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Naira and February feast of vultures, By Lasisi Olagunju

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The naira exchange affliction of 1984 rose up a second time in 2022 and spilled into 2023 because it has always been the choice of Nigeria to submit to vultures. Don’t fail to listen to Chief Bola Tinubu who philosophised in Osogbo last week that despite the rains beating the vulture since the very beginning, “it has not died; it has not fallen ill but has been taking offerings and eating sacrifices.” That is true. The hands of the Nigerian rains are too weak to stop the vulture – strong, tenacious, bald-headed bird of prey. Unlike James Hadley Chase’s, the Nigerian vulture is not patient; it is also not Kevin Carter’s vulture; it won’t wait on any starving girl to die before feasting on her corpse. From petrol stations to banking halls, birds of prey are on the prowl, scavenging for the remains of Nigeria.

“History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” In case you are like me and you often wonder what Karl Max meant with that expression, let me give some dictionary definitions of the key words there: A ‘tragedy’ “shows the downfall of a hero and does not have a happy ending.” A ‘farce’ “is a comedy in which everything is absolutely absurd.” As we struggle in banks for new naira notes just as we did 39 years ago, Karl Max, who issued that warning about history, tragedy and farce, would look at what we’ve done with our lives and shake his head. The 1984 outing of our hero in Abuja was tragic; the present is a farce. Yet, we’ve learnt nothing – we hail him as he raises tremulous hands at campaigns and announces winners before contests. A tragic farce is in rehearsal. And the hero does his predatory acting while the poor faint on petrol and naira queues.

Our children are lucky; they and their fathers got months of notice in 2022 from President Muhammadu Buhari on a transition from old naira notes to new ones. We and our fathers got two days’ notice in 1984 from General Muhammadu Buhari for a similar exercise. On Monday, 23 April, 1984, the Buhari government announced a sudden currency change with effect from Wednesday, 25 April, 1984. “The exchange will commence at commercial banks and at central bank branches at 8 a.m on Wednesday, the 25th of April, 1984 and will be completed at 6 p.m on Sunday, the 6th of May, 1984,” Buhari’s deputy, Tunde Idiagbon, told us in a special broadcast laden with tough talk on Monday, 23rd April. “Naira takes new colour” was how the Nigerian Tribune of April 24, 1984 reported what the government did. Nigerians were ordered to take their naira notes of N20, N10, N5 and N1 to the bank in exchange for new ones. All land borders were closed.

The then CBN governor, Abdulkadir Ahmed, directed that “individuals could exchange up to a maximum of N5,000 per person from any bank irrespective of whether or not the person is an account holder in that bank.” The CBN boss added that “exchange shall be by way of either payment into an account or direct across-the-counter exchange.” But then, in 1984, we took what we had to the bank and went back home empty-handed. Well, not entirely empty handed; receipts were issued to millions who had no bank accounts. But those pieces of paper could feed no one who held them, and so, there was an epidemic of hunger in the land. The currency exchange exercise lasted exactly 12 days – less than two weeks. There was no deadline extension. It was very hard depositing the old notes; it was harder retrieving the replacement from the banks. After the deadline, it became ‘now your suffering continues.’ People suffered; people died; some survived but got wrecked – and I will retell some of the harrowing stories here and now.

Banks remained riotous throughout last week and there were street protests, some with the fury of naked fire. The banks were rowdy also in April, May, June, 1984. Things were so bad that a bank in Ibadan put up a notice that customers who were dissatisfied with the guideline that they could not withdraw any amount above N50 should lodge their complaint with the Central Bank. A customer told a reporter that the bank’s notice was “rude and insulting since we did not bank with the Central Bank.” What we suffered that time was more than that insult. The rain was not a drizzle; it poured. ‘Banks ration money’ was how the Nigerian Tribune headlined its report on the experience on Friday, May 11, 1984: “Many Nigerians are starving because they do not have money to buy basic necessities of life, including foodstuffs. This is because commercial banks are not releasing enough money after the currency exchange exercise…At the Nigeria-Arab Bank in Ibadan, some customers whose cheques were accepted were told to come back today. The customers were informed by a bank official that they were expecting money from the Central Bank. One of the customers, Mr. Koya Salako, told the Nigerian Tribune that he had been going to the bank since Tuesday without receiving any amount. At the National Bank, Dugbe, no customer could withdraw more than N50. At the Union Bank, Dugbe, the people were allowed to withdraw between N100 and N200. At African Continental Bank. Dugbe, some customers went home disappointed yesterday as they could not withdraw even N100. None of the customers was attended to as there was no money to pay them. A man who claimed to have been at the bank since 7.30am yesterday said ‘I have deposited over N4,000 with them and I have got no money to maintain my family again. Please, tell them to give me N100 only for the time being.’”

