Living On Shoestring Budget By Femi Adesina

We left Abuja on January 23, on a journey that would take us to Bauchi, Lagos, Senegal, Katsina, Kano, and Jigawa States. Return date was January 31, in the evening hours.

Since January 31 was then the terminal date for key denominations of the naira to be legal tender, I didn’t want to be like the unwise cripple, who had been told that war was approaching, but who stayed put in the same spot. So I parked everything I had, every dime, and sent it to the bank. I didn’t want my modest funds to become something fit only for the museum.

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) later secured a ten days extension of the deadline from President Muhammadu Buhari, which has now been further extended by a Supreme Court ruling. But it has not changed the fact that I’ve been spending the sum of N20,000 for one week, and I’m still spending it. Shoestring budget? Yes, you are right. That’s what it is.

Major part of our Duty Tour Allowance (DTA) had been paid in old currency, so I’d deposited it in my bank right in Katsina. I returned to Abuja, almost in tabula rasa. Empty. I thought it was just a matter of going to my bank, and getting new currency notes. Whosai! Too optimistic.

For three days, I operated with just the N6,000 I had in my pocket. By Friday, it had shrunk to N2, 500.00. What a huge war chest!

You, a Special Adviser to President of the most populous country in Africa! Are you for real? Just N2,500.00? Well, those in government itch as well, and scratch as hard. That is what some people don’t know. The hen sweats, but its feathers make the sweat indiscernible. There was I, on a Friday, worth only N2, 500.00 in new notes, both home and abroad.

I called my banker, told him my plight, and he first laughed as if laughter was going out of fashion. After seeing that I was serious, he said the best he could do was get N20,000.00 for me, through the Automated Teller Machine (ATM), which was his own entitlement for the day. Well, beggars can’t be choosers, and half bread, as they say, is better than none. I sent my driver to collect the money, and promptly cancelled all the engagements I had lined up for the weekend. When you stay in your house, watching football and making yourself happy, you need not spend much money, if at all.

But the first challenge had to be confronted. The car tank was almost at empty. It would take about N15,000.00 to fill it up. What to do? Buy N8,000.00 worth of fuel, which gave a half tank. We are making progress. And the remaining N12,000.00, one held in a tight fist. Not even an ant could touch it.

Fortunately, my dear late mother was an Ijebu woman. And people from Ijebu are said to be thrifty, and know how to operate on shoestring budgets. I had part of that blood running through my veins.

From Friday till the following Wednesday, I became very gentle, (by force) stretching N12,000.00 as far as I could. Fortunately, there was enough food at home. If there wasn’t, I would drink garri and groundnuts. And why not? That was what the times called for. Pragmatism. No pain, no gain. It was my own contribution to the success of a policy that was bound to do our country good.

I never got any naira inflow in the new week, as my bank had even locked its doors. Firmly. I got there on Tuesday, and only saw forlorn faces of customers, who had doggoed at the place, like the Ijesa man who refuses to take a seat when he comes to collect the money you are owing him. He crouches, and tells you: ‘I sold my wares to you on credit, bending down. I will stool down till I collect my money today.’ And you would do well to answer him, if you love yourself.

Even bank transfers were not going, as the system was jammed. And if you succeeded in sending, how would the recipient retrieve the money, as there was paucity of the new notes. But was there, really? We heard incredible stories of how some banks were hoarding the new notes, while their customers suffered. A bank manager was even arrested in Abuja for having N238 million in his strong room, and refusing to pay out. Others loaded cash in ATM, and deliberately didn’t remove the wrappers, so that the cash won’t dispense. Holy Moses! Nigerians are the enemies of Nigeria.

President Buhari, at a meeting with some Governors of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) had asked for the balance seven days of the 10, which the CBN had asked for, promising that something concrete would be done to alleviate the suffering of Nigerians after the period. I believe in the President. Implicitly. So I was willing to wait.

By Wednesday morning, my fuel was running dangerously low again. Well, if it meant trekking to the office, I would, till succor came. Then my driver came in, as I sat in the living room, listening to news on TV. Idris, who has chauffeured me for almost eight years handed me some crisp notes. N10,000.00. New currency. It felt like ten million.

“My wife got some new notes, and I got this from her. You can use it, and pay me back when you get money,” he said. How touching. Moving. I first divided the money into two, and told him to buy N5,000.00 fuel. Me too, I would ‘buga’ with the remaining amount. And that is what I’m still spending as I write this piece on Thursday morning.

