Funmilayo Odude, Partner, Commercial and Energy Law Practice (CANDELP)

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For a holistic approach to eradicating naira abuse 22 May 2024

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has in the past couple of weeks showed an intention to pursue criminal infractions relating to the abuse of naira notes, particularly the act of spraying of the notes at events and during social occasions. In February 2024, a Nollywood actress was reported to have been convicted of the charge brought by the EFCC on abuse of the naira. The crackdown against naira abuse garnered widespread attention across social media when a popular social media user, Idris Okuneye, was convicted of the offence, and criminal charges were brought against another popular social media user, Cubana Chief Priest, on the same offence which is still pending at the time of writing this piece.

I suspect that if a poll is conducted, majority of Nigerians would consider the act of spraying naira notes at events and celebrations more as poor cultural norms entrenched in the fabric of our social engagements, than criminal acts worthy of prosecution and conviction. Its prevalence and societal acceptance pose a challenge to security agencies to effectively prosecute all offenders. The exercise of its discretion in determining its targets is likely to subject the security agencies to allegations of favouritism and nepotism. It is quite an accepted cultural observance and, in a country fraught with victim-based offences, there will be a challenge to the use of resources to prosecute this class of offences. It is, therefore, important for the EFCC and perhaps the government to take a holistic approach to eradicating the practice beyond using the instrument of criminal prosecution.

Though there have been a number of convictions for currency offences over the last couple of years, very little related to the abuse of the naira. According to Prison Admission by Type of Offences, Sex and Year data from the 2021 Women and Men in Nigeria Statistical Report by the National Bureau of Statistics reported in the Punch Newspaper, at least 3,234 persons were imprisoned for currency offences between 2018 and 2020. Over 75% of the convicts were men. Most of the offences, however, related to making of counterfeit currency or having the materials needed to make counterfeit currency contrary to the provisions of the Counterfeit Currency (Special Provisions) Act. The punishment prescribed by the Act is much steeper than that prescribed by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) Act for falsifying, making, or counterfeiting any bank note or coin issued by the bank.

It is, however, the CBN Act that prescribes offences against the abuse of the naira. The Act criminalises offences of refusal to accept the naira as a means of payment and tampering with coin or note. Tampering includes impairing, lightening (except by fair wear and tear), defacing by stumping, engraving, mutilating, piercing, stapling, writing, tearing, soiling, squeezing or any other form of deliberate and willful abuse. Section 21 (3) of the Act specifically criminalises offences relating to the abuse of the naira that constitutes “spraying of, dancing or matching on the naira or any note issued by the bank during social occasions or otherwise.” It is punishable with imprisonment of not less than 6 months or a fine of not less than N50,000.00 or both. It is also an offence to hawk, sell or otherwise trade in naira notes or coins or any other note issued by the CBN.

In April 2019, the CBN unveiled its clean note policy and banknote fitness guidelines. While the initiative was focused on maintaining quality standards for cash handlers and bank notes production and re-circulation, circulation of premium quality banknotes, and withdrawal of unfit banknotes, it also consisted a campaign against the abuse of naira notes. But the momentum of the campaign was not sustained, and abuse of the naira has remained a prevalent practice across all the ethnicities in Nigeria. Beyond spraying of the naira at parties, there is also a cultural affinity towards some of the other related acts criminalised as naira abuse or tampering such as hawking mint notes.

Criminalising abuse of currency is not restricted to Nigeria. The United States of America, for example, has federal criminal laws related to coins and currency including the mutilation, diminution, or falsification of U.S. coins; the mutilation, cutting, defacing, disfiguring, perforating or otherwise damaging of drafts, notes, or other evidence of debt with the intent to render the bill, note, or other evidence of debt unfit to be reissued.

There is the question whether naira abuse is an offence that concerns the EFCC. This is worth consideration and quite uncomplicated seeing as the EFCC is a creation of statute – The EFCC Establishment Act. Key functions of the EFCC as provided under the Act in Section 6 include the investigation of all financial crimes; the co-ordination and enforcement of all economic and financial crimes laws and enforcement functions conferred on any other person or authority; the adoption of measures to eradicate the commission of economic and financial crimes; taking charge of, supervising, controlling, coordinating all the responsibilities, functions and activities relating to the current investigation and prosecution of all offences connected with or relating to economic and financial crimes; the coordination of all existing economic and financial crimes investigating units in Nigeria; maintaining a liaison with the offices of the Attorney-General of the Federation, Nigeria Customs Service, the Immigration and Prison Service Board, the Central Bank of Nigeria, the Nigerian Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Nigerian Drug Law Enforcement Agency and all government security enforcement agencies and such other financial supervisory institutions in the eradication of economic and financial crimes.

It is clear from its establishment Act that the EFCC is created to be the body or agency of government with overarching authority over economic and financial crimes. While not extinguishing the rights or powers of other bodies in this regard, the Act designates EFCC as the coordinating agency over all offences related to or connected with economic and financial crimes. It is charged, under Section 7 of its Act, with the responsibility of enforcing the provisions of the Money Laundering Act, the Advanced Fee Fraud and other Fraud Related Offences Act, the Failed Banks (Recovery of Debts) and Financial Malpractices in Banks Act, the Banks and other Financial Institutions Act, the Miscellaneous Offences Act and “any other law or regulations relating to economic and financial crimes…”

Financial crimes encompass a wide range of illegal activities that involves deceit or fraud and includes other illicit practices related to financial transactions or assets. Tampering and abuse of currency falls under this definition along with more serious offences such as counterfeiting, manipulation of currency exchange rates or currency markets, currency smuggling and hoarding. The EFCC is certainly empowered to enforce the provisions of the CBN Act in this regard and to investigate and prosecute such offences, with or without the collaboration of the CBN.

The question, though, is: what is the purpose of the campaign to eradicate the practice of spraying naira? It is undoubtedly a social practice that should be discouraged. But within Nigeria’s cultural and political context, eradicating abuse of the naira, especially spraying of the notes, requires a multifaceted approach that acknowledges the complexities of culture and societal change. The point needs to be made again that it would not be in the country’s best interests if the EFCC intends to pursue every infraction in this regard, in view of the prevalence of the practice. Other strategies must, thus, be employed along with criminal prosecution to lead to an eradication of the practice. Other models of social persuasion should be considered in deterring the practice. As Dakuku Peterside stated in an article published by the Cable Newspaper on 22 April 2024, “changing public behaviour requires a multi-faceted approach that combines legislation, education, community engagement, social support and enforcement efforts.”

The nature of the criminal offences, being victimless, requires that a re-orientation campaign by relevant agencies, including the CBN, the National Orientation Agency, state governments, federal and state Ministries of Education, banks, and non-bank financial institutions, be considered. Education and awareness programmes, which can be infused into school curriculum, are essential for the long-term subsistence of the current campaign. It might be necessary to initiate community engagement interventions across different groups in order to foster dialogue and discussions, which are essential in challenging the practices.

Leaders and cultural influencers are important in promoting cultural change. Media, both traditional and alternative, must be employed.

There is no denying that the practice of spraying naira notes, although a cultural norm, is a criminal action. However, changing cultural norms is a long-term process that requires sustained commitment and employment of different tools. Criminal prosecution is only but one tool among many others that should be employed, and they must be employed holistically.

Funmilayo Odude is Partner at Commercial and Energy Law Practice (CANDELP).