In a letter dated 5th of February 2021, the Central Bank of Nigeria directed all banks and other regulated financial institutions to “identify persons and/or entities transacting in or operating crypto currency exchanges within their systems and ensure that such accounts are closed immediately”.
The agency also stated that failure to comply with this directive would attract “severe regulatory sanctions”.
On the wake of this circular by the CBN, banks and other financial institutions have sung into action to comply, cutting off crypto exchanges and blocking crypto transactions through their channels. This has thrown hitches in the wheels of not a few fintech startups and services operating in Nigeria.
Some of the direct victims include crypto services Luno, and Paxful. Indirect victims are virtual account providers Monnify and Providus, as well as fintech startups, like Migo, PiggyVest and CowryWise, which have no direct crypto currency links but use their infrastructure to provide financial services.
Direct crypto exchanges and platforms are scrambling to provide alternative funding channels, while non-crypto services that are affected indirectly are already routing their services through new partners who are not affected by the CBN directive.
In all of of these, there have been various speculations on why CBN blocked crypto currency transactions in the country.
The Central Bank has now released a press statement explaining why it took the decision. Below are excerpts from the release:
For those who are not conversant with the universe of cryptocurrencies, it is important to state that Cryptocurrencies are digital or virtual currencies issued by largely anonymous entities and secured by cryptography. Cryptography is a method of encrypting and hiding codes that prevent oversight, accountability, and regulation. While there are a number of cryptocurrencies now in circulation, Bitcoin was the first to be introduced in 2009, and now accounts for about 68 percent of all cryptocurrencies.
As regards our recent policy pronouncement, it is important to clarify that the CBN circular of February 5, 2021 did not place any new restrictions on cryptocurrencies, given that all banks in the country had earlier been forbidden, through CBN’s circular dated January 12, 2017, not to use, hold, trade and/or transact in cryptocurrencies . Indeed, this position was reiterated in another CBN Press Release dated February 27, 2018.
First, in light of the fact that they are issued by unregulated and unlicensed entities, their use in Nigeria goes against the key mandates of the CBN, as enshrined in the CBN Act (2007), as the issuer of legal tender in Nigeria. In effect, the use of cryptocurrencies in Nigeria are a direct contravention of existing law. It is also important to highlight that there is a critical difference between a Central Bank issued Digital Currency and cryptocurrencies. As the names imply, while Central Banks can issue Digital Currencies, cryptocurrencies are issued by unknown and unregulated entities.
Second, the very name and nature of “cryptocurrencies” suggests that its patrons and users value anonymity, obscurity, and concealment. The question that one may need to ask therefore is, why any entity would disguise its transactions if they were legal. It is on the basis of this opacity that cryptocurrencies have become well-suited for conducting many illegal activities including money laundering, terrorism financing, purchase of small arms and light weapons, and tax evasion.
Indeed, many banks and investors who place a high value on reputation have been turned off from cryptocurrencies because of the damaging effects of the widespread use of cryptocurrencies for illegal activities. In fact, the role of cryptocurrencies in the purchase of hard and illegal drugs on the darknet website called “Silk Road” is well known.
They have also been recent reports that cryptocurrencies have been used to finance terror plots, further damaging its image as a legitimate means of exchange.
More also, repeated and recent evidence now suggests that some cryptocurrencies have become more widely used as speculative assets rather than as means of payment, thus explaining the significant volatility and variability in their prices.
Because the total number of Bitcoins that would ever be issued is fixed (only 21 million will ever be created), new issuances are predetermined at a gradually decelerating pace. This limited supply has created a perverse incentive that encourages users to stockpile them in the hope that their prices rise. Unfortunately, with a conglomeration of desperate, disparate, and unregulated actors comes unprecedented price volatility that have threatened many sophisticated financial systems. In fact, the price of ether, one of the largest cryptocurrencies in the world, fell from US$320 to US$0.10 in June 2017. The price of Bitcoins has also suffered similar volatilities.