Over the weekend, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) decided to extend the deadline for the collection of Permanent Voters Cards (popularly known as PVCs) by an additional week. The PVC collection that was scheduled to end on January 29, was extended till February 5, according to a statement by the INEC National Commissioner in charge of Information and Voter Education, Festus Okoye. INEC further extended collection hours by an additional two hours, from 9 am till 5 pm including Saturdays and Sundays. It was the second time within a month that INEC would extend PVC collection deadline. The Commission had earlier fixed January 22, 2023 as the deadline but it then decided at the time to extend the collection till January 29, with the period of collection said to be between 9 am and 3 pm daily, including Saturday and Sundays, at wards and local government centres. Similarly last weekend, Nigerians were informed that the Central Bank of Nigeria had also shifted the deadline for the return of old denominations of N200, N500, N1, 000 Naira notes which had been redesigned by the Central Bank of Nigeria – from January 31, to February 10, with a further extension for return of old notes directly to the Central Bank until February 17.
The INEC spoke on Saturday. The CBN followed suit on Sunday. The immediate effect was that many Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief with fresh expectations that they would be able within the period of the extension get their PVCs, and new notes from the banks. Apropos, many Nigerians have hailed both the INEC and the CBN for listening to the people’s yearnings and for adopting a pro-people stance in both cases. Some of the reactions have been over-laden with an overdose of saccharine. The original purpose of government and its relationship with the people is properly stated in Section 14(2)(b) of the 1999 Constitution to wit: “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government and (c)the participation by the people in their government shall be ensured in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution.” It stands to reason therefore that the government of Nigeria cannot introduce any policy or measure that inflicts pain and suffering on the people of Nigeria or compromises their safety and welfare. The Federal Government of Nigeria under the laws of the land, is allowed strictly to take steps or introduce measures that advance the people’s interest. To the extent that sovereignty belongs to the people – (“we, the people” in the Preamble of the 1999 Constitution), nothing may be done to inconvenience or inflict injury on the people; to do so would be a violation of the spirit and letter of the Constitution with regard to its fundamental objectives and the rule of law. It is therefore understandable that the country’s electoral commission and the apex bank have both reversed themselves, in the course of a weekend volte-face, and hence re-discovered the original purpose of government policy.
The pervasive consensus out there was that INEC’s insistence on a January 29, take-it-or-leave it deadline for PVC collection was beginning to look like a violation of Section 14 (2)(b) of the 1999 Constitution already cited. Before, during and even after the January 22 extension by INEC, most Nigerians complained about the pain and suffering that they were subjected to in their attempt to get their PVCs. The cards were simply unavailable. In parts of the country, INEC officials drove the people from wards to local government headquarters, only to be told that the PVCs were not available. In some wards and local governments, especially in Lagos State, there were allegations of ethnic and religious discrimination. For more than two weeks, people went to points of collection and they were turned back by unfriendly INEC officials. The evidence in that regard soon flooded the social and mainstream media, in form of reports, live accounts, videos, memes and reports of actual protests and threat of violence in INEC centres from Oluyole in Ibadan, to Oshodi in Lagos to Owerri in Imo State. It was obvious that the Nigerian voter of eligible age was in pain.
This was more so, as the point had been made repeatedly by the INEC Chairman, Professor Yakubu Mahmood, at every opportunity at home and abroad, most recently at their neo-colonial outpost – Chatham House that the Commission was ready. Even with the attack on INEC facilities by unknown gunmen, the INEC Chair boasted that the Commission’s operations would not be affected. In Abeokuta where hoodlums attacked an INEC facility, he assured the people that INEC had the capacity to produce missing PVCs within 72 hours. The people have seen that these assurances have come to naught. Even the Osun Gubernatorial election that the INEC used to tout as concrete evidence of the assuredness of its processes has just unraveled with the Election Petition Tribunal raising questions about INEC technology and over-voting in 744 polling units in 10 Local Government Areas in that election. And yet since the return to democratic rule in 1999, this is meant to be an election like no other. The people have been no more determined to exercise their franchise. They see their inability to get a PVC, as an attempt by the state to disenfranchise them. This is why some people have threatened to commit suicide if they are not allowed to vote. This is why there is violence or threats of violence in PVC collection centres. The matter is made worse by the fact that INEC officials have been accused of hoarding PVCs, and also deliberately asking for bribes before they could release voters’ cards. Videos have been circulated – of INEC officials, ad hoc, or formal, soliciting for bribes. This is scandalous. INEC cannot afford to have rogue elements among its ranks if it hopes to conduct credible elections. The least that can be said for now, 24 days to the February election is that the optics look really bad. The extension of the deadline for the collection of PVC would be completely meaningless and ineffectual if despite the extension INEC officials on the streets are still giving the same excuses.
There is also the unresolved problem of students who registered in their various home constituencies during the prolonged eight-month-long academic union strike but have since returned to school in distant places. Such students have been automatically disenfranchised. Even if they are willing to rush back home to get their PVCs, there is no guarantee that they can get the card, even after two weeks of trying. There are also other constraints: fuel scarcity, the high cost of transportation and the deadly risk of travelling in Nigeria by rail, road or air. This is why it makes better sense for Nigeria to have a harmonized data system that makes it possible for Nigerians to vote with just one means of identification, not the 19th Century system that we still maintain for the identification of the electorate. Still, something has to be done about rogue INEC officials. Before now, INEC said it had arrested some of its official involved in the manipulation of the voters’ register. The same treatment must be meted out forthwith to those officials who are sabotaging the PVC collection process. Part VII of the Electoral Act 2022 deals with “Electoral Offences”. Section 120 of the Act specifically addresses the subject of “dereliction of duty” by “any officer”. Section 121 talks about “bribery and conspiracy”. Both sections of the Act prescribe stiff penalties. But nobody is enforcing the law! INEC is very long on promises and extremely short in execution!
