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Currency crisis and electoral dynamics: Navigating Nigeria’s 2023 polls

BY Guest Writer

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BY ZAIDU SANUSI

The currency swap initiative launched by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) ahead of the 2023 general elections had profound implications on the electoral process and the broader socio-political landscape. The decision to redesign the highest denominations of the Nigerian currency (N200, N500, and N1000 notes) and the subsequent deadlines for swapping old notes for new ones resulted in widespread panic and hardship, as detailed by DW and the Blavatnik School of Government.

The policy aimed at curbing corruption, reducing money in circulation, and moving towards a cashless economy, inadvertently led to long queues at ATMs, businesses unable to transact normally, and citizens struggling to meet daily needs due to the scarcity of the new notes.

The political implications of this policy were significant. It was seen by some as an attempt to clamp down on vote buying, a practice that has marred Nigerian elections by influencing voter behavior through cash inducements. This initiative, however, was met with criticism from various quarters, including political figures who saw it as a move that could disadvantage them in the electoral race. The policy became a contentious issue, with some opposition figures arguing that it could provoke unrest with the intent of delaying elections, a claim echoed by Rivers state governor Ezenwo Nyesom Wike.

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Despite these challenges, the currency crisis also offered an unexpected opportunity to mitigate vote-buying practices, as the scarcity of cash meant that politicians could not easily mobilise the funds traditionally used to influence voters. However, this also led to the emergence of a black market for new notes, potentially counteracting the policy’s intended effects. Analysts and observers noted that while the cash crunch might influence voter sentiment against the ruling party, it was unlikely to fundamentally alter voting patterns, which are influenced by a range of factors beyond immediate economic grievances.

However the currency swap initiative posed significant challenges for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in mobilising logistics for the electoral process. Nigeria, being predominantly a cash-based economy, relies heavily on cash transactions for a wide array of services, including those critical to conducting elections. The currency swap, which involved phasing out old naira notes for new ones in a bid to curb corruption and transition towards a cashless economy, resulted in an acute shortage of cash. This shortage had far-reaching implications for INEC’s operations across the country’s 774 local governments, many of which lack banking facilities at their local government headquarters, thereby complicating the deployment of electoral materials and personnel.

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), under the leadership of the then-Governor Godwin Emefiele, had pledged to ensure the availability of resources for the commission. However, reports suggest that 48 hours before the elections, INEC struggled to secure the minimum funds required for disbursement. This cash crunch affected not only the commission’s logistics but also the ability of citizens to travel to their hometowns to vote—a common practice in Nigeria where voting is tied to the voter’s registration location, which for many is their ancestral home. Consequently, the currency crisis likely contributed to a lower voter turnout.

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Moreover, the scarcity of naira notes impeded the movements of INEC’s ad hoc staff, who faced difficulties reaching training centers in a timely manner. A staff member highlighted the profound impact of the naira shortage on their ability to travel to and from INEC training locations. Despite these hurdles, INEC sought to mitigate some of the logistical challenges through the deployment of technology. The commission developed an app designed to train and guide ad hoc staff, serving as both a refresher and an integral component of the training process. This innovative approach helped bridge some of the gaps caused by the currency swap, demonstrating INEC’s adaptability in the face of logistical and economic challenges.

In navigating these unprecedented challenges, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and other stakeholders were faced with the task of ensuring that the elections were conducted fairly and credibly, despite the logistical hurdles posed by the currency swap and the broader economic context, including fuel scarcity. The situation underscored the complexity of implementing major policy changes in close proximity to critical national events like elections, highlighting the need for careful consideration of timing and impact on the electorate.

This episode in Nigeria’s electoral journey reflects the intricate interplay between economic policy, political dynamics, and democratic processes, underscoring the resilience of the country’s institutions and the electorate’s commitment to participating in the democratic process despite significant obstacles.
The 2023 elections underscored the complexities of conducting nationwide polls in the context of significant economic reforms and highlighted the critical need for careful planning and coordination among all stakeholders involved in the electoral process. The experience offers valuable lessons for future elections, particularly in terms of managing logistics in a cash-dependent economy and leveraging technology to enhance electoral training and administration.

Sanusi, a political analyst, writes in from Abuja.

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