Growing up in the late 60s through to the early 70s in Owo, Ondo State enriched my childhood experience. I had the wonderful fortune of living with my paternal grandmother, my uncle (her first child), as well as his caring wives, particularly the senior one. May Allah bless granny’s soul! Whenever my cousins and I were going to school, we enjoyed everything a child should have. I qualified to be called a spoilt child; I was fine with it. This uncle showed me affection to a fault. The good thing was that my old man was nowhere close by to witness the avuncular care. He would have turned green with envy!
As a matter of responsibility, my uncle (also of blessed memory), whom I fondly called Ba’ami (my father), would give each of us one penny as our feeding money during break time. The money was outside of the food packs we would individually take to school: Ansar-U-Deen-Primary School or AUD for short. That one penny was of high value, and bought for us everything we needed …from fruits to snacks. That was the kind of life I had the privilege of enjoying as a kid. Pounds, shillings and pence were the legal tender then.
And by 1973, there was a change to naira and kobo. With various fiscal transformations or reordering of the nation’s fiscal process, we are today left with N5 note as the least legal tender. It’s interesting to note that by error of omission or sheer complicity, this has left us with no coin denominations, and we are carrying on as if all is well.
By our currency format as released by the Central Bank of Nigeria-the nation’s apex financial body; there are three coin denominations of 50 kobo, N2 and N1. In the notes category are; N5, N10, N20, N50, N100, N200, N500 and N1, 000 which for now, remains the highest. Today, it is sickening and heart-wrenching to note that our coins have thinned out of sight, thus endangering what remains of the nation’s struggling economy. The corruption that has steadily become a way of life today, started from the day we, as a nation and people, consciously or otherwise, denigrated our coins.
I recall sometime in the late 90s. I offered to give a beggar alms in coins. He bluntly repulsed me to the shock of all, saying “who will take kobo kobo.” And that I should not insult him! Who then says a beggar has no choice? In Nigeria, they have! I was cold. What does that tell us? The beggar did not see reason to appreciate the giver. I also recall vividly a Lagos-based cousin of mine, who was very fond of me whenever they (with the parents) visited Ilorin in the late 80s. Anytime she saw me, the request was “my brother, give me 10 kobo,” and I would oblige her. She never asked for one kobo. Till date, I jokingly call her Sa’dia 10 kobo.
Back to the encounter with the beggar. I told those who witnessed the scene that we were headed towards an economic disaster as a nation. Today, it is common knowledge that when children want to ask or beg you for money, they hardly ask for N10.00. They can even demand for N50 or N100.
It is even worse when one goes to the shopping mall where the price tag reads N1, 999. Perish the thought of having the last kobo as your balance. And where does this go? Into the pocket of the seller, of course! This is another face of corruption.
The German experience
A different scenario plays out here in Germany. On arrival, when yours truly boarded a bus from the airport to Bonn city, upon presenting a N100 euro note to the driver, he gave me a complete balance up to the last coin. I was initially piqued. This is because of the burden of carrying coins around. Expectedly, my mood was fouled based on what obtains back in my home country. As days roll by and one engages in shopping, I got to realise coins play a major role in the German economy. The cashiers are always in a hurry to give you the balance of your money after purchase.
There are items that go for as little as 50 cent, and this, in no small measure, boosts the economy. I also want to believe that since euro is the common currency in the Euro zone, one can safely conclude that it’s the same trend in other member nations of the European Union. This gives one a leeway to seeing through reasons Germany remains the biggest economies in Europe.
Today in Nigeria, or let me say as at the time I was leaving Abuja some two and half months ago, it’s a taboo to carry coins to any business space for any transaction. Nigerian coins appear doomed, cursed and rejected. Even the government itself has written a eulogy for the coins while the concerned are singing the dirge… it’s over for the coins!
When one pays government agencies (in cash) for services offered, the payer readily leaves the balance (when coin is involved) with the receiver, simply because the denomination is no longer fashionable. It’s worst in banks and supermarkets. This is one major source of corruption we have failed to beam our searchlight on, both as a nation and a people. In banks, it’s corporate corruption that looms large. The leftover is usually the cashiers’ gains. Attendants also rip customers of their pay in supermarkets, filling stations and other business centres.
And in no time, the syndrome caught up fast with those Nigerians in the age bracket of 0-20years or more, who, probably, never had any contact with the coin denomination. And what’s the result? Today, this category of people takes delight in moving on the fast lane, and ready to crush anything in their way to quick wealth. It’s not an accident that yahoo, yahoo plus and related crimes are fast on the increase, a trend also aided by the sophistication of the time – the internet.
It’s unthinkable to advance inflation as a cause for the curse of our coins. Economists are always quick to tell us the inflationary trend is a major causative factor for this. That’s balderdash! A people are called what they call themselves. Does it not smack of irresponsibility on the government’s part to watch our coins becoming relics, when in actual fact they are still legal tender?
The Central Bank of Nigeria knows rightly what to do, and it must act very swiftly. Otherwise, we can only watch our economy as it dips into the abyss, and corruption increasingly becoming our way of life. I am not an economist, but native intelligence dictates that where very lower denominations of currency is allowed and given the right of place in any economy, chances are that people’s lives would surely improve. China, Japan, United States of America and their likes, are major examples.
So, what would have happened now if the call for N5,000 single note had sailed through? For sure, the economy would have gone miasmic, in a nation whose population has propensity to pullulate. I do know our population has gone far beyond the official figure of 180 million and still racing at a very ‘breathtaking rate.’
So, what am I saying in essence? Rescuing our coins from the path of the accursed is a task that must be done. The CBN should have time-box to accomplish this. We must stop this grandstanding and right this basic wrong in our economy. Is it not an irony that the coins we despise in our economy are making waves elsewhere? For me, coin is even a kind of leveller of sort, and could help provide the oxygen for our burgeoning economy.
In Germany for instance, if one pulls out a 500 euro or even 200 euro from the wallet for any transaction, such person is likely to be looked as a money launderer. They look at you as spending proceeds of crime. Is the reverse not the case with us? Has the arrogant display of wealth not become the norm? Isn’t this a major reason our coins have lost their values? These are things we should look at rather than killing our coins. This is my 79th day in Germany, and I am yet to come across a 500 euro denomination. Yet, I have not less than 10 wads of N1,000 notes with me.
For an effective anti-corruption fight, I still believe the best way to rid, nay, reduce to the barest minimum the sleaze tendencies, is to restore our lost coins. It is only then our lost societal values can be restored. Criminalising the rejection of coins as legal tender won’t be a bad idea after all. The CBN should mandate banks to start breathing life back into our coins.
Above all, the Prof. Doyin Salami-led economic advisory team also has a big role to play in freeing the coins from bondage.