That was 39 years ago.

Last week in Delta State, a bank customer slumped and died after standing for hours in a queue at a bank in Agbor. The police said “he was not trying to withdraw cash; he came to collect his ATM card.” That was tragic. People slumped on queues in 1984 but I can’t remember any of them dying. About two weeks after the currency exchange deadline, a woman slumped at the Cooperative Bank, Ibadan on Tuesday, May 15, 1984. She regained her consciousness later and told the people who revived her that she had not eaten for two days. “Sympathisers, however, called a food hawker and gave the woman her first meal in two days while bank officials paid her N50 instead of N150 she intended to withdraw from her account” (see Nigerian Tribune, May 16, 1984). Again, I said earlier that people died. It was real. ‘Man commits suicide’ was the lead headline of the Nigerian Tribune of June 5, 1984. The report: “A middle-aged man committed suicide in Ibadan last Wednesday following what sources described as ‘series of hopeless visits to his bank for cash.’ The partly decomposed body of Mr. K. O (I withhold the name), a 48-year old civil servant of the accounts department of the Oyo State Ministry of Information, Youths, Sports and Culture, was found dangling under the ceiling fan in one of his rooms three days after his death. A suicide note left on a stool in the room showed that he decided to end his life out of frustration. The deceased was said to have collapsed twice on the premises of a bank and was rushed home on each occasion without cash. Last Monday, May 28, two days before he committed suicide, somebody had given him N2 (two naira) after narrating his ordeal. An ulcer patient, the deceased was said to have complained about taking only pap, his regular meal since he couldn’t withdraw cash from his bank. His remains were laid to rest on Monday at the public cemetery, Sango, Ibadan. Contacted on telephone on Monday, the state Police Commissioner, Mr. Archibong Nkana, simply said: ‘I think there was something like that.’” The suicide note left behind by the deceased reads: “Do not forget that I have insisted that the receipt of the purchased stationery is in the steel cabinet. I’m sorry I have to end up this way but I think that is the only way open to me…” In 2015, we brought back the leader who staged that tragedy. He is leading his party’s campaigns for a renewal of the values he represents this month.

‘A Feast of Vultures’ is a 2016 book by Indian investigative journalist, Josy Joseph. The author says it is “an angst-ridden narrative on the distortion of our democracy.” It is a story told in frightening details of how politicians, business people and shadowy principalities buy and sell and proceed to own that country. He could as well be referring to Nigeria. That is the picture I got when Tinubu held the microphone in Osogbo last week and, with cavalier affection, cuddled vulture as the totem of our democracy: “They want to victimize us, but the rains have been beating our vulture for a long time. Despite the rains, vulture has not died; it has not fallen ill but has been taking offerings and eating sacrifices. Try vulture again, if it will not eat sacrifices.” Indeed, what we have seen since this naira nonsense is enough to make carrion of a nation – food for vultures. And the coming election is a definite feast for hungry carnivores and impatient ravens. Raptors of all hues are already in the skies, wheeling and doing deals. They’ve made of the country a living dead – what the Romans called vivi mortui. As my US-based professor told me, with every sector in turmoil, it is almost impossible to help Nigeria. “The country has become a low trust society. No one can fix a low trust family, a low trust community, a low trust nation. If a family runs on a low trust, each time the man leaves the house, it is wahala; each time the woman leaves, wahala. You remember Evans, the billionaire kidnapper? In Nigeria, I change my drivers as I change clothes because I don’t know when one has become Evans.” But a day is enough for a bad choice to act really badly. Indeed, the next president of Nigeria may be an Evans – unless a Deus ex Machina descends to arrest the free-fall.

‘Cashless’ has a new meaning in Nigeria. It means having money in your bank account but having no access to it because either the banks have no cash or bankers are hoarding cash and the banks’ online platforms are down. I was at my bank on Friday to cash the N20,000 withdrawal limit decreed by the CBN. I was offered a limit of N2,000. I excused myself and left with smiles. I remembered 1984. Nigerians prayed against shame but shame has shot down that prayer; the focus now is how to survive this regime of pains. People now use naira to buy naira: they transfer one thousand, five hundred naira to get cash of one thousand naira; or they transfer 11 thousand naira to get 10 thousand naira cash. What really is the cost of being a Nigerian living in Nigeria?

