“How can they change to a currency that is not in circulation?” my friend asked me. Nigerians and cynicism. Why would he say that the new currency notes are not in circulation? I have seen them. And why would he not say so? He countered. He was at his bank on Friday, and, across the counter, he was paid old naira notes. There was no discrimination against him, the people before him also got old naira notes. Day before Friday, he was at the ATM, he was paid with old notes. Only the very well connected get the new notes in hushed closets. Yet the deadline for the old notes to cease to be legal tender is January 31, 2023. You asked Nigerians to bring, from Monday to Saturday, all their old notes to the bank, yet Monday to Friday, what you pay out are the same old notes. Forwarding and back-warding. Nigeria does exactly like the farmer who spent a whole day to make two hundred heaps. The man closed for the day, then, one by one, he scattered the entire two hundred heaps – because he was searching for his snuff box. Who does that? Is it insanity or juju? Should the banks continue to pump withdrawn notes into the currency market? Why would the banks not do so? They don’t have enough new notes to service their customers. “But the president launched the new notes on Wednesday, November 23, 2022, and we all saw the notes; they were marvelous in our eyes.” My friend hissed. The last time he saw the notes online, some Nigerians were testing their resilience with water. What did we see? The new notes bleached like adire dyed by poorly trained hands. May the new year not suffer yellow fever like the new naira notes.
What colour is this new year going to wear? Two weeks ago, I was at a popular bookshop in Ibadan in search of Musikilu Mojeed’s ‘The Letter Man.’ It was at the bookshop I got the first lesson on how this government’s cashless push will work in this year of hard politics and intrigues. I bought what took me to that bookshop, then, as usual, I saw three other interesting titles and thought I should buy them. I thought I should obey the CBN’s order by not paying cash; but the POS refused to work. The attendants tried all the tech tricks they knew, the thing just didn’t work. All the cash the book-buyer could raise could pay for only ‘The Letter Man’, he left the others -unbought. The sales ladies, crestfallen, lamented that they suffered same bad luck the previous day. “We had several sales cancelled yesterday because this thing failed,” they told me. I couldn’t help them. I pray the new year does not work like the unworking POS.
Listen carefully before you say Amen to prayers in the new year – especially if they come from politicians. A friend said he was happy to read a political party at the dawn of 2023 wishing us “a happy and prosperous New Year.” He said he thought it was a sincere wish until he read that party, in the same message, asking us to vote for its candidates so as “to continue the progressive governance” it “started over seven years ago.” There is no problem with politicians asking for votes but there is more than a problem with a party promising to continue doing to Nigerians what they have witnessed in the last seven years. The seven years before now were lean years for millions who thought they voted for prosperity. People in government would say I lie, but I take my riposte from Bob Marley: “He who feels it knows it.” And, Nigeria is a country of wailers.
Be careful what you wish for yourself in the new year. Anglo-Irish satirist and author, Jonathan Swift, wrote the popular ‘Gulliver’s Travels.’ He authored other books of significant prescient importance; ‘A Tale of a Tub’ is one. He was 32 years old when he penned it in 1699 to list and project for himself contents of the future he wished to live in. ‘A Tale of a Tub’ contains what he called 17 Aspirations for his future. The items include his ardent wish for wisdom, humility, patience and justice. Swift wished “not to be covetous; not to neglect decency, or cleenlyness, for fear of falling into nastyness.” He headlined the list: ‘When I come to be old.’ And he lived to quite old age, worked very hard and achieved all the items on his list and has remained celebrated for them. But he also wished for what would be unthinkable: “Not to be fond of children, or let them come near (him) hardly.” Did he have children of his own or have others’ near him? History answers that question with a no. At another time, Swift was heard saying: “I shall be like that tree. I shall die at the top” – a suggestion that he would likely die of insanity – disease of the head. He got that wish fulfilled before his death on 19 October, 1745 – at 78 years. American writer, historian, and philosopher, William James Durant, in his eleven-volume ‘The Story of Civilization’ recorded it that in 1738, “definite symptoms of madness appeared” in Jonathan Swift and “in 1741, guardians were appointed to take care of his affairs and watch, lest in his outbursts of violence he should do himself harm” (Volume 8, page 362). Politicians are infusing the new year with all sorts of prayers and wishes; examine them before you inject curses into your bloodstream.
With the madness in the system, how shall one survive this new year? Survival rests on not giving up, not throwing our hands up in the air, not surrendering to the enemy. Self-care is the word here, and this includes not accommodating evil. Umuofia people in Chinua Acbebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’ were excited to see locusts in their farms. They thought the swarm was good food, good source of nutrition: “Everyone was now about, talking excitedly and praying that the locusts should camp in Umuofia for the night. For although locusts had not visited Umuofia for many years, everybody knew by instinct that they were very good to eat…At first, a fairly small swarm came. They were harbingers sent to survey the land…And at last the locusts did descend. They settled on every tree and on every blade of grass; they settled on the roofs and covered the bare ground. Mighty tree branches broke away under them, and the whole country became the brown-earth colour of the vast, hungry swarm.” You’ve heard of the years of the locusts. Locusts inflict frustration; they drag people and places to ruins. “Locusts raze crops, gardens and even football pitches in hours. A single swarm of these frightful creatures can count up to 40 billion insects and in less than a day it can eat as much food as would tens of thousands of people,” The Financial Times’ Ian Limbach wrote in a piece titled ‘Locusts and local politics.’ Wherever they perch, they spread devastation; they roll in wreaking havoc. But we welcome, host, dance and endorse their entitlement claims. We will see more of us doing more of this this year.
Literature mirrors life. Achebe’s Umuofia lost to the locusts. In real life, colonial records show that in 1930, a swarm of locusts entered Nigeria through Oyo Province. The locusts devastated the farms in the forests of the South and extensively in the savannah of northern Nigeria. There was food shortage and malnutrition; the authorities scrambled to contain famine and trouble. A researcher said there were “deaths, debts and losses which worsened the poverty of peasants.” The people watched flat-footed, helpless in horror; the government applied measures it thought should kill the pests: they sprayed chemicals that were effective only on the larva and not on the actual swarms doing the damages. That is the symbolic history of how we treat our trouble here – we box the shadow and serenade the substance. Whether in its farm or in its politics, every society has a history of locust invasion and devastation. What has made a difference across ages has been the method employed in combating the plague. “If locusts are left untreated by control measures, swarms can potentially grow 400 times larger,” a United Nation’s official warned two years ago. Because we are a nation of compromise and excuse, the locusts here have grown big and audacious. They boldly seek a revalidation of the devastation they’ve been; they are a pestilence. You heard last week that the swarm sought approval for trillions of printed money already spent. They employed rasping, grasping ‘ways and means’ to eat the tree of tomorrow; everything from leaves to roots. They will do everything to renew the ruin in the new year.
George Orwell, author of ‘1984,’ was an uncommon prophet; better than all the ones who have been speaking about 2023. In June 1949, Orwell saw a vision of the future we live in – and which we will see more starkly in this dread-locked year, unless we use the new year to drain the swamp. If you are a Nigerian and you endorse the dirt of the present and you want a vision of 2023, its politics and public policies, don’t go to any marabout, read Orwell. I quoted him before; I will bring him here again: “There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always, — do not forget this, — always, there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.” It is not enough to reject this dreadful prophecy. It will be enough only if we are positive in draining the sumps. May the new year give victory to the oppressed everywhere.