People & Money

Cashless Nigeria, an idea of immeasurable beauty?

The signs are not good at all. The early morning queues at bank branches as customers scurry to secure access to the deposits has never made sense. Especially, when by midday the throngs disperse without customers having access to the cash they need for their quotidian needs. The cashless economy hype is simply that. The domestic financial services industry’s infrastructure has not invested enough in the equipment and processes required to hold up its end of the conversation in a zero-cash environment. This explains the epidemic of dispense errors. Not too long ago, you were likely to see these reversed within a day. Not anymore. Now they hang about like the mythical wraiths of murdered victims ― miserably hoping for some sort of closure.

Also Read: Why hitching currency redesign to CBN’s cashless policy isn’t as smart as it sounds

Can any economy account for the labour time that we have lost over the last three months? Whether at the supermarket checkout counter, or at the filling station ― five to 10 minutes are now added to each transaction simply to complete payment. And ought a people to be made to go through a process this dreadful? Our recent troubles, unfortunately, are not exhausted by any possible answers to these questions. For the negative auguries do not end here. A casual stroll through most neighbourhoods reveals that much of the local economy has shrivelled. The “aboki’s” corner shop is now more off-line chatroom than the thriving marketplace it used to be. The middle-aged lady with the stall by the estate gate no longer comes ― her roast plantain and groundnuts having made their way back into local folklore. I saw the “vulcaniser” by the main intersection last, two weeks ago. He has no bank account, so he cannot receive transfers. His customers having run out of cash aeons ago, it was only a matter of time before he ran into trouble extending them credit. The mom-supermarkets on the pedestrian walkways now offer a thinned out salver ― they have no “change”, their clientele have no cash.

Then there are the more disturbing anecdotes. Of hospital deaths because kith and kin cannot raise the cash to purchase medicines for family members who are on admission, or to pay for medical procedures. Of distressed pensioners, either falling ill or dying because they have no access to the monies in their bank accounts. Urban petty bourgeois folk with elderly people living all by themselves are today’s biggest worrywarts. Suddenly grandma and grandpa can no longer pay for their carers and helps to come to work. A few weeks back, they were still able to buy cash (this particular experience is the Buhari government’s most important contribution to economics) to get fuel for the generator. But even the most imaginative point-of-sale terminal (PoS) operators long since ran out of their stock-in-trade. And of course without the generator working these old age pensioners have no access to pumped water.

Also Read: Nigeria’s E-Payment Transactions Reaches an All-Time High of N387 Trillion in 2022

If ever there was a pictorial depiction of the phrase “existential crisis”, conditions in Nigeria today would be it! Now, this raises a lot of questions. But the most obvious of these questions, if not the most fundamental, are the ones about how policy is made and why it is clear today that the ideas in the heads of men matter only in terms of their outcomes. The extent to which, when put to work, these outcomes have a beneficial or a negative impact is just as important. If this is so, the corollary query is how did we arrive at the policy set that has resulted in this crisis? Evidently, the heightened threat to the economy that we are seeing today is the consequence of conflating the internal, hermetic beauty of an idea with the certitude of the same idea working as well as it did in the imagination when rubber encounters the tarmac.

There is space in the febrile Nigerian mind for celebrating the bodyblow to street trading from the banknotes swap. But as with the otherworldly idea that reforms to our political system could be wrought by asphyxiating the economy ahead of a general election, the gains from this policy goal are likely to be pyrrhic. Far better to design policies on the back of a thoroughgoing understanding of the economy. With data-driven policies, unintended consequences still crop up. On a whimsy, interventions in the economy will be just as effective as shooting in stygian darkness.

Also Read: Shell days away from major contractor decision on $10bn deep-water Nigeria project

At the end of this season, we may all agree that never before in the history of this country have so many suffered (outside of the civil war) from the misguided activities of so few.

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