Leaders are like bank notes; the more you recycle them, the dirtier they come. I compared notes with a friend on the 1984 experience and we agreed that despite the horrible experience of that time, it was still better managed than the fiasco we have in 2023. In 1984, local government sole administrators were directed to act as bankers for rural folks where there were no banks. And there are no records of theft of poor people’s money. The council bosses collected old notes from the unbanked and gave them their values in new notes. There will be a festival of laughter if a governor suggests that arrangement today. Everyone blames everyone else for our crisis of existence. PDP blames APC; APC blames PDP; the president and the CBN blame commercial banks for the scarcity of naira notes. Everyone with links to the kitchen is denying knowledge of how the kitchen knife got lost.

In November 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte seized absolute power and established a dictatorship in France. Freedom lovers groaned and grumbled. But, 52 years later, in 1851, the people watched and hailed as his nephew, Napoleon III, seized absolute power again; then Max dropped his eternal words that have become a warning in all seasons of anomie: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” Do we have a third chance? American art historian and critic, Hal Foster, in 2020, wrote the book ‘What Comes after Farce?’ I adopt his words and ask what comes for Nigeria after this farcical farce?

Strictly Personal

Nigeria’s Currency Crisis: Time to deploy Amotekun, By Chinedu Chidi

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I have thought long and hard about just the right solution to the downward spiral of the Naira, and confidently believe I have come up with the perfect response. It is my humble proposal that the time is right to deploy the dreaded Amotekun to arrest this situation. I’ll explain why.

 

Since it is now clear that the Naira’s salvation is not in the hallways of the CBN or the gold-plated policy rooms of Bretton Woods, but in the battle grounds of the nook and cranny of Nigeria, all patriotic Nigerians must now rightly ignore suit-wearing technocrats and search for militant solutions with real promise. As a patriotic citizen, I have risen to this challenge. I would humbly like to thank the patriotic Nigerian leadership, from the CBN to the Executive, for leading us into this new era of mortal combat.

 

Only a few days ago, we were greeted with the live action scene of security operatives combating BDC operators in the nation’s capital, discharging live ammunition in broad daylight in an open civilian space like fearless patriots at the battle front. The EFCC and accompanying security operatives charged forward and backwards as the enemies of state dared challenge them. It was almost like a combat scene from Gibson’s Braveheart. I was touched. I’m not too sure, but I may have heard the humming of the national anthem from these fearless patriots as they battled the savage saboteurs. What a touching moment! Someone who was at the scene mentioned that these patriots recited the pledge before the onslaught. I can’t confirm this for sure, but if it did occur, it would be consistent with the new nationalistic fervour of the Tinubu administration as reported in the news recently that citizens would be required to recite the pledge at events. I also hear the operation is going on in different parts of the country. All these, coming only days after Sahad Stores, a retail supermarket in Abuja, was forcibly shut down for “economic sabotage”, fill me with great joy. Some unpatriotic citizens had shockingly opposed the move, claiming Sahad Stores was one of the good ones, and that deploying force would not resolve the inflation crisis. Cowards and co-conspirators! They’re too distracted by textbook ideas to see that we’re in war. Shame.

 

Normally, I would have recommended the army for this most important national assignment, but they’re overstretched. They’re battling terrorists, bandits, armed robbers, secessionists, their welfare; just about every violent aggressor around. The police would have been my second option but they too are preoccupied and, as some mischievous people claim, have a special DNA for compromise. For these and some other reasons which I will explain, Amotekun has my blessings.

 

I know Amotekun is also seriously engaged with battling bandits in the South West, but they must be pleaded with to spare some personnel for this all-too-important national emergency. Their stealth, daredevil disposition, and my favourite—charms from the gods— will come in handy.

 

I have heard rumours that some of the BDCs hide their stockpile of dollars in forests. This is the domain of the Amotekun warriors. Through their local intelligence gathering and tactical navigation of the forests, they can uncover these dollar chests and win for the country a huge deliverance. Their spiritual protection against wild animals and attacks from dark forces will be very useful here.

 

I am also confident that what has for so long appeared to be the near-impossible goal of finding the dollars some loud-mouthed people claim are hidden by politicians, bank executives and— I struggle to even contemplate it— CBN officials will be spiritually detected by Amotekun. We desperately need this.

 

It was with great joy that I also received the news that our gallant security personnel are now stopping truckloads of food from leaving the country. What took them so long! How can any patriotic businessman think of trade and profit at a time of economic crisis? This beats my imagination. I am even more infuriated by the argument of their unpatriotic defenders that we don’t have food scarcity, just food unaffordability, and that we can’t seriously let them abandon their goods in warehouses while the vast majority of Nigerians can’t purchase them. This is so inconsiderate and sad. Their argument that the exports bring in needed forex at this time of forex crisis is also another textbook nonsense. Shame on them.

 

I am particularly touched by Cardoso’s sincerity and humility. Realizing that the air-conditioned policies have hit the brick wall and that the fight has morphed into street combat, he did not try to deceive the populace about it. This is uncommon (apologies to Akpabio) pragmatism.

