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A February In Crisis by Chukwuemeka Oluka

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February is the month of love, and it is in crisis in Nigeria.

Do Nigerians still know what love is all about? Many didn’t even realize the Valentine’s season tiptoed away from them unnoticed.

Some would say love is bright; but today, love wears a dim and dull colour in Nigeria. Yes, the naira scarcity and the hike in fuel prices have painted love dark in the hearts of many. Nigerians seemingly did not know what it means to love or to be loved either.

The phasing out of some naira notes took effect after January 2023 and the unfortunate economic crises it brought were situated in February — the season of love. Money became scarce. How do you even love when there is no money? So, it was pretty interesting to see how Nigerians expressed their love in the period. How the petrol and naira hardships altered the dynamics remained a wonder anyone would be in a hurry to know.

Just like in the iambic pentameter of a typical Shakespearean sonnet, my feeble mind wobbled between bouts of rhythmic uncertainties. I brushed aside these uncertainties that hung lazily in the atmosphere like the harmattan haze. I was determined to begin preparations on time just so I could give my love a valentine’s treat that would live rent-free in the mind. Yes, the valentine’s season was gently creeping in.

Banks had started sending me Valentine’s Day texts but wouldn’t give me my money. Yet as the crises generated by the naira redesign policy and fuel price hike deepened, my relationship with her was threatened. Communication between us gradually saw a decline. While I struggled to survive, I was ready to go against the odds to express love.

The countdown moved from weeks to days. The love season should never happen to me out of the blue. So, discarding any negativity, I planned to defy the odds to visit the commercial bank in my area. I had heard unfortunate stories linked with the naira scarcity and customers’ experiences with their banks. But I needed money, so, I was to make a cash withdrawal at the automated teller machine (ATM). I knew the naira had morphed into a crunch state, but I was optimistic I would find the naira.

When I got into the premises of the bank, I was greeted with a long queue. Everyone looked stressed and tired. Pockets of people were seen discussing as they waited for their turn to either gain access to the banking hall or make a withdrawal at the ATM.

Some were on the premises as early as 5:30 am. By merely sweeping my eyes across their faces, I could read their body language. Frustration! Bank customers have stood for hours waiting for one transaction or the other. I learnt the queue had grown long enough before the ATM was eventually pampered to begin dispensing bank notes. I joined the queue notwithstanding.

No sooner had I dissolved into the queue than a young lady walked up to me and asked how much I wanted to withdraw. At first, I didn’t give her a face. My mind sprawled through many spaces, racing through distances as I was lost in thought on the tragedies and pain the redesign of the naira notes has brought upon Nigerians.

I was doing a mental calculation on how far a daily cash withdrawal limit of N20,000 would go. I needed to fuel my car, pay for some utilities, feed myself and have some reserved in preparation for Valentine’s Day celebration.

According to some financial experts, the redesign of the naira notes was a policy by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to frustrate moneybag politicians who were set to buy votes in the coming elections. Others maintained it was to compel the Nigerian public into cashless transactions. But whether the country’s hugely informal economy will survive the cashless policy remains a topic for another day.

Still standing in the queue, I didn’t give the lady any attention at all, not until she said,

I over withdrew money and I’m looking for someone to help with some cash in exchange for a mobile money transfer. I was supposed to withdraw N2,000 but I mistakenly punched N20,000 on the ATM button

She would give me N18, 000 cash and I would transfer the amount to her account. I was shocked! I never knew miracles do happen. Without blinking an eyelid, I obliged her immediately and she handed me eighteen pieces of the newly redesigned N1000 bank notes. I took a dash immediately to the petrol station to fuel my car.

I jettisoned other petrol stations for MMPC. They were selling at a far cheaper rate and the possibility of altering their metering unit was minimal. However, the opportunity cost there was a long vehicular queue. It was the weekend. This meant I had no official schedule, no appointments and no assignments of any sort. I had been condemned to spending my day chasing the scarce naira and exorbitant fuel. So, I had no option but to join the queue.

Vehicles were moving languidly at a pace slower than a snail’s, with the queue stretching into the adjourning street. I wore patience like ‘agbada’ while I waited for my turn. Black market sellers had a queue as well for their gallons. Little wonder vehicles moved at such a pace.

Finally, it reached my turn and the petrol nozzle was thrust into my car. I requested N10,000 worth of fuel and then flashed the attendant ten clean pieces of the newly redesigned N1000 bank note. I had started the ignition of my car when I was called out. My car tyre was clamped down immediately. What was my offence? I paid with fake naira notes.

‘How can…?’

I was ready to throw punches not until the station manager made me realize that all ten pieces of the naira notes I handed to the attendant had the same serial number.

I froze!

It happened at the banking premises. I was dupped! The money I collected in exchange for a mobile money transfer was all fake. I couldn’t believe a lady could dupe me. To save me the further embarrassment, and avoid the anger of other customers waiting in line for their turn, I brought out my Mastercard and paid via point of sale (POS). I left the station devasted.

