This is not what it is supposed to be. It has seen its plum days. It did not only rule; it reigned. It did not strut like the dollar or the pound when I was a child, but its notes rustled with promise. The naira huffed and puffed. It was worth its weight in gold.
When we transitioned from the pound to the naira, we chanted and hoped. In memorable notes, Baba Sala gave us minstrelsy performances in jingles and dance, celebrating and delineating the various naira notes.
One Naira was a lot to hold. A thousand naira was a salary of big men. Company managers in the 1970’s earned gloriously who took home three hundred naira a month. Car loans of three thousand naira gave you a good car. You rented a great flat in choice areas of town with N40 a month. Even up to the 1980’s, N5000 gave you a car, a new one.
Now we are demonizing people with N5000. In this COVID-19 era, anyone who has a bank account of N5000 or more is regarded as happy enough not to qualify for federal government cash transfer, although the COVID-19 palliatives differ from the conditional cash transfer. For the poor, the distinction is not necessary. They will accept anything to tide over this turbulence.
Suddenly we are giving value to the Naira where it does not deserve. The world ridicules us that Nigerians live on less than two dollars a day, and that amounts to about N8,000. That sum, by world standard, is awful. But we are making those who earn even less than one dollar a day look like princes.
Five thousand naira could buy a car in the blossomy days of the naira. What can it do today? It is like a former millionaire who lost the luxury years of posh cars and decadent parties to the locust of bad times. He now waits at bus stops to commute.
Five thousand naira cannot feed a family for a week, no matter the frugal genius. We should not make it look like those who earn 10,000 or 20,000 earn anything in this cash transfer. They will accept it. But it does not save them.
Another condition for cash transfer is that it should focus on the urban poor. That’ s a good idea. The urban poor, the sufferers of capitalism, are worse off than the rural poor. In rural Nigeria, they feed on what they plant and pick and kill. They retain the hunter-gatherer instinct. They thrive on what they get. The urban poor live on what they are given, and they don’t get anything near what the world calls a living wage. They are like the characters captured in Festus Iyayi’s novel, Violence.
The naira has failed, but it has not fallen. The Bible times bewailed the poor fate that befell money, and it wrote, “money failed in the land of Egypt…” The apocalypse can fall on a currency as we have seen in some countries like Argentina, Ghana and Zimbabwe. Money became a burden more than an enabler. As Isaiah noted, “the land is utterly wasted” and explained earlier that “as with the people, so with the priest, as with the servant, so with the master…as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower…”
Money value falls gradually all over the world. In his classic, The Return of the native, Thomas hardy writes of a man who in the 19th century came into money and how much was it? Eleven thousand pounds. He was a wealthy man. Not in today’s England.
So, we should be mindful of those we think can flourish, so we know who to nourish. Anybody earning N5,000 is like a destitute in today’s Nigeria. By taking it for granted that the money should go to people with bank account, we take it for granted that the very poor can be reached in the banks. Many of them have no bank accounts. It is a failure of imagination to think that bank accounts will do. They should follow the Lagos model of employing political mobilization tools to reach the destitute among us.
The system also assumes that those who top their phones with less than 100 Naira are a tool to reach the needy. That might be true. There are many, though, who cannot afford a phone, and they borrow to make calls. There are too many things that are luxury to many people in this society. Just as one generation’s rich is another’s poor, a pauper in a rich man’s imagination is actually a comfortable man. Our comforts make us into snobs but make the poor sob. George Bush Sr. fell into a storm when he walked into the supermarket and did not know of the new sales machines. Marie Antoinette made her husband Louis 16th the last monarch in French history when she asked protesters to eat cake if they could not afford bread. It is the same acceptance of low standards that made graduates hot cake first and wastrels of the economy now. We have disenfranchised some citizens with our opulent imagination. By making the poor look rich, we have made the destitute a non-citizen, like Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.
We are now a 5000 Naira republic by that policy. The notion may be noble, but not wise.