Godwin Emefiele, Bitt Inc. and that lavish 60th birthday bash in Jamaica, By Onyema Dike

The Central Bank of Nigeria announced that it would launch its digital currency, eNaira on October 1, 2021. It did not happen.

In a statement, explaining the change in the October 1 launch date, the apex bank said it did not want the launch in conflict with independence activities and an October 4th date was indicated. October 4 has come and gone and the best the CBN did was release guidelines for the elusive eNaira.

On Sunday October 10, 2021, the CBN announced that launch is now days away with no definite date given.

The apex bank, under incumbent Governor, Emefiele, began researching into digital currencies in 2017 but it took the growth of crypto currency transactions, the explosion of the digital economy and Nigeria’s emergence as one of the biggest digital currency markets in the world for the CBN to pay closer attention. It did not help that the organisers of the #Endsars protest facilitated their fund-raising via digital currency.

In July, the CBN Governor announced that the initiative tagged “Project Giant” was in advanced stages and that the apex bank would launch eNaira in October. A month later the apex bank announced via an August 30, 2021 statement signed by CBN’s Director Corporate Communications, Osita Nwanisobi, that it had selected a Technical Partner.  The company was identified as Bitt Inc. with headquarters in Barbados.

Bitt Inc. which hails itself as the Caribbean’s leading authority on digital currencies and was, according to the CBN, “key to the development and successful launch of the central bank digital currency (CBDC) pilot of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB) in April 2021.”

The statement noted further that “the CBN’s selection of Bitt Inc, from among highly competitive bidders, was hinged on the company’s “technological competence, efficiency, platform security, interoperability, and implementation experience.”

The CBN, in the same statement, listed the benefits of a digital currency “to include increased cross-border trade, accelerated financial inclusion, cheaper and faster remittance inflows, easier targeted social interventions, as well as improvements in monetary policy effectiveness, payment systems efficiency, and tax collection.”

With the eNaira website now live and launch date unknown, many are asking questions especially in the light of what appears to be the opaque nature of the transaction and rush in picking a partner; when was the expression of interest made? Why was a Nigerian FinTech company not considered especially given the widespread feeling by Nigerian youth about the CBN’s war on tech and also since working with a local company could have been an opportunity to prove this wrong.

But let’s assume that no Nigerian company was good enough, what do we really know about Bitt Inc? What are the terms and size of the contract? What will be the CBN’s stake in the planned Bitt Inc. Nigeria? How experienced can a company that launched its first digital currency as a pilot in April 2021 really be?

One of the reasons the CBN gave for choosing Bitt Inc.  was that it successfully launched  the central bank digital currency (CBDC) pilot of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank (ECCB) in April 2021.”

What the CBN failed to say is that the member countries that make up the ECCB have a total population of about 700,000 (seven hundred thousand) which is less than the aggregated  population of  Ikeja and Agege.

How can such a company implement a digital currency for a country of 200 million people with active bank accounts put at 79.3 million according to 2019 estimates?

The questions have become strident following delay in launch and September 17, 2020 news reports that the CBN Governor has denied speculations that he is the owner of Bitt Inc. The CBN governor is quoted as saying “Bitt Inc. would establish that company in Nigeria and the CBN would own a majority stake in the company. So it is not my company as people have said.”

The speculations have gained ground with many noting that the CBN governor’s lavish 60th birthday bash at Montego Bay, on the Island of Jamaica in early August 2021 might have been as much a business event as it was a social one.

The story which was broken by Sahara Reporters on August 10, 2021 noted that “the lavish display of wealth by Emefiele and the bankers is in sharp contrast with the sorry state of the Nigerian economy reeling under more than $33billion foreign debts and the unstable banking sector which Emefiele superintends. “Some big boys and Emefiele were at Montego Bay, Jamaica, last weekend to celebrate his 60th birthday. They flew there quietly with their private jets. The party was organised and held in secret to keep it away from prying eyes,” a source stated.”

With the CBN announcing the selection of Bitt Inc. a mere three weeks after the party, many are wondering whether the party was a cover for a questionable business transaction as well as a no expense spared birthday bash by a key public figure at a time when the common Nigerian is struggling to make ends meet and can no longer afford even the most basic food items not to talk of a slice of birthday cake.