to have successfully exchanged their old notes for the new ones. The extension given by the Supreme Court was enough relief to Nigerians who didn’t bother to think if December is actually enough for a smooth transition from the use of the old notes to the new.

The orders of the President stopping the use of the old notes through a severe currency confiscation scheme that was orchestrated by the CBN, had brought untold misery to Nigerians. They eagerly looked towards the Supreme Court as their last hope and saviour from the contrived hardship imposed on them by President Buhari. The point bears repeating that President Buhari is the man behind the CBN cash crunch policy mask.

It’s the reason why Godwin Emefiele cannot say or do anything on his own. At least not until the President has given him the nod to act. Which is to say that he is, in fact, a puppet in the hands of the President, his puppeteer. Those blaming Emefiele, holding him responsible for the ill-fated decision and demanding his resignation on that account, are embarked on nothing but a wild goose chase.

Emefiele may be the face of the CBN and of the Buhari-led government on the cash confiscation policy (and the President is happy to wash his hands clean off the anti-people decisions coming out of the CBN), but he is at best a scapegoat for the President himself who has the last word on the matter as in most other issues of governance.

Emefiele and his CBN lieutenants might have provided the blueprint and served as the mastermind of the misbegotten cashless policy but Buhari was and still is the decision-maker. Which is why Emefiele could not and did not lift a finger or say a word that could be remotely interpreted as an inclination to implement or respect the decision of the Supreme Court until he has the President’s say-so.

This is the reason he has been in the quagmire of not knowing how best to respond to the decision of Nigeria’s number one court. Since he can’t be sure of what he could say that might set the hounds of the angry and frustrated Nigerians loose, he wisely stepped back from the public, while asking for more time to study the situation, as bankers across the country and Nigerians alike were left to their own devises. Everyone was left to interpret and implement the Supreme Court’s decision as they deemed fit. Both the Presidency and the CBN initially looked too shocked to know how to react. They responded with silence as they have so far been for the most part, until President Buhari could summon a few desultory words of apologies before fleeing abroad. 

Only the APC governors Nasir el-Rufai of Kaduna, Yahaya Bello of Kogi, Bello Matawale that chose to challenge Buhari’s order in court, and the latter-day convert to their position of principled opposition, Godwin Obaseki, the governor of Edo State, then had any clear or unambiguous statement to make on the decision of the Supreme Court.

Their approach was to affirm the superiority of the Court’s decision over and above the order of the president. They boldly announced that Nigerians were at liberty to spend the old notes and took that position a step higher by threatening to shut down any bank or arrest any business owner that refused to accept the old notes.

A few banks across the country took some tentative steps and announced they had started transacting business with the new notes. They were, however, clever enough to ensure that they only dispensed some of the old notes in their possession without accepting any from customers. About this time, an official of the CBN made some nebulous statements that suggested the CBN was authorising use of the old notes. But his words were too timid, too tentative and ambiguous, to be taken as a positive assertion that Nigerians could now use the old notes. He appeared to speak for himself and was largely understood in that respect by Nigerians who knew better than to let down their guard about accepting the old notes. They waited for a couple of days to see if the use of the old notes would catch on and if Abuja would say something in the meantime.

The hide and seek cannot continue anymore. It’s clear that President Buhari is not willing to heed the decision of the Supreme Court in spite of his statement on Monday. There’s a lot to suggest his words should be the last on the matter. In an imperial presidency like ours, President Buhari obviously views the decision of the courts, arrived at by judges that were/are his appointees, as too galling to be accepted.

As the President, he has to be the alpha and omega of Nigerian politics and his words must be obeyed with the promptness of a law. He should, however, know that he is in violation of extant laws by his refusal to act in line with the decision of the Supreme Court. How does his disdain of the courts align with his expressed desire to leave a legacy of constitutionalism? In addition to ignoring the pain of Nigerians, his refusal to respect the law exposes him as both a failed and an unrepentant dictator.