In January 2021, on a mission to provide an intercommunity approach to blockchain technology adoption towards achieving a more collaborative, innovative, and safer blockchain ecosystem in Nigeria, the Blockchain Industry Coordinating Committee of Nigeria (BICCoN) was formed in January 2021. Little did we know that the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) had other plans—cut out the entire cryptocurrency industry from Nigeria’s banking and financial system. Shocking. This is coming at a time when industry stakeholders have been working closely with the Nigerian government on the proposed National Blockchain Adoption Strategy and the treatment and classification of digital assets in Nigeria’s capital market.
On 13 February 2021, BICCoN issued a press release responding to the CBN circular of 5 February 2021 and press statement of 7 February 2021. Below is an abridged version:
- Nigeria’s blockchain & crypto industry is shocked by the directive in the CBN circular.
Firstly, it is with shock that the emerging blockchain & crypto industry in Nigeria received the news of the directive in the CBN circular of 5 February 2021.
Secondly, the CBN circular of February 5, 2021 did not a mere reiteration of the CBN circular of 12 January 2017. The 12 January 2017 letter prohibited DMBs, NBFIs, and OFIs from using, holding, trading and/or transacting in cryptocurrencies but the CBN permitted these DMBs, NBFIs, and OFIs to provide banking services and other financial services to virtual currency exchangers/customers subject to ensuring that these exchangers/customers have effective Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (AML/CFT) controls. The latest circular completely cuts out the entire crypto industry from access to banking and other financial services in Nigeria.
Thirdly, though the CBN as the financial industry regulator has the statutory authority to delimit banking operations, ordering banks and other financial institutions to close or freeze accounts and discontinue relationships with customers involved cryptocurrencies may not be supported by law. This is because there is currently no legislation by the National Assembly criminalizing or illegalizing trade in cryptocurrency in Nigeria. Therefore, it is questionable whether the CBN has the statutory power to order the (permanent) closure or freezing of these accounts. These are the accounts of an entire emerging industry being closed by virtue of their involvement in cryptocurrency trading or services, a lawful business. By the way, the CBN circular—while shocking and disappointing—should have at least stipulated a reasonable period within which affected customers’ accounts should be closed.
Lastly, the CBN’s sudden and drastic directive was neither without any prior engagement with industry players nor notice.
- Emerging technologies, financial technology (FinTech), blockchain, cryptocurrency, bitcoin, and adoption across the world
The 4th Industrial Revolution is driven by technological innovations, including emerging technologies. These emerging technologies include artificial intelligence, Big Data, blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT), quantum computing, and others. In a data-driven global economy, blockchain technology will increasingly play a key role. Regulators should be manifestly seen leveraging on innovative technologies to boost Nigeria’s global competitiveness through regulatory approaches that make our investment climate friendly.
- The growth of Nigeria’s crypto industry to No. 1 in Africa and a global leader in terms of crypto adoption and market volume
Nigeria is Africa’s largest cryptocurrency market and one of the world’s fastest-growing cryptocurrency markets in terms of bitcoin volume at the time of writing this statement. In 2020, estimates from BuyCoins showed that total volumes of bitcoin traded in Nigeria stood at $200 million monthly. According to Useful Tulips, Nigeria’s daily trading volume of over $2.8 million on Paxful, a peer-to-peer bitcoin marketplace, tops the rest of African countries, with South Africa ranking over $400,000 and Kenya ranking over $700,000.
By mid-November 2020, according to Coin Dance, a crypto-statistics platform, Nigeria has traded 60,215 bitcoins ($566 million) in the last 5 years. This figure represents the second largest volume on Paxful, next to the United States. As captured by Quartz Africa, since May 2015 to mid-November 2020, bitcoin trade in Nigeria has increased at a minimum yearly rate of 19% in volume since 2017.
In the wake of the CBN circular, crypto trading in Nigeria is expected to be pushed to peer-to-peer crypto platforms, a decentralized world further away from regulation.
- The crypto industry’s contributions to Nigeria’s economy and competitiveness on the global crypto maps
- Stimulation of Economic Activity: From local and foreign crypto-wallet services to crypto exchanges; crypto-remittance services to crypto investments; crypto education services to crypto advisory services, the crypto industry in Nigeria has witnessed growth particularly in the last 4 years.
- Enabling and expanding financial inclusion: Cryptocurrencies are enabling and expanding access to finance to millions of people across Africa, including Nigeria. With relatively high fees, poor digital identity, and low trust in the traditional financial system, cryptocurrencies particularly Decentralized Finance (DeFi), an open, community-driven, and peer-to-peer alternative to centralized finance (CeFi), offer amazing opportunities for enabling and expanding financial inclusion in Nigeria.
- Job creation: In a number of the local and global brands in the industry, Nigerians are chief executive officers (CEOs), chief technology officers (CTOs), country directors, marketing managers, community managers, legal & compliance officers, etc. Local blockchain & crypto authors, educators, forensic experts, journalists, lawyers, presenters, programmers, reporters, researchers, software developers, writers, etc. have also emerged, bringing about an ecosystem of innovation, collaboration, and growth.
- Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs): Apart from funding through Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), a number of foreign-owned crypto businesses carry out business in Nigeria. A number of Nigerian crypto startups get funding through foreign investors or from Nigerians in Diaspora. While regulation will help Nigeria take better stock of blockchain- and crypto-related FDIs into Nigeria, banning will most likely limit it to the informal economy.
- Equipping and empowering the knowledge economy: From zero blockchain developers in Nigeria a few years ago, the country now has a number of indegenous blockchain developers, thanks to investments in learning and capacity building in blockchain technology and development.
- Social developments: A number of crypto brands in the space, through their charitable and philanthropic initiatives, continue to contribute to education, healthcare, and poverty alleviation in the country.
