Beware The CBN Act And The Frumious Bandersnatch By Ifeanyi Uddin

The CBN Act 2007’s declaration of the naira’s abuse as verboten, however, goes beyond jurisprudential worries. As law, the act has a fundamental design flaw. Intriguingly, this is not because parts of the Act are written in pidgin English. Section 21 of the CBN Act, the most prominent of these, prescribes imprisonment for six months and or a N50,000 fine for anyone who, at social occasions, sprays, dances to, or “matches” on the naira. Now, to “spray” and “dance on” the naira are familiar activities, which the Act goes on to define in words that most Nigerians would be familiar with, if not as enamoured of, as would be our party goers.

Beware The CBN Act And The Frumious Bandersnatch By Ifeanyi Uddin

It would seem that despite lofty declarations to the contrary in its enabling statute, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) recently owned up to the impossibility of enforcing its strictures on the abuse at social functions of the national currency. In the CBN’s difficulty, most commentators see a problem of jurisprudence. Why, for instance, do we as a people continue to make laws that we have no intention of enforcing? Is there a way in which such laws (dead on arrival, as they frequently are) reinforce the negative feedback loop between governments that struggle to deliver on their mandates and a populace deeply leery of politicians?

The recent update to traffic laws in Lagos State falls within the ambit of these questions. The ban, for instance, on vehicles belching smoke from their exhaust fails to accommodate the fact that commercial public transportation in the state comprises vehicles whose engines are past their best-before dates. Enforce this law as it stands, and the disruption to life in the State will be as unparalleled as it would be expensive.

Of course, you get the feeling that our Solons are aware of this dilemma. In which case, might our laws, then, serve a different purpose? In the case of Lagos State’s traffic laws, look to the design of the penalties. These are so high. And infractions so rampant, that the structure of penalties can only help bid up bribes paid by those who fall foul of the law. The State may be diminished thereby, but its agents, who help scofflaws get around the laws, are elevated daily.

The CBN Act 2007’s declaration of the naira’s abuse as verboten, however, goes beyond jurisprudential worries. As law, the act has a fundamental design flaw. Intriguingly, this is not because parts of the Act are written in pidgin English. Section 21 of the CBN Act, the most prominent of these, prescribes imprisonment for six months and or a N50,000 fine for anyone who, at social occasions, sprays, dances to, or “matches” on the naira. Now, to “spray” and “dance on” the naira are familiar activities, which the Act goes on to define in words that most Nigerians would be familiar with, if not as enamoured of, as would be our party goers.

But to “match on” the naira? Whether as verb or as noun, “match” is exhausted by two possibilities: congruence and competition. Accordingly, ideas in congruence are said to “match”. And two football teams competing for a cup/shield usually do so in a “match”. Neither of which senses applies to anything Nigerians do to the naira at the many parties they organise. Until that is, you read the Act’s clarification, this phrasing is something of a mystery. According to the Act, “‘Matching’ includes spreading, scattering, or littering of any surface with any naira notes or coins and stepping thereon regardless of the volume, value, occasion, or intent”.

Only then does it hit you. “Satan don fall for ground, ooo! March am! March am!” There is no evidence that the Act was put together by a Pentecostal Christian ― or groups thereof. But clearly the link between the sense of “marching” in this Pentecostal Christian chorus and its usage in the CBN Act is linear. Significantly, one of the many definitions of “march” is the steady movement of a human over a distance. This is something armies do very well. And from the military it is that the image from which the use of the word “march” in pidgin English derives ― the steady rising and falling of the feet as soldiers do their thing.

Wags would consider it odd that parts of a statute as important as that governing central banking in Nigeria is rendered in pidgin English. And that in itself would not be right. Could the rendition in pidgin English be a subtle dig at those who look down on our vernacular, even as they prioritise English? There is absolutely no reason, for example, why our statutes are not translated into the languages that our people speak daily. If anything, this would help build higher levels of trust in a system that can do with massive dollops of it,

Unfortunately, the malapropism that has the Central Bank of Nigeria substitute “match” for “march” in its act points to a deeper problem ― one that would be lost in translation. That the drafters of this Act actually believed that to “march on the naira” is a phrasing worthy of a local statute is far less troubling than the fact that in their “anyhowness” they could not tell the difference between “match” and “march”. No surprise, therefore, that we cannot seriously charge anyone with “matching on the naira”. As a phrase, it is nonsense worthy of Lewis Caroll’s “Through The Looking Glass”. Of the same vintage with the Jabberwock, the Jubjub bird, and the Frumious Bandersnatch.

Uddin Ifeanyi, journalist manqué and retired civil servant

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