Nigeria’s new monetary policy cannot stop vote-buying

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Once in a while, you hear a true hard luck story of a well-intentioned action gone wrong, like a pump attendant filling a customer’s petrol tank with diesel. The unfolding scenario of Nigeria’s currency reform unveiled by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is one such story. The reform will redesign the three highest-denominated naira banknotes (₦200, ₦500 and ₦1,000) and institute periodic cash withdrawal limits. The new withdrawal policy took effect on 9th January 2023 while the old bank notes will cease being legal tender on January 31st.

These reforms wouldn’t be raising questions if they were more motivated by economic considerations like promoting a cashless economy than fighting crime and cleaning up the country’s politics. By and large, analysts are unanimous in their judgement that these policies have far-reaching effects on mopping up the volume of liquidity in circulation, curbing currency counterfeiting, reducing ransom payments to kidnappers and terrorists, and stopping the scourge of vote-buying ahead of the upcoming presidential elections. And although the official statement from the apex bank does not suggest that any individual or group is being targeted (safe for terrorists and kidnappers), the policies have been perceived as a blow against politicians who have stockpiled trillions of naira in the house to manipulate the 2023 general elections. Indeed, the proximity of the CBN’s monetary policies to the 2023 general elections in the country further reinforces this perception. It is doubtful, however, that these policies will have any impact on these illegal practices.

For starters, the new policy cannot address the issue of the organic connection between liberal democracy and money politics. Vote-buying is not a fundamentally Nigerian phenomenon as it occurs in many countries across the world, including in countries that have long embraced the principles of a cashless economy. The pervasiveness of money politics in several liberal democracy-styled electioneering processes has been well-documented in the extant literature. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance better known as the International IDEA, nearly 80 per cent of voters from 36 African countries believe voters are bribed – either sometimes, often or always. Furthermore, 16 per cent of voters in African countries reported being offered money or goods in exchange for their votes during their last elections. However, the culture of vote-buying has become so entrenched in Nigeria’s electoral processes that it has acquired a number of localised sobriquets such as dibo ko se obe o (vote for our party and prepare a pot of soup today), amala politics (stomach infrastructure), election sandwich, and so on.

Second, the new policy does not address the issue of the dollarisation of Nigeria’s economy which has further deepened the scourge of money politics in Nigeria. Indeed, ours is a country that operates a bi-monetary banking system with dollar bias for international trade, finance invoicing and as a store of value. Even before the CBN announced the redesigning of some banknotes in November 2022, the Nigerian electoral system had been heavily dollarised. For instance, in 2018 when the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) presidential convention was held in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, several media reports suggest that there was a dollar spree with glee, involving the leading aspirants who engaged in open dollarised vote-trading to outdo each other and secure the party’s presidential ticket. Most recently in May and June 2022, the presidential conventions of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the leading opposition PDP clearly showed that the untoward influence of money in electoral competition has not waned. For the record, transactional politics of vote-buying was widely reported in the presidential primaries of both the PDP and APC. As shown in the reports, the leading contestants paid each elector whopping sums of money ranging from US$10,000 to US$50,000.

The dollarisation of the Nigerian economy suggests that the CBN monetary policies on currency redesigning and withdrawal limits will easily be circumvented by vote-buyers. This is because the bulk of monetary inducements of key electoral officials, delegate electors, voters, and so on, are undertaken in foreign currencies rather than the local currency. Given that the above instances of unabashed dollarisation of vote-buying happened before the latest CBN’s monetary policies, it is rather foolhardy to imagine that such policies would become the silver bullet against money politics in Nigeria.

Notwithstanding, the uproar that extra-legal campaign financing such as vote-buying often generates in public discourses does not only attest to the opprobrium associated with it but also its far-reaching debilitating impact on governance. Some of the negative impacts of transactional politics in most emerging liberal democratic cultures have been well-established in my earlier article. In addition, money politics unduly raises the cost of elections. Invariably, this shuts out contestants with lean financial base or those who lack strong political machines who can bankroll their electoral campaigns. Money politics also perpetuates bad governance, especially through a lack of accountability. The well-being of those whose votes are compromised for instant gratification is not only undermined but also the future of others who did not sell their votes is affected by the unintended consequences of vote-buying. Further, money politics promotes patron-clientelism and state capture where political patrons use their humongous financial muscles to sponsor their clients with state resources being traded off as the quid pro quo.

Similar to other political cultures which are founded on the norms of liberal democracy, it is unlikely that tinkering with the aesthetics and façade of Nigeria’s currency notes would significantly reduce the proneness of the country’s electioneering processes to vote-buying. The liberal democratic model is antithetical to the conceptualisation of democracy as the rule of the people. Being the political correlate of capitalism (which thrives on individualism, exploitation and predation), it is not surprising that liberal democracy erodes vital social prerequisites for a genuinely democratic life to flourish. With an emphasis on voting during periodic elections over economic emancipation and freedom from ignorance and diseases, liberal democracy is irretrievably intertwined with the monetisation of politics. As argued by Catherine Needham, this model of democracy prioritises the individual over the community, encourages passivity, downgrades public spaces, weakens accountability, and privatises citizenship. Thus, the fundamental danger of liberal democracy in Nigeria and elsewhere where it has been entrenched is that it turns citizens into selfish elements who are willing to compromise collective interests in pursuit of their self-gratifying political interest cloaked in the garb of transactional politics.

In light of the foregoing, the CBN’s monetary policy reforms are not expected to exert a fundamental change on the Nigerian dominant vote-buying culture. While it might minimise the use of the local currency for transactional politics of vote-buying, the policy is unlikely to stem the entire gamut of the thriving vote-buying “industry” in a heavily dollarised liberal democratic milieu as Nigeria.

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