- Legitimate threats and risks of cryptocurrency adoption and the regulatory approach to mitigating them
We acknowledge the CBN’s critical role in the Nigerian financial system and the Nigerian economy. As responsible industry stakeholders, we also acknowledge the risks that transacting in cryptocurrencies portend, such as illicit fund flows, money laundering, terrorism financing, and other criminal activities. However considerable the risks cryptocurrencies portend may be, these risks are not peculiar to cryptocurrencies. Fiat currencies continue to be used globally to fund the same fraudulent and illegal activities. Compared to cryptocurrency-related crimes, the latter is titanic. The problem therefore is not the cryptocurrency or the fiat currency, but the actors and users of cryptocurrency and fiat currency. And this is where a risk-based regulation comes in.
While the CBN has made some strong points about the threats and risks associated with cryptocurrencies, we believe that if supplied with a superior argument based on the latest knowledge on blockchain technology, its application to cryptocurrencies, and recent developments on innovation, policy, and regulation across the world, the CBN might reconsider most of its position on the threats and risks associated with cryptocurrencies. Our position regarding this is contained in our full press release.
- Opportunities Nigeria and Nigerians will miss with the CBN ban and unintended negative consequences
We appeal to the CBN to review its position. The CBN circular is capable of setting Nigeria’s global competitiveness as leading crypto industry back by at least 5 years..
If not reviewed or reversed, the CBN hostile policy may make Nigeria lose out on the following opportunities:
- Become a powerhouse for global blockchain & crypto industry, attracting investments into the country and creating jobs for the ever-growing young and innovative population of Nigeria;
- Boost remittances to Nigeria by adopting an innovative, risk-based regulation of cryptocurrencies in other to better capture cryptocurrency inflows into the country;
- Become a business-friendly hub for blockchain & crypto innovations from all across Africa;
- Leverage on cryptocurrencies to enable and expand financial inclusion in the country;
- Encourage and challenge Nigeria to invest in research in blockchain & cryptocurrency use cases in the financial services industry, including cross-border transactions, clearing and settlements; crowdfunding; credit reporting; digital identity verification against fraud; stock exchange and share trading; syndicated lending; accounting, bookkeeping, and audit; peer-to-peer transfers; and trade finance platforms;
- Encourage and challenge Nigeria to invest in learning, capacity building, and development, underscoring the need for a national blockchain policy in order to achieve economic competitiveness; and
- Make Nigeria better prepared and positioned for a new global system of CBDCs, stablecoins, and other applications of blockchain & cryptocurrency innovations.
If not reviewed or reversed, the CBN ban may have the following unintended consequences:
- Eventual death of centralized cryptocurrency exchanges in Nigeria, particularly indigenous cryptocurrency exchanges who should be getting regulatory support to become globally competitive;
- Job losses, directly and indirectly;
- Stifling crypto innovations across the entire ecosystem;
- Limiting crypto trading to wholly unregulated decentralized platforms where unenlightened and unsuspecting members of the public will be more vulnerable to scams, making the Nigerian crypto space a den of criminals;
- Pushing all crypto-based remittances to the informal economy, away from the formal economy that would have benefited the country;
- Cutting out transaction fees for DMBs, NDMBs, and OFIs who should be facilitating cryptocurrency transactions for customers who wish to buy or sell cryptocurrencies or other virtual assets through centralized exchanges;
- Cutting out centralized cryptocurrency exchanges who are the traditional gateway to the cryptocurrency world and who should be the most reliable ally to regulators for the purpose of AML/CFT regulations and customer identification, verification, and monitoring;
- Practically illegalizing and criminalizing cryptocurrency trading and cryptocurrency exchange services, resulting in further discrimination, harrassment, extortions, and unlawful arrests by ill-advised, unethical, and opportunist law-enforcement officers;
- Opening DMBs, NDMBs, and OFIs to avoidable litigations in a country where justice administration continues to suffer the plague of delayed justice, lack of rule of law, and lack of trust in the judicial system;
- Foreign blockchain & crypto businesses will move out of Nigeria to other countries where the business and investment climate is less hostile or more friendly to crypto innovations;
- A number of indigenous blockchain & crypto businesses will shut down completely while others may explore setting up their businesses offshore, costing Nigeria not only loss of income but also loss of its talents to other countries;
- Increase in cybercrimes due to lack of economic opportunities available to young people to channel their energy, innovation, and talents positively; and
- many more.
We should not send an emerging and legitimate industry to an unregulated market but develop the regulations needed. Also, rather than shut cryptocurrency exchanges out of the banking and financial system, the CBN should consider integrating these cryptocurrency exchanges into its risk-management system. This will ensure that relevant regulators have effective control and management of cryptocurrency transactions in the financial system. BICCoN is open to working with the CBN to help drive the implementation of such risk-management policies in the crypto industry.
- Availability of industry stakeholders for a dialogue with the CBN in Nigeria’s best interest
While we commend the CBN for its innovations in the areas of payment systems, open banking, and regulatory sandbox for innovative financial products, we appeal to the CBN to adopt a risk-based regulation, not an outright ban on DMBs, NBFIs, and OFIs from providing its services to Africa’s no. 1 crypto industry by volume and a leading market in the world.
We are available for a dialogue with the CBN. We are ready to work with the CBN to ensure that its management of the risks of cryptocurrencies do not affect the stability of Nigeria’s financial system.
Also, with the National Assembly’s intervention in this vital matter, we at BICCoN will be happy to appear before the Committees on Banking, Insurance and other Financial Institutions, ICT and Cybercrimes, and Capital Market set up to determine the opportunities and threats of cryptocurrency on the nation’s economy and security.
The CBN crypto policy in Nigeria—however well-intended—is an attempted abortion in the 9th month.