DANIEL AYANTOYE examines the impact of the hurtful naira scarcity and the central bank’s cashless policy on the government’s resolve to tackle vote-buying during the elections
One inherent feature of democracy which distinguishes it from other forms of government is the power of the citizens to choose their leaders, and that is desirable in a free, fair and peaceful election. That power to choose has been identified as the main dividend of democracy, because even military governments would provide infrastructure, healthcare facilities and the likes for the citizenry.
However, one major threat to Nigeria’s growing democracy is how citizens’ power to choose is being influenced by politicians through a menace now known as vote-buying.
This was evident during the primaries of the All Progressives Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party as well as the governorship elections in Ekiti and Osun states in 2022. But that wasn’t the first time it would occur, it is a worsening trend.
Prior to the primaries, some of the aspirants seemed to be in a contest to outspend one another in dollars, which according to many analysts, amounted to buying off delegates’ power to vote and trading their conscience for money. The analysts lamented that the menace could impair people’s choices, noting that rather than vote for integrity, capacity and vision, the aspirant with the deepest pocket could bribe their way to victory.
Apparently troubled by this development, legal luminary, Chief Afe Babalola (SAN), a few weeks ago raised an alarm that the highest spender might win the election.
He told journalists, “It is not who can make a difference that will win this coming election. I repeat, it is not the person who has all it takes, in terms of age, health, education and patriotism that will win the election; the winner of this election, I can bet it and you can quote me, is going to be the person who has made money in this country. It is the person who has the money that will win.”
In such an auspicious moment, the Federal Government through the Central Bank of Nigeria reviewed its cash withdrawal limits for individuals and corporations; a policy that followed the redesign of the N200, N500 and N1,000 notes.
While introducing the policy, the CBN governor, Godwin Emefiele, lamented that there was too much money in circulation. Specifically, he said as of October, 2022, the currency in circulation was N3.23tn, out of which N2.7tn was out of the banking system.
Speaking on the importance of the policy, the CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele, said, “Nigeria must go cashless. It is a global policy, checking insecurity and fighting corruption.”
Similarly, the Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, AbdulRasheed Bawa, during a meeting with the Senate Committee on Anti-Corruption said the naira redesign policy would curb vote-buying during the general election.
He added, “We will continue to do what we have to do, we are trying to ensure that illegitimate funds are not finding their way into our electoral processes.”
A former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, also commended the initiative. He said in a recent interview, “I want to specifically commend President (Muhammadu) Buhari over the initiative to curb vote-buying in the forthcoming general elections.
“I am not uninformed or unaffected by the hardship caused by the naira redesign and swap policy but I want to plead with Nigerians to endure it for these few weeks as a sacrifice for a free, fair and credible election.”
While the government seemed convinced that the naira redesign and mop-up of the old notes would help to combat vote-buying, one of the outcomes of the exercise is the reduction of the cash in circulation, which has now left many Nigerians stranded.
Whether in the banking halls or Automated Teller Machines, and even the PoS terminals, naira has become scarce to the extent that Nigerians are constrained to ‘buy’ naira with naira, through exploitative charges. Both the poor and the elite have been plunged into severe hardship by the scarcity, as many spend hours in queues at ATM points and banking halls.
The scarcity has also led to protests in some parts of the country, fuelling fears that it could affect the conduct of the election. During the protests, properties worth millions of naira have been lost while traders have continued to count their losses. Sellers of perishable goods have also been constrained to sell at cheap prices.
The President of the Association of Senior Staff of Banks, Insurance and Financial Institutions, Oluwole Olusoji, said about N5bn was lost as a result of the attack on 17 banks across the country.
From the foregoing however, it is evident that Nigerians will have a cashless election, as the scarcity has continued to bite harder with many people scrambling for naira notes at whatever cost.
This therefore raises the question as to whether the prevailing scarcity of both the old and new notes across all the denominations would truly help to fight vote-buying or it would make it easier for the vote-buyers, simply because many Nigerians are in dire need of cash, which politicians and influential persons have been accused of mopping up from the various banks.
This reality is worsened by the fact that Nigeria has about 133 million persons that are multi-dimensionally poor, according to the National Bureau of Statistics in its 2022 poverty index survey.
Speaking to the effect of the policy on the populace, the Chairman, Partner for Electoral Reforms, Mr Ezenwa Nwagwu, said the policy had left more Nigerians in abject poverty and that the naira scarcity would make vote-buying more attractive.
He added that the scarcity had created enormous suffering and that some people might find it attractive to sell their votes during the elections.
Despite the scarcity of the naira note, politicians seem to have devised a new means to buy votes with foreign currencies.
On Friday, a member of the House of Representatives from Rivers State, Dr Chinyere Igwe, a member of the PDP, said to be an ally of the party’s presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, was arrested along Ana Road, Port Harcourt, with $498,100 alongside the list of those the money was meant for.
Nwagwu however stated in an interview with our correspondent, “This suffering of the masses is just needless. Scarcity creates increased demand. If people were buying votes with N10,000 before, they will buy with N1,000 now. People will now demand to sell and buy votes more. So with this policy, the government has succeeded in creating demand for vote-buying.
