Written by Stephen Oyedemi, member, SFL African Executive Board.
Recent policy actions of the Federal Government of Nigeria make one wonder if we live in a sane, democratic society or under the control of some autocratic, intolerant rulers. In Nigeria, like most, if not all other countries, it is hard to earn a living; and as if that is not enough, Nigerians have to go through a lot of stress to have access to their hard earned money through an increasingly bureaucratic and inefficient banking system. This is evident in ridiculous limits on daily bank withdrawals as well as long queues at malfunctioning ATMs, meaning so much productive hours are wasted every day in Nigeria as a result of negligence.
Early this year, a lot of Nigerian students studying outside the country started to experience very serious financial challenges, not because their sponsors didn’t have the money to provide for their education but because their government back home had made it almost impossible for money to be sent to them. Today, you cannot send money through the Western Union, and to receive is also a problem. I had an ugly experience trying to help a friend of mine (who was in Nigeria for few days) receive money through the Western Union; we went from bank to bank with no success. The policy now is that to receive money through that medium, you have to have an account with the bank and the Naira equivalent would be dropped there. It took more than normal for him to finally withdraw it. How on earth do you expect someone visiting the country for just few days to open an account? He told me that in his country, it takes less than 10mins to collect money using the same medium and it is paid in the currency it is sent.
Now, this situation is getting worse. Last week, Guaranty Trust Bank announced a reduction in monthly withdrawal limit on customers’ debit cards outside Nigeria from $500 to $250, and now to $100. 2 days ago (October 17), according the punch newspaper, some banks have suspended ATM card usage abroad. The excessive urge of the government to control the forex market hasn’t yielded any positive result but has only made life more difficult for Nigerians; it is the reason why we don’t have a single forex market. Initially, it was limit on withdrawal, then stoppage of forex outward transfers through Western Union and likes, then withdrawal limit of $100 outside Nigeria. Obviously, what we should expect to see in the coming days and months is more encroachment on our freedoms. While it is understandable that there is scarcity of forex in the Nigerian economy, it is not responsible of the government and Deposit Money Banks (DMBs) to infringe on the rights of Nigerians to take part in international trade, to buy books online, to get an education, eat some imported food or have a vacation abroad if they so choose as long as their money is earned and not stolen. The focus of government should be on encouraging exports and making it easy for investors to invest in local production of commodities currently being imported most.
Buying Nigerian made commodities is good, and it is alright to encourage and educate people to do so; in fact, I now buy Nigerian made things much more than before as long as it is quality enough. But, you don’t force people directly or indirectly to consume a particular commodity; there is the role of individual preference in consumption choices and it is important to preserve people’s liberty to consume what they desire as long as they earn their money.
While these policies may not directly affect average Nigerians on the street, it should concern us all because, if not rejected, more of it will come in the future. Maybe tomorrow, the daily withdrawal limit on ATMs in Nigeria will be further reduced or law will be enacted to stop us from eating chickens, ponmo, apples, chocolates, or any other thing.
Nigerians are strangulated by bad policies everyday: this is reflected in bad roads, poor health care and falling standard of education. The focus of government should be to encourage an enabling environment for private sector-led solutions and to effectively protect the life and properties of every Nigerian. Recent actions/policies of the Nigerian government and banks badly affect Nigerian students, home and abroad and are therefore unacceptable. Hence, it is important that we point out that Nigerians are #FreeToSpend their hard-earned money on whatever they chose to, to transact legally with whoever they chose to and to do business with ease, as long as their actions are within the context of the law.