What about POS agents and operators that sell the naira? Those ones always feel like demigods — as though lives depend on them. But one message I had for them was that they should recall that nose mask and hand sanitiser sellers once had their time. So, in pidgin parlance, ‘POS operator time sef go soon pass. Na turn by turn las las

Imagine you approach a POS agent to withdraw the sum of N5,000 and you are told the charge is N1,500. That represents a whopping 30% of the withdrawal. All the while, we had complained the naira was crashing against the dollar, and now the naira is crashing against itself. Isn’t that a mystery?

***laughs uncontrollably***

In my entire life, ***I wish I could stop laughing*** I have never heard that a currency crashed against itself. Only the naira did.

Another dimension of the crisis saw mobile bank apps frustrate and stretch one’s mental health to the limits. Nigeria says it wants to copy other economies and go cashless, but the enabling environments to make that happen hadn’t been fixed. How do you make mobile transactions when internet services in the country are having a different opinion?

Over the weekend, I realized I needed a jug, so I quickly rushed to the market. Owing to the scarcity of the naira, I went with money for ‘to and fro’ transportation alone. I bought the jug and requested the seller’s account number. That was when my mobile bank app began rolling in circles for like eternity.

The money transfer would eventually pull through by some stroke of luck. It was written, ‘transfer successful.’ I took a screenshot and showed the seller — a woman wearing tribal marks like an Ifa priest. I made a turn to leave. The moment I took say, two steps, the woman rushed at me as though I had stolen an item.

Where you think say you dey go?’ she bulged her eyes and yelled!

abi you don pay me for wetin you buy?

She held tightly onto my clothes with one hand, the other hand in akimbo while her whole body vibrated like a grinding machine. Of course, she was ready to grind me, tear me down and make a scene.

barawo… give me my jug!’ she shouted.

Amidst the drama, her small Nokia phone beeped. Relief is written all over my face. She saw the alert and released me eventually. That was how I was embarrassed. The mobile network embarrassed me. And it was the second embarrassment in a space of three days after what happened at the petrol station.

Week after week, Nigerians were seen suffering. They queued in the bank and also queued in petrol stations. Tension rose by the day, and so did anger and frustration. Everyone was put in a state of chaos. The risk of a complete breakdown of law and order loomed. Sad and humiliating videos were circulating in deluges on social media. Some people were seen on the edge throwing punches, and dangerous objects and stripping themselves naked in banking halls and petrol stations. Nearly everyone became intolerant and tempers flared easily. Call it a fuji house of commotion, and you won’t be out of place.

Does love find a place in the hearts of many amidst such crises? Listening to discussions in clusters revealed no one gave love a thought, and there were indications that the sad situation may jeopardize the celebration of this year’s Valentine’s Day.

Money was hard to get and so was fuel. Movement on the decline. People scrutinized their spending and ensured any cash they parted with was justified. There was an existential threat. The goal was to survive. Relaxation spots became shadows of themselves. They wore a scanty look as reservations from lovebirds were on a low.

I had advised lovers to consider exchanging gifts on February 14th. They should improvise and try to enjoy the day notwithstanding. Those who truly loved each other can improvise and make the day memorable, with or without cash or fuel.

That was how the thought to serenade and surprise my love on Valentine’s Day came to mind. Since my bank refused to issue me enough money to celebrate and spoil her, I felt the best alternative was to play a piece of music and sing for her the way Romeo serenaded Juliet in the moonlight.

That evening — the evening for lovers, I wore my costliest cologne and I donned a gorgeous red look, giving off serious valentine’s vibes. I stood outside her house with my guitar resting on my chest. Before then, many lyrics jostled for attention. I wanted to do an ‘I have nothing’ by Whitney Houston, but I remembered it takes a lot of audacity to do a Whitney Houston song. That woman was just in a league of her own and sadly, she died in February. So, I eventually settled for ‘Best Part’ by Daniel Caesar featuring H.E.R.

I was doing all the riffs, runs and belting the notes. Yes… she would come out and sink her lips inside mine and then probably give me a warm hug after which I would go on bended knees. Did I know the evening had another agenda? Well, while I sang, she wrapped some words in a piece of paper and threw it through her window. It landed right on my feet.

It read,

Go find something to do with your miserable life!

Holy Christ!

It felt as though a bombshell landed.

I didn’t cry.

I knew she wanted to be taken out to the best places in town. But I was handicapped financially. The naira was scarce and so was fuel, but I thought I should shoot my shot regardless. Surprisingly, I gathered the pieces left of me and hurriedly went home. I reached for where I kept my voters’ card, caressed it and fighting back tears, I uttered the words,

My Val… my true love and consolation… On the 25th of February, you will serve them this ‘breakfast’ the way I was served ‘wotowoto’ this valentine’s evening. As they have used the naira and fuel to ruin my date, so shall I use you to ruin their date in the coming elections.

I felt inner peace. Yes, I did because I was convinced the voters’ card nodded in affirmation.

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