 

I want to enjoin the President to rally leaders in the South West towards mass mobilization of Amotekun for this national assignment. We can’t afford to fail!

 

Chinedu Chidi is a public affairs commentator. He can be reached via: chiobe24.cc@gmail.com

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Strictly Personal

The problem of DRC’s beautiful wife, maize it planted by roadside, By Charles Onyango-Obbo

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Watching the upheaval in the Democratic Republic of Congo in recent days, one is tempted to invoke the African proverb that “the man who marries a beautiful woman and the farmer who grows maize by the roadside have the same problem.”

The police fired tear gas on Monday to disperse protesters who burned tyres and US and Belgian flags near Western embassies and UN offices in the capital Kinshasa, angry about insecurity in eastern Congo.

The protesters claim the West supports Rwanda, which they and their government accuse of backing the M23 rebellion, whose advance could see them seize the strategic border city of Goma in the east.

This is a new phase of what has become an entrenched tradition of the Congolese oscillating between blaming everyone else but themselves for their problems, and demanding that other people solve these problems, including fighting for them.

In recent years — rightly — the Congolese have railed, then attacked, the long-running and ineffectual United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco) for not ending the rebellion in the east.

In late 2022, DRC’s kin in the EAC dispatched the East African Community Regional Force (EACRF) to separate the warring sides. Before long, Kinshasa and the people had risen against them, hounding them to go out to the jungle and fight the rebels for them. At the end of last year, EACRF left DRC with its tail between its legs.

Because the Congolese are our brothers and sisters, and we have a responsibility to love them, we also have a duty to tell them uncomfortable truths that will help them overcome.

So, we will return to our proverb. African proverbs are complicated. First, one needs to know that they passed into society through the mouths of men who were not feminists, so too many of them tend to portray women in bad light.

This one paints a heroic hard-working farmer (although it is mostly women, not men, who work the land in Africa) whose maize is stolen by passers-by, in contrast with the beautiful wife who betrays her husband and falls to the charms of other men.

However, African proverbs are also layered, so there is what they say, and the many things they mean. In this case, that people will covet a good thing — a good crop, a beautiful woman and, if we may add, a handsome, enterprising man. The “problem” here is how to keep your maize, beautiful wife, and enterprising husband. If you are better than all the men who hit on her, your beautiful wife will stay faithfully by your side.

Having your wife, husband, girlfriend or boyfriend run off with someone else can be very hurtful, but if you have a cantankerous truth-telling African aunt or uncle, they will also whisper to you that a partner whom no other man or woman has ever or will ever want is probably not worth having.

In real-world Congo politics, then, the reality is rebels will have friends and allies at home and abroad. Even Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), as despicable as a rebel group can ever be, had friends outside who backed it.

The thing that should terrify everyone is a rebel group that no one wants to touch with a 10-metre pole, both in the day and night. The opposite is also true of rebels fighting to overthrow a government. If it is a government that doesn’t have a single friend even in the cynical world of geopolitics, then it’s probably worse than a cabal of cannibals.

For Congo, what is left is how to solve this “problem”. To stay with the farmer and the beautiful wife, what the Congolese are doing is like the strapping young man in old Africa who spent all his time attacking his parents, relatives, neighbours, and their friends because they failed to give him cattle to pay a bride price for a wife and build a hut for him to live in with her.

The scale of surrender of agency by many Congolese, including the political class and the government, is unsettling.

It’s partly understandable, too. The unusually brutal Belgian rule; the exploitation of all sorts of vultures for its vast minerals lasting over 100 years now; and an unbroken long spell of corrupt and cruel rule, have broken its self-confidence. The way to come to terms with the scale of failure and remain sane is to externalise all the problems to evil forces.

It has led to national paralysis, a belief that they can’t do much on their own to overcome.

DRC’s neighbours to the east, Uganda and Rwanda, offer good lessons. When President Yoweri Museveni took to the bush with his small band of rebels in 1981, the odds were stacked up against them. The British had a big programme with a special police force; the Tanzanian army that helped overthrow military dictator Idi Amin was on the side of the government, and hardy North Koreans soon got into the fight against them. They still won.

The prospects were even worse for the Rwanda Patriotic Army/Front when it crossed from Uganda and took to treacherous hills in 1990. Apart from Uganda, it was alone against the world, including one of the world’s superpowers at the time, France, which was in bed with the government in Kigali. They suffered setbacks, picked themselves up, and won.

Congo can win, but first, it will have to plant its own maize and fight its war for its own beautiful wife.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the «Wall of Great Africans». Twitter@cobbo3

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