Culture and Federalism

By Ropo Sekoni

Today’s piece is dedicated to Professor Teju Olaniyan (TJ as affectionate diminutive). TJ, with a little over 30 years of service, held two named chairs: Wole Soyinka Chair in African literature and Louise Durham Mean Professor of English and African Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where death took him prematurely on November 30. Olaniyan was not just a scholar with expertise in one discipline but a scholar with specialisation in multidisciplinary understanding of cultural production through teaching and research on various cultural spaces—Europe, the Americas, Africa, etc. In the course of his three decades of hard work and good character, TJ was not satisfied with making a name for himself, he was also committed at every stage of his career from Obafemi Awolowo University to Cornell University, University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin to developing a pedagogy and scholarship, along with some of his contemporaries in the United States, to create programs that foster synergy between the Diaspora and the homeland towards development in Africa.

Ginna Crochets IMG-20190728-WA0000

TJ was pivotal to the founding and flourishing of the one-decade old Fagunwa Study Group (FSG) with headquarters in the United States and principal field of operations in Nigeria. In the last six years, TJ devoted lots of energy to organising two conferences on the writings of Fagunwa and Soyinka. At the 2019 conference on Soyinka and Fagunwa in Akure, he led discussions on how to enhance multidisciplinary teaching and research in Nigeria’s universities. Nobody in the audience could have imagined he would not be back in 2020 with other members of the steering committee of FSG to kick-start projects for cross-fertilisation between the homeland and the Diaspora for Africa’s development.

Today’s other focus is about the decision of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to give teeth to a law that has been dormant for a few years. The CBN’s desire to stop spraying of naira notes at social events has been on the federal government’s drawing board for a few years. Recently, CBN confirmed that the federal government was finally ready to prosecute and punish offenders of CBN Act section 21. Elements of the law against abuse of the naira include spraying or pinning the naira on any person; pasting it on the body of any person, stepping or matching on the naira; hawking the naira, etc. Each of these actions is believed to constitute an abuse of the naira. Offenders will be trailed by federal police that would have the power to arrest such people and ensure immediate prosecution and instant justice at the hands of judges of mobile courts. Punishment to those found guilty will be imprisonment for six months or a fine of N50,000 or both.

Social media commenters are justified to get worried about the relevance of punishing citizens for gifting naira in whatever form to friends and family members in a country where politicians drop bundles of naira notes into the palms of potential voters with impunity. The law against abuse of the naira seems to be more of distraction from more serious issues facing the country. Many cultures in and outside Nigeria pin, paste, or ‘spray’ paper money at special ceremonies on celebrators and their family members. Examples abound in Hungary, Mexico, Cuba, Ukraine, and parts of Poland where people have what they call money dance at weddings. In many parts of Nigeria, coins (where they are available) and paper money are pasted on the body of celebrators or other participants at social ceremonies: naming, funerals, chieftaincy installations, etc.

The concept of abuse of the naira or the imperative to fetishise the naira seems novel and strange. The British did not worry that the currency with their king or queen on it were sprayed to disrespect their monarchy. Most citizens were groomed since 1960 to believe that the national flag is a symbol of Nigeria’s sovereignty. For decades until the value of the naira plummeted, Nigeria’s currency notes were found in all countries where they were exchanged in open markets for currencies of other nations. They were even pasted on walls in the shops of vendors, not to talk of buying or selling the naira in open markets in Cotonu, Lome, Accra, Niger, etc.

What does the law mean by hawking of the naira? Are the hundreds of vendors selling naira to travellers at the ports and on highways naira hawkers as well? Does this law refer to the men selling the naira in bureau de change and women selling the naira at the entrance to event centres as hawkers? Can persons who want to sell money in front of churches and mosques obtain license as operators of Bureau de Change or Bureau de Cadeau? Will naira notes dropped or thrown into dirty bags and baskets in churches and mosques count as abuse of the naira? Will dropping of naira on the highways for beggars or throwing of naira at mendicants by motorists constitute abuse of the naira? Would spraying envelopes that contain naira amount to naira abuse? Citizens may require more Naira Health Education than the bank had given.

Furthermore, is it legal for citizens to spray dollars bought with naira in the country? Will citizens still have the right to consult their lawyers before they are whisked to jail by mobile court judges? If citizens who stole millions or billions from the treasury have the right to hire lawyers to defend them, would those who give their own hard-earned naira notes to their loved ones at parties be eligible to be defended by lawyers? In addition, would citizens lose their right to privacy at social events they organise? For example, can event coordinators refuse entry to uninvited police and mobile court judges into the halls party organisers rent solely for their own use? Does a citizen’s right to own property and dispose of such property as he/she wishes automatically stands annulled by this law?

The point of all these questions is that the law to proscribe spraying sounds like killing a fly with a boulder. One logical reason offered so far to justify the law is that Nigeria pays so much to print paper money and that spraying or pinning of the naira accelerates its degeneration and leads to the need for frequent replacement. By setting out to send police and mobile court judges to millions of event centres across the country on each of the four days of naira gifting: Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, is it not likely that such process would gulp more funds than replacing stressed naira notes would?

An unnecessary law had been created, but the law could have been just left unnoticed as we had done for years. There seem to be too many more serious problems facing the country and too many overtly criminal matters that can benefit from the enthusiasm of those who want to be seen to be doing something. There is virtually nothing to gain from a law that sets out to fetishise the naira and disrupt centuries of a culture that does not hurt the interest of anyone. Wise nations create laws that they can enforce without losing authority. Now that spraying or gifting naira is a national culture, would it not be more cost-effective for the government to impose special surcharge for replacement of naira notes than hiring police and judges to protect whatever aspect of Nigeria’s sovereignty resides in the naira? This is the kind of law that should call for judicial review should legislators feel unable to revisit it.

The Nation 

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