By Babatunde Ayedoju
An African proverb says that where two elephants clash, it is the grass there that will suffer. Such is the scenario that is playing out in the Nigerian economy currently. It all began on October 26, 2022, when the Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), Godwin Emefiele, announced the redesign of N200, N500 and N1,000.
According to the CBN Governor, the new naira notes were to be released on December 15, 2022, while the old notes would cease to be accepted as legal tender by January 31, 2023. Meanwhile, before the new notes came into circulation on December 15, 2022, the Buhari-led government first unveiled it for the public to see on November 23, 2022.
The CBN had directed that members of the public should deposit their old currency notes in their commercial bank accounts between the time that the decision was made and the day that the old notes would cease to be accepted as legal tender – January 31, 2023. That was a period of about 100 days.
As the deadline approached, there were agitations in some quarters that the CBN should extend the deadline, to enable more people deposit their old currency notes and get new ones. These included the National Assembly which requested that the deadline be shifted for about six months, the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF), Bank Customers Association of Nigeria (BCAN) and a host of other stakeholders who expressed concerns and made appeals for CBN to extend the period for the currency swap, as well as review the policy.
Though the CBN and the presidency initially insisted that the January 31 deadline for the old currency remained in force because enough time (100 days) was given and necessary measures were put in place to ensure compliance, at the 11th hour, the Emefiele-led apex bank extended the deadline by 10 days. That meant the old currency notes would now cease to be legal tender on February 10, no longer on January 31. That was a little bit of relief for members of the public who were already apprehensive, as they feared that the old notes still in their hands would be wasted if the deadline was not extended.
Meanwhile, the governors of Kogi, Kaduna and Zamfara States dragged the Federal Government before the Supreme Court, challenging the propriety of the naira swap policy of the Federal Government. On February 8, the apex court issued an interim injunction restraining the Federal Government from suspending the acceptance of old notes on the Friday, February 10, 2023 deadline.
The Court also directed in its ex parte order that the new naira notes should coexist with the old until February 15 when the Motion on Notice in the case would be heard.
The news that the old notes could still remain as legal tender till February 15 also brought relief to Nigerians when they heard it. Alas, they were all disappointed when on Monday, February 13, which was the first working day after the February 10 deadline that was earlier given by the CBN, commercial banks refused to collect the old notes from customers. The commercial bank officials claimed that their refusal to collect old notes was based on a directive from the CBN. Buttressing that information, the CBN announced that members of the public should deposit their old currency notes at the Bank’s state branches, following a procedure that was published on its website.
Reacting to the development on a Channels TV interview, human rights lawyer, Femi Falana (SAN), described the refusal of the CBN to comply with the Supreme Court’s order as a contempt of court.
He said, “In a country where rule of law operates, once the Supreme Court has determined a matter or given an order, it is expected that all and sundry – everybody – will comply with the order.”
While suggesting that an example be made of those flouting the supreme court’s order, Falana said that a statement credited to the CBN that it would not comply with the order of the apex court because it was not a party to case could only be tenable in a “banana republic.”
Similarly, a legal practitioner and former Attorney-General of Ondo State, Adekola Olawoye, in an interview with The Hope, stated that any individual, bank or other organisation that disobeys the Supreme Court’s order commits contempt of court and should be punished.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday February 15, the Supreme Court stated that its February 8 order barring the Federal Government and its agencies from enforcing the February 10 deadline for the use of old 200, 500 and 1000 naira notes still subsisted. The clarification was made following a complaint by lawyer to Kaduna, Kogi and Zamfara states, Abdulhakeem Mustapha (SAN), that the Federal Government and its agencies had failed to comply with the order and had allegedly directed the rejection of the old notes.
Mustapha said the plaintiff filed a notice of non-compliance with the court order made on February 8 and demanded that the court should take action against the respondent to protect the dignity of the court. He also prayed the court to renew the order, so that parties could be properly guided.
Justice John Okoro, who presided over a seven-member panel of the court, asked Mustapha to file a proper application to put forward his complaints and to enable the respondent respond appropriately, adding that there was no need for a renewal of the court’s order.
He noted that, since the order made by the court on February 8 was made pending the determination of the motion for injunctions filed by the plaintiff, the order still subsists since the motion was not yet heard.
The Supreme Court has, however, fixed February 22 for hearing of the suit after joining the Attorneys-General of Katsina, Lagos, Cross River, Ondo, Ogun, Ekiti and Sokoto states as co-plaintiffs.
The court also joined the Attorneys-General of Edo and Bayelsa states as co-respondents. Both states elected to side with the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) originally listed as the sole respondent. The court also ordered that the suits filed by separately by Nasarawa, Rivers and Kano states on the same issue be consolidated with the one filed by Kaduna, Kogi and Zamfara states.
Commenting on the CBN’s flouting of the Supreme Court’s order, Professor Simon Ehiabhi from the Department of History and International Relations, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, noted that CBN’s disobedience of the apex court is not surprising to any Nigerian who has been following the narrative of disobedience to court orders in Nigeria.
He pointed out that the procedure for enforcing court orders in Nigeria calls for concern, noting that enforcement of Supreme Court’s orders is at the discretion of the president and those in power.
He said, “Who enforces Supreme Court’s orders? It’s the police. Who controls the police and the armed forces? It’s the presidency. When you have a presidency that does not respect pronouncements of the court, there will be disobedience.”
Similarly, Dr Kunle Akinola from the Department of Political Science, Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko said that the difference between a democratic and an autocratic government is the rule of law, adding that the strength of democracy is the rule of law.
He said that under any guise, orders of the Supreme Court should be obeyed. His words: “The fact that you don’t like the verdict of the Supreme Court or it’s not in your favour doe not mean it should not be obeyed.”
The political scholar, while stating that the apex court had delivered controversial electoral verdicts in the past which people still obeyed, pointed out that the presidency would be setting a very bad example if it ends up flouting the apex court’s order and the court is not able to do anything about it.
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