By Bassey Ubong
Should any human institution act or practice take pre-eminence over the welfare of a human group? Chris Eyininaya, I presume him to be a lawyer, Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria, says by way of a trending post, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) should be seen as being above the law and banking practice should take pre-eminence over the laws regulating banking in Nigeria.
The learned writer argues with passion on the need for Nigerians to ignore the March 3 judgment of the Supreme Court of Nigeria first, because it goes against “banking practice”, second, because no one and no institution has a right to tamper with currency management other than the CBN, and third because an attempt to tamper with the ongoing process, no matter how destructive to citizens and the economy, will cause “chaos.”
One wonders at the writer’s idea of chaos given a scenario such as this: i) The President of Nigeria outlaws the use of N1,000 and N500 denominations. (ii) Some state Governors tell their people to continue to use the “illegal tender” and they seek the Supreme Court’s order for the good of their people. (iii) Supreme Court makes a pronouncement against the Presidential directive. (iv) Commercial banks, supervised by the CBN, obey the Supreme Court with caution as they load ATM machines with outlawed currency. (v) CBN keeps mum. (vi) The commercial banks accept the old notes, but with forms issued by CBN. They pay out the old notes but reject them without the CBN forms. (vii) Businesses, in particular the micro, which sells okra and pepper and garri, reject the old notes and the few who accept transfers have to wait for two or more days to receive value.
But in our learned friend’s opinion, Nigerians should “hold their peace”, which means they should suffer in silence in their future interest. Can a mix have a name other than chaos in a country where about 90% of citizens function on a day-to-day basis?
A persuasive argument from a professional would have used examples and decided cases around the world as he did, but allow readers to take their positions. But the learned writer insisted the poison offered to Nigerians must be swallowed in the long-term interest of monetary management which includes inflation as well as avoidance of possible negative views from international finance agencies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
If the writer’s grandmother starves or cannot pay for hypertensive drugs or chloroquine, she can pass on as a sacrifice for the control of almighty inflation. The post I have referred to should earn an award for the most citizen-insensitive position for 2023.
Perhaps, if the writer had spared time to review the timeless work of Marcus Tullius Cicero, Roman Consul (Governor), statesman, scholar, lawyer, and philosopher, he would have taken a different stand.
In his book “De Legibus” (On Laws) which the distinguished Roman commenced writing in 52 BC, the idea of what must take precedence in society found space in Book II. Permit us to take the liberty to quote the translation of the concept of “Salus populi suprema lex esto” as conceived and argued by Cicero in the dialogue with Quintus: “The health (good, salvation, felicity) of the people should be the supreme (or highest) law.” Above quote comes from a source in Wikipedia of 2022.
Law, without doubt, has nuances that ordinary folks like some of us find difficult to interpret. For instance, the word ‘should’ can be interpreted to imply the need and/or possibility to act where critical circumstances arise. Nor can one ignore the difference between the temporary and the long-term. But when a lawyer and statesman, such as Cicero, takes a position such should be regarded with seriousness because he operated on the two key sides of society.
The simple questions Nigerians have asked with respect to the currency change include the timing, the preparedness, the exit strategy, and the ultimate, whether a policy should wipe out a people today for it to be useful tomorrow.
Whether on matters of law or banking practice if CBN has realized the damage caused to citizens as in loss of lives and collapsed businesses, should the time-tested truth about successful Generals be disregarded? Notable Generals are those who know when to retreat to re-strategize before a new offensive. Such Generals look towards decisive wins of wars as against battles.
CBN has lost this battle because it has generated a philosophical concept known as a slippery slope perhaps by default. The concept finds greater traction in logic and fallacies but use has been established in ordinary situations.
A situation of slippery slope arises when one initial, sometimes small act causes negative fallouts which cause successive negative fallouts of wider and worse dimensions.
The propositions by Douglas Walton in 2016 approximate at an uncanny level the currency change in Nigeria today. D. Walton conceived of four basic components in the slippery slope argument: a first step that involves an action or policy being considered; a sequence in which the action leads to other actions; a gray zone in which the agent loses control; and a catastrophic outcome to end the sequence.
The currency change policy informed the first stage followed by several actions such as several directives from CBN, the Supreme Court, and the President after which Nigerians as bankers, point of sale (POS) operators, and emergency money changers joined the fray to ensure the CBN lost control of events. The catastrophe has come as hunger, lost lives, crumbled businesses, and no doubt fall in economic growth. It has affected the integrity of the SC and much more.
The slide along the slope commenced with an extreme cash squeeze which impacted lives and businesses. This forced the Governors of three states to file a case in the SC to extend the legality of the denominations in question. Their motives may have been varied, but they are the direct custodians of the health and general welfare of the people.
The Labour Party Vice Presidential candidate Dr. Datti-Ahmed saw the action as tantamount to treason which attracts capital punishment. But without recourse to immunity would it be proper to execute Governors who acted to save the lives and means of livelihood of their citizens?
