“The rule of law upon which our democratic governance is founded becomes illusory if the President of the country or any authority or person refuses to obey the orders of courts,” thus proclaimed Justice Emmanuel Agim, delivering the lead judgment in the case brought by three state governments – Kaduna, Kogi, and Zamfara – against the federal government at the Supreme Court, seeking an order invalidating the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) recent banknotes redesign. Expressing the Supreme Court’s unfamiliarity with “any law which empowers a bank to withhold a customer’s money and refuse…to give him/her”, the lead judgment extended the validity of the old naira notes until 31 December, ordering that they remain legal tender alongside the new notes, up until the newer deadline.
Very few Nigerians required the Supreme Court to remind them that “The (CBN’s) directive on (cash) withdrawal limit is an infringement of people’s rights”. And most have had to live with a frightening range of infringements since the banknotes swap policy came into effect. These have ranged from the economic (loss of earnings platforms across the economy’s informal sector), through the emotional (having to beg for cash from friends, family, neighbours and strangers to meet basic needs) to the conceptual (just struggling to make sense of the policy’s design, implementation and expected outcomes).
Yet, in a young democracy, the violation of the people’s rights is the more telling concern, especially at this stage in the election cycle, when the end-of-cycle polls doubles as the Republic’s affirmation of faith in what US President Abraham Lincoln described in The Gettysburg Address as “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. If our democracy is not to perish, it will matter too that acts of disdain for the laws of the land, a charge directed by the Supreme Court at Presidential Muhammadu Buhari, be as rare as the trampling on by government of the people’s rights.
The CBN’s response to the Supreme Court’s ruling is disturbing for precisely this reason. Not only has its governor, Mr Godwin Emefiele failed to offer a path towards implementing the apex court’s ruling, but there is no evidence whatsoever that the apex bank has acted to instruct deposit money banks to accept and dispense the old naira notes. In consequence, the ugly spectacle of bank customers queuing at bank branches in the wee hours of the morning in the increasingly forlorn hope that they might obtain some cash remains.
Mr Godwin Emefiele continues to offer a signal lesson in disdain for the mores and laws of the land. Whether it was his earlier bid to be president, or his decision to be in contempt of the Supreme Court. Bank chief executives, on the other hand, have failed to cover themselves in glory from the start of this saga. It will help to understand why they were unable to disprove the earlier malarkey where the CBN attributed the scarcity of cash to their unethical practices, rather than its failure to supply the system with enough new banknotes. But nothing can excuse their acquiescence in the CBN’s rule-breaking behaviour.
PREMIUM TIMES believes that the role of the industry regulator, even in a sector as important as financial services, is not analogous to that of a school principal, or of a regimental sergeant major in the army. The requirement to obey lawful orders should have our banks complying with the CBN’s decision, as soon as this was made. Along with Mr Godwin Emefiele, therefore, Nigerian banks’ chief executives have been responsible for inflicting pains on domestic economic actors that have continued to hurt the economy, while in the recent case, acting in gross contempt of the country’s laws.
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It is in the nature of these contemnors of the laws of the land, that the respective shareholders of the businesses they head should act to bring them to book. We cannot build a democracy where scofflaws run the financial services space.
PREMIUM TIMES has made several calls for Mr Emefiele to be relieved of his office. These calls were premised on growing doubt as to his fitness for office. If we took the CBN’s main price stability remit as our point of departure, Mr Emefiele’s incompetence is incontrovertible. This is as much about the outcomes of his policy, and as the Supreme Court’s ruling points to, as it is about the thoughtlessness that goes into his policy design. However, rule breaking is why we would want Mr Emefiele to be arrested and tried. We cannot build a democracy on the back of impunity and illegality. But there is also the charge of economic sabotage.
If the first is criminal. The second is treasonous.
Alas, President Buhari, himself a scofflaw, as noted by the Supreme Court, is neither able nor willing to do right by the country on this matter. This will be the legacy of his eight-year rule. But we cannot continue to allow acts of criminal conduct to define our democracy.
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