As it is with INEC with regard to the distribution and release of PVCs, so it is with the CBN and collection of old notes through the banks and the release of new denomination notes of N200, N500, and N1, 000. Two days before the volte-face, the CBN had been most adamant in stating that there would be no extension of the deadline because it had acted perfectly within the law which is of course true within the purview of the relevant provisions of the CBN Act of 2007 – Sections 2(b), 17, 18, 19, and 20 (1) thereof which read together grant the CBN the powers to design monetary policy, print and redesign, and even change currency, with recourse in stated instances to the President of Nigeria in Section 19 of the same Act. In all that it did, the CBN had the support of the President in addition to the fact that the enabling law grants it the Independence to determine monetary policy. Further, the 90 days window for the return of old denominations in circulation was within the purview of the law. So why did the CBN change its mind? Why did it bow to pressure that came from all directions including the Presidential candidates of the two main political parties – PDP and APC, the National Assembly and the generality of Nigerians who felt that the policy was punitive in execution and that as established earlier no policy should violate the security and welfare of the people?
Whereas the CBN pointed out that the naira redesign policy was in the best interest of the people, to check terrorism financing, counterfeiting, imbalances in the fiscal space with about N2.7 trillion out of the N3.23 trillion in circulation in people’s homes, and abuse of the Naira, Nigerians felt that the suffering induced by the policy was undeserved. The CBN Governor, Godwin Emefiele reported that more than N1.9 trillion had been returned to the system with a success rate of over 75% but in return, the people could not get the new notes! By the weekend, with the deadline of January 31 approaching, the banks still dispensed old notes! The CBN kept saying that it had released more than enough new notes but they were nowhere to be found either in banking halls or at ATM machines, except in the hands of merchants of new naira notes at social events and party centres and in the hands of their patrons who continued in open defiance of the law (section 21 of the CBN Act which appears to be a dead law) to the discomfiture of many Nigerians who watched in disbelief at the effect of a wonky, disconnected process. By January 26, churches and many retail outlets had put out the message that they would no longer collect old notes in the affected denominations. In many churches, last Sunday, ushers were told not to ever allow anybody drop old notes into the offering collection bag. Not even the toddlers in Sunday School were spared. They were instructed in one church that I know to take old notes back to their parents. Bureau de change operators all said they had no new Naira notes, not even the ones that were not redesigned. In many ATMs across the country, able-bodied men took the matter into their hands and engaged in fisticuffs over access to the very few ATMs that dispensed new notes. It didn’t matter that no ATM could dispense anything more than N20, 000 at a time.
By Monday morning, there was violence in some banks caused by the long queues of customers looking for money. In some parts of Nigeria, even wedding ceremonies could not hold because nobody was going to accept old notes as the bride price! In rural areas, the under-banked population for whom the CBN introduced a cash swap policy decided to wait and see. No matter how well-meaning the CBN could have been, its policy was going to result in a breakdown of law and order. The advertised extension till February 10 is most expedient. It came as a big relief to aggrieved Nigerians. But will they get the new notes?
The CBN Governor has been shown on tape reporting that the heads of the CBN, EFCC, ICPC, the Nigeria Financial intelligence Unit, the DSS and other security agencies have held a meeting and resolved to work together to apprehend persons who are sabotaging CBN guidelines on the naira redesign policy. Indeed yesterday, the DSS arrested some organized syndicates selling new Naira notes. I hope some bank managers were among those arrested. The security agencies should also take a close look at CBN officials because this kind of open sabotage and effrontery cannot take place without collusion at the highest levels. INEC officials are selling PVCs! Bankers are selling new Naira notes! We live in a country where whatever policy the government comes up with, there will always be persons who are determined to circumvent the policy for profit motives. This is the problem with Nigeria. The CBN extension would only be meaningful if the people can get new notes.
There is an additional matter that has been raised by the House of Representatives ad hoc committee led by Hon Al Hassan Doguwa on the matter. The lawmaker says the House is determined to issue a warrant of arrest for the CBN Governor, because the CBN has broken the law and the Governor is refusing to appear before the House. Both Doguwa and the Speaker, Hon. Femi Gbajabiamiala, insist that the CBN has violated Section 20(3) of the CBN Act, and that under Section 89(1) of the 1999 Constitution and Order 19(2) of the Standing Orders of the House, they have the right to ask that the CBN Governor be arrested by the Inspector General of Police. I sincerely believe that the House of Representatives is grandstanding. They can issue a warrant of arrest as they did a resolution, but the effect may be no more than symbolic. The police that should arrest the CBN Governor reports directly to the President of Nigeria – Sections 215 and 216 of the Constitution. The same President has taken personal ownership of all that the CBN has done. In days to come, some persons may go to court to seek an interpretation of Section 20(3) and Section 22 of the CBN Act, and throw up more conundrums, but the problem is that our laws are often so woolly that anybody can cherry pick as convenient and avoid a community reading that is recommended as standard practice. Our laws need to be more specific and categorical. But has the CBN not anticipated and side-stepped that possible controversy by granting an additional seven days for the return of old notes to the Central Bank? I think it has.
Finally, it is worth noting that in November 2016, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a similar policy to take “black money” out of circulation in India. The government gave only a four-hour notice for the withdrawal of all 1,000 rupees and 500 rupees. It caused confusion because it came as a shock. It was shrouded in secrecy. New notes were scarce. There were queues all over India. Modi held his ground. He said he needed to fight tax evasion and corruption. The people endured the hardship. He got away with it. The only difference is that the Indians trusted their government. Nigerians have learnt to doubt their own government. This is the crux of the matter.