With the exception of societies that thrive on depravity, many “normal” societies try to enforce some form of ethical codes. These societies do not only put behavioural rules for their people; they put in place environments that engender such desired behaviour. Coming to the Nigerian society, we mouth mantras about good behaviour, but then go to great lengths to create an environment where defrauding one another seems best for business.
Recently, someone I’ll call Seller A, showed me a counterfeit ₦1,000 note. A customer had purchased some items from this person using that note. When Seller A tried using that note as part of other notes to restock her goods, the bulk seller noticed the erring ₦1,000 note and quickly returned it. Seller A was aghast, and felt cheated. In this hard “Buhari time”, she could not afford to lose a thousand naira. She decided to spend that money at night, thereby pushing the loss to another person.
Around 9pm, while on her way to spend the money, our paths crossed, and for some reason, she decided to tell me her predicament. Maybe she had a guilty conscience or she just wanted a kind of confirmation bias, for someone to tell her she wasn’t doing anything wrong by spending a counterfeit bill. After hearing her story, I was at a loss for what to say. Although I could easily feign holy righteousness, and tell her not to use that note, I knew that for a petty trader, one thousand naira is a whole lot of money. So I decided to acquire the loss, not as if I had money, knowing that I’m few steps from brokendom, but because I felt I could absorb a thousand-naira loss better than her, and I didn’t want guilty conscience to weigh her down. I took the note, tore it into shreds, and offered to give her a replacement the next day.
While an undergraduate, I encountered similar situations—cheat or lose. Although in northern Nigeria, torn polymer notes can be patched with sellotape and reused, in the south, most persons refuse to collect any torn or patched polymer note. So each time I unknowingly received a mutilated polymer note as change, I tore it into shreds since I knew that the only “alternative” was to hoodwink an unsuspecting person into collecting it from me. This behaviour was ridiculed by some around me who saw an obvious way out—spend it at night or within a bundle of notes. Thank God the polymer notes are for low denominations. Else, my irrational behaviour would have gotten me broke faster than the Central Bank could produce new bills.
Talking about alternatives, what is the CBN doing about mutilated notes? I grew up being told that torn notes could be exchanged at the banks. However, banks now reject torn notes, refusing to bear the burden of sorting such notes for destruction by the CBN. If Nigerians knew that torn notes would be replaced by banks, they won’t resort to finding ways to outsmart others into accepting such notes. They would simple compile them, and seek replacement from the banks.
Similarly, on the issue of counterfeit notes, the authorities also seem to be sleeping. Banks have special lights to defect counterfeits. However, when such notes are discovered, I doubt if the banks liaise with security operatives to trace the source of such notes. Most likely, the person who brings such notes to the bank is not the counterfeiter, hence I cannot advise the arrest of such a person who may simply be a victim. However, via questioning, such a person might recall how such notes came into his/her possession, and the authorities can trace the transfer, hopefully arriving at the original counterfeiter.
Considering the present economic realities, no one wants to be a mugu (read: loser). However, the government can create an environment where people don’t feel pressured to cheat others. We cannot keep chanting “good people, great nation”, and then allow an atmosphere where good struggles to survive. Many Nigerians know the risks associated with possessing counterfeit notes, and the fear of prosecution coupled with distaste for losing, makes Nigerians to seek ways of spending such notes, pushing the risk to others.
For things to change, the government needs to create an atmosphere that encourages openness about counterfeit notes, while also encouraging Nigerians to be on the lookout for such bills. It is up to the government to damp potential losses by honest Nigerians, and for Nigerians to think about the next person before spending notes that they themselves would not knowingly accept. If we have to cheat in order not to lose, then we have already lost.
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