Thirteen states applied to be joined in the suit, but while the Supreme Court adjourned to take care of the new litigants Nigeria’s President and head of the Executive arm made a broadcast that made two denominations to lose their legal tender status but gave new lease of life to one denomination without explanation.
The President’s action without doubt pre-empted the Supreme Court and ignored the interim order of the court. These implied new levels on the slippery slope such as the attack on the principle of separation of powers among the three branches of government and as we know it, a clear case of transgression of the sub judice argument which had put ordinary citizens into trouble in the past. We hope the CBN Governor enjoys immunity like the other Governors and the President although he has been sharp enough to maintain studied silence.
Can we disregard the constitutional crisis which the faceoff between the Executive and Judicial co-equals should generate based on the developments? In the United States it would be a serious matter which would involve Congress but Nigeria in reality has no national legislative arm.
Back to the arguments by the Fellow of the Institute of Bankers. He insists the judgment of the Supreme Court “is not enforceable” and should be regarded as an academic exercise based on clear meddling by the Court with currency management which he sees as being exclusive to the Executive represented by the President and his appointee, the Governor of CBN.
We can read above to mean the Supreme Court has its limits and certain institutions, policies, and perhaps the activities of certain individuals cannot be adjudicated on by the ultimate judicial body. Wonderful! It should be easy to understand the snide remark on February 22 by the Supreme Court when it said it will make a pronouncement on whether the Executive would honour or ignore it.
The learned writer went further and this should force tears from our eyes for our grandchildren and upcoming generations. One of the planks of our brother’s argument rests on the loss of moral authority by the Supreme Court in recent times. Given judgments delivered in favour of certain bigwigs who lost presidential primaries but went on to squeeze Senate seats from the Supreme Court, our man insists the Supreme Court has lost its capacity to intervene in the currency change crisis. Tears should come because of the difficulty one faces in an attempt to argue against this position but as we were taught in primary school, can two wrongs make a right?
The slippery slope continues as new notes are sold at 150% of their values, hunger ravages, sickness walks tall like COVID-19, more Nigerians pass on due to hunger and illness, and small/micro businesses shut down.
The worst may come in the days ahead as the situation spills across Nigeria’s borders. We hear some communities close to neighbouring countries use the nearby currencies as units of exchange and as store of value. These include Ghanaian cedi and CFA franc! In 2016 I attended a workshop in Accra with insufficient cash because the banks I visited assured me my ATM would be usable in Accra.
It turned out to be wrong and I put a call to Mr. Ganiyu Abiodun who told me to get to one of the big markets in Accra. There I collected Naira which he had transferred and I used it to pay for hotel accommodation, food, and taxi rides. Today the tide has changed for who will collect the Nigerian Naira loaded with uncertainty? The slippery slope has taken us across borders where the giant of Africa uses nearby country currency for transactions. The danger will manifest when such currencies known to be stable become staples at Nigeria’s borders.
These are the catastrophes Douglas Walton talked about which have found manifestation in Nigeria as in untended consequences though.
In Book II Section 11 of “De Legibus” Cicero condemns, “Those who have written down orders that were ruinous and unjust to their people.” If loss of lives and businesses as well as loss of face at the international level cannot be regarded as ruinous and unjust, we need to return to school to be better tutored more so currency change and management of money in circulation are executed as routines in other countries with no pain to the citizenry.
Everyone should have greater worries as the situation worsens because of uncertainty as CBN and the Executive arm grope for exit strategies to save face. But no one can say we face the worst in policy execution with respect to this project. Our country has been littered with hundreds of failed policies. Can CBN withdraw for a time to enable banks to boost their network capabilities while new payment platforms find their feet and their niche?
And inflation, management of money in circulation, and other monetary policies are recurrent issues that no country handles in one fell swoop. Nigeria being a member of the world society will continue to experience business cycles and economic swings.
If we assume a sharp drop in inflation after this exercise, it will pick up in the future as the country and other countries experience upheavals in a global village framework. How many experts foresaw the emergence and impact of COVID-19 in 2020 and in 2022 the invasion of Ukraine by Russia which has put considerable strain on grain and gas supplies around the world? Countries struggle to manage such external emergencies rather than self-inflicted avoidable injuries on ordinary citizens at home.
Our friend, being a chartered banker, can be assumed to have access to new notes to feed his family and meet other recurrent needs. Why should he be bothered if the rest of us cry?
To worsen things, neither CBN nor any other agency of government will research into the short, medium, and long-term impact of this misadventure which had problems from inception because the planners combined it with political and vindictive motives. But citizens shoulder on, waste millions of man hours in bank premises and hope someone will get them to know the reasons behind the poorly timed, planned, and executed exercise.
But of critical importance citizens are desperate to know when the catastrophic experiment will end to enable them to live normal lives as they know.
For the moment we should expect further stages on the slippery slope except for CBN and the Executive branch to take decisive steps to stop the dangerous slide. One hopes pride and non-economic motives can be made to take the back seat while realism and in fact ‘practice’ with respect to the existential aspects of citizens take the driver’s seat.
Dr Ubong, an educational administrator, writer and literary critic, lives in Uyo