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Nigerians throw naira notes around to show love: but it could land you in jail

THE legal implication of physically damaging the naira, Nigeria’s currency, came into focus recently with the prosecution of at least two celebrities by the country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. Nigeria has a law that prohibits what it terms abuse, which also includes writing on the notes or crumpling them. It also covers naira coins. The law was introduced in 2007 but few Nigerians knew of its existence until now. Public law professor Abiodun Odusote explains why it doesn’t appear to have been effective.

Why is this law in the news?

Some celebrities ran into trouble with the law based on the way they had allegedly handled the Nigerian currency.

It is common to see Nigerians throw naira notes in the air, step on them or paste them on other people while dancing at parties and other social events, including traditional weddings. Throwing money in the air as the bride and her team come into the venue signifies love, affection and affluence.

Among those prosecuted was Idris Okuneye, a controversial celebrity also known as Bobrisky. Bobrisky was tried and handed a six-month prison sentence. Shortly after that, a socialite, Pascal Okechukwu, also known as Cubana Chief Priest, was arraigned. He pleaded not guilty and his trial is under way. An actress, Oluwadarasimi Omoseyin, was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for spraying and stepping on naira notes.

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What does the law say about abuse of the naira?

Sections 20 and 21 of the Central Bank of Nigeria Act became law in 2007. The law applies only to Nigeria’s currency, not to others.

The aim was to stem the abuse of naira notes and coins and improve the lifespan of the notes, thereby reducing the cost of replacement. The polymer notes – N50, N20, N10 and N5 – are designed to last for 18 to 24 months, but the higher denominations – N100, N200, N500, and N1,000 – are not available in polymer.

Naira notes are often dirty and mutilated, which is not the case with other global currency notes I have seen. I sometimes find it difficult to accept or touch some naira notes because of the extent of abuse that’s been inflicted on them.

The law prohibits various forms of abuse. This includes soiling, spraying, dancing on, stamping, writing on, mutilating, diminishing, engraving, piercing, squeezing, tearing or stapling them as well as any other form of defacement. It is a criminal offence to damage the currency in any way.

In my view the wording could also mean that rolling up naira notes and keeping them in your socks or underwear could fall foul of the law.

How many people have been convicted?

I don’t know the precise number of those who have been convicted of the abuse of naira notes. Some media outlets claim about 24 individuals since 2007.

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The reason for the low conviction rate is that part of the law seemingly violates Nigerian cultural and traditional practices. How will a traditional marriage be performed without money being thrown in the air (known locally as spraying)? When the bride is called in to meet the groom and members of the groom’s family, how will money not be sprayed? I have never attended a traditional marriage or engagement where this doesn’t happen. It is a significant part of the traditional marriage ceremony.

Money is also sprayed in this way at the christening of babies, and at funerals.

My opinion is that the government should concentrate on prosecuting those mutilating the currency – soiling, tearing and engraving.

What is the punishment?

The law says that any person convicted for the abuse of a naira note or who tampers with a coin or note is liable for imprisonment for a term not less than six months or to a fine not less than N50,000 (approximately US$37) or to both a fine and imprisonment.

How effective has the law been?

The law has failed abysmally as a deterrent. It criminalised a long-established tradition and cultural practice without any engagement with the people or advocacy or enlightenment.

Nigerians have actually recently devised other means of spraying money, like dropping it into a box while dancing, using vouchers as money and handing over the money to the celebrant while dancing.

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ABIODUN ODUSOTE, Associate professor, University of Lagos

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

By The African Mirror