Some people have taken the laws into their hands, because of lack of access to the new notes. They have attacked banks, looted shops, and engaged in civil disobedience. No need. The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious, they shall no longer possess the sky. Cash is coming, more than we need, and our national economy, the political process, and our lives generally, shall be the better for it. Just a little while, and the halcyon days will come. But for now, no pain, no gain. We will surely get there.

I have read varied opinions on how to get out of the seeming cul-de-sac we are currently in. Economists are divided on the benefits or otherwise of the policy (they seem to always be). I love this counsel by foremost computer engineer and Chairman of Chams Consortium, Sir Ademola Aladekomo, titled ‘Dousing the CASH crises.’

It is not my opinion or position, but that of Sir Aladekomo. Here it goes:

“We already have a cash crisis on our hands—no need for bellyaching the root cause. The videos and news showing the aggravation and suffering are pretty glaring, so a very busy President watched demonstrations on various media channels. It may be best if we look for solutions.

“Two principal virtues will be needed by the powers that be without necessarily eating the humble pie if heeded soon enough.

“Magnanimity and Pragmatism. Magnanimity is an attitude of generosity and kindness, while pragmatism is an attitude of practicality and realistic problem-solving. Magnanimity is applied when offering compassion or doing something noble or generous. In contrast, pragmatism is used when there is a need for a practical and sensible approach to a problematic situation or problem.

“We agree this current cash crisis may pass like others. Endsars passed. We are used to suffering and smiling as Nigerians. However, as they say in my village, the day may come when the monkey will go to the market and not return. The day may come when a straw may break the camel’s back. Do we need to challenge fate, hoping that an unseen hand will keep us from falling over the cliff? We have survived too many dangerous cliffs so far as a nation. We pray that the powers avoid this cash cliff by being magnanimous and pragmatic. A few actions that can reduce tension in the nation.

“1. Extend the Cash swap for 90 days: if we wanted to sanitize politics, banditry, etc., through the currency redesign and swap, we have not gotten it right as the politicians and bandits may already have more mint notes than some commercial banks as widely publicized in the media. The innocent public is unintentionally being punished instead. The 90-day extension will bring back some sanity.

“2. Allow banks to release the ‘old’ design naira notes back to the market: Of the more than N1.7T cash taken off the market, maybe N500b should be released back to the public to alleviate the sufferings. The N500b can be withdrawn gradually over 90 days. The release of N500b old note cash will be a magnanimous act that the market will appreciate. The pressure on banks will reduce dramatically.

“3. The sanctity of the naira notes: The naira note is a legal tender and contract paper between the bearer and Central Bank. Maybe I missed it, but I do not believe there is an expiry date on the naira notes. CBN seems legally bound to accept the naira note any working day one tenders it to CBN, or its licensed agents, the Deposit Money Banks. One may not be able to use old naira notes in the marketplace, but CBN should communicate that naira notes can be deposited with CBN or its licensed agents anytime. Pragmatically confirming this will reduce the tension in public and pressure on the commercial banks

“4. Electronic Channels: The current pressure on our payment infrastructure proved that we are not yet fully ready to be cash lite. The private sector needs to do more work on this. CBN and NIBSS have done well developing some of the infrastructure. We commend CBN for the E-naira initiative. We congratulate NIBSS for launching the AFRIGO domestic cards. AfriGo can penetrate the market within a reasonable time frame. A Nigerian company once produced 54m cards within 60 days. The feat can be repeated for AfriGo. There’s a nexus of the Currency redesign, E-naira, and AfriGo that will boost our economy if both NIBSS and CBN are pragmatic enough to allow the private sector to lead the implementation of the initiatives. CBN and NIBSS should not be both Regulators and Operators in their game. Magnanimity and Pragmatism are needed here. The requested 90-day extension will not be enough to upgrade our infrastructure to the standard required, but it will help in achieving a good milestone.

“This crisis will pass, and all will learn lessons if our leaders are magnanimous and pragmatic with the situation at hand.”

Yes, this crisis will truly pass. And we will be the better for it, collectively and individually. Nothing will ever scare us again. We survived the Titanic. With God on our side, we will survive anything else.

*Adesina is Special Adviser to President Buhari on Media and Publicity

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