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“The question is who has the money now? The politicians of course; if they offer people the new naira to buy their votes, people will jump at it. Vote-buying is now cheaper.”
Nwagwu cautioned that the menace of vote-buying could not be solved by monetary policy. Rather, he said curbing it would require strict enforcement of the law.
“If you create this kind of scarcity, even your law enforcement officers will assist the vote-buying process. Are the officers from the moon? In good times, they were already collaborators, not to talk of now that cash has become gold.”
He said some voters did not have an understanding of the electoral process and how it works; hence they trade their votes to satisfy their need for money. According to him, Nigeria was not ready for cashless elections as he noted that the process would also affect the Independent National Electoral Commission.
He noted, “In good times, logistics is INEC’s biggest nightmare, not to talk of having a cash crunch that you will need to give cash to people who will transport your materials to the different polling units. If you transfer money to them and they do not receive it, they will not move, and oftentimes, those of them who want to be mischievous will claim they have not received the alert, even when they have received it. They might also say they were unable to withdraw it.
“Another aspect is the fuel stations; some filling stations will not sell fuel to drivers without cash. This scenario gives you a picture of what it will look like to conduct a cashless election in Nigeria. This is a wrong policy at this time. Every policymaker must think about the good of the greater majority. So, if the majority of the people are going through such needless suffering, what is the need for such a policy, and what makes you think people will not want a way out on the day of election?
“The truth is that the failure of any election is the failure of enforcement. Your law enforcement officers need cash. They will collaborate and there is nothing you can do.”
According to the Chairman of the Inter-Party Advisory Council, Yabagi Sani, the scarcity had compelled people to look for money anywhere they could find it. He said it was another way of corrupting the process.
He stated, “So far, the money claimed to have been printed is not in circulation and we know it is in the hands of powerful people, who have kept the money till the day of election. What Buhari has done is to create an enabling environment for corruption to thrive.”
Also, a legal practitioner and political analyst, Evans Ufeli, explained that since the constitution provided that the security and welfare of the people would be the primary purpose of government, any policy that denied people their security or welfare was anti-governance.
He said the policy had further impoverished the people, adding, “Even beggars cannot access money again. This puzzle that the Federal Government is playing using the citizens is not right. If you know that politicians want to buy votes, why don’t you enact a law and go after them.”
Ufeli noted further that a cashless election would not guarantee the reduction of vote-buying but it would rather make it more desirable for voters. He said the implementation of the policy had imposed untold hardship on poor Nigerians who now scramble for naira notes.
According to him, though there is a bright side to the policy, such as reduction in kidnapping, there is little the policy can achieve when the masses are suffering.
He stated, “The policy seems to be counterproductive because in a bid to create a cashless society where politicians will not have access to use heavy cash to purchase votes, now the electoral officers are stranded and the politicians seem to be ahead in a way because even the new naira notes that we cannot find today appears to have been mopped up by them for the election.
“The policy was not well thought-out. The strategy was bad and the execution was hopeless. The fact that you want to punish some politicians does not mean you have to set the country on fire. Before the policy commenced, the country had a reasonably smooth monetary policy.”
In an interesting twist, Ufeli said some votes had been bought already, because when the politicians went to campaign and they met the local government and community leaders, they didn’t go empty-handed, which could have influenced certain persons.
He noted, “We are not addressing the issues properly; we have made it look like Nigeria is just about politicians. We are over 200 million people and among us are the disabled, poor people, the aged, and children. What this means is that on Saturday there is going to be buying and selling of votes because these poor people are the ones to vote and they are looking for the naira notes right now.
“The policy seems not to be addressing the situation because the election has been compromised already because even the way the leaders emerged at the primaries was about money. Why is there no other strategy? I believe this cannot stop vote-buying and people are going to engage in it heavily because they have a moral to so do.”
Meanwhile, a political analyst and former vice president of the Nigerian Political Science Association, Prof Kamilu Fage, while speaking on the issue said with the implementation of the new naira policy, all eyes were on INEC and the security agencies to curb vote-buying.
He said with efficient monitoring during the elections, security agencies would be able to curb the menace, save for the inadequate policemen, especially in the rural areas.
He however expressed concern over the number of security personnel, particularly the police officers.
He added, “What may likely happen is that vote-buying will be cheaper. If for example in the last one they gave N5,000 to buy votes, now that people don’t have cash, that desperation could make them collect N1,000.
“All eyes are on INEC and security agencies to curb vote-buying and I think with proper monitoring they can do it but where the problem lies is that the majority of polling units are in rural areas where you don’t have enough security and that is where the politicians try to do their business. If you go to some local governments, you hardly find 10 policemen and this is where you have thousands of polling units, so how do you want them to handle it?
“Again, there is a high level of corruption already in place and we have to put that into consideration. Even some security agents and INEC agents could be compromised. It will be very difficult to check vote-buying.”
Fage said he doubted if Nigeria was ready for the cashless policy, given the percentage of Nigerians and number of local governments without bank accounts. ,
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