After four years of development, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) is set to roll out its digital currency project. The launch will reportedly happen on the occasion of the country’s 61st Independence Day celebration on Oct. 1.
Nigeria’s central bank digital currency (CBDC) project comes amid significant anti-crypto policies from the CBN and negative cryptocurrency sentiments from several government officials. The digital naira is also coming at a time when its fiat counterpart has plunged to new lows, with the central bank enacting even tighter forex restrictions.
Details of the eNaira project circulated across commercial banks in the country show plans for strict identity verification mandates for utilizing the digital currency. The CBN plans to introduce a tiered ID verification system with different transaction limits for each tranche.
With CBDCs seen as governments’ response to cryptos and privately-issued stablecoins across the globe, there are concerns that more anti-cryptocurrency laws may emerge in Nigeria. Indeed, China upscaled its crypto crackdown activities as soon as its digital currency project moved into the public testing arena.
Bitcoin (BTC) adoption in Nigeria continues to expand, as cryptocurrencies offer easier remittance vehicles especially for the country’s diaspora population in supporting relatives and loved ones back home. Crypto also offers a means for the upwardly mobile and tech-savvy younger population to shield their wealth from the rapid debasement of the naira.
CBN selects Bitt Inc
As previously reported by Cointelegraph, the CBN selected Bitt Inc, a Barbados-based fintech outfit, as its technology partner for its CBDC project. According to the CBN, Bitt’s role in the development of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank’s DCash digital currency project played a significant role in its decision to select the company.
In a press release issued on Aug. 30, the CBN identified Bitt’s “technological competence, efficiency, platform security, interoperability, and implementation experience” as among the reasons why the Barbadian tech company was the best candidate for the job. Indeed, Bitt was among 15 companies evaluated by the central bank for the tech partner role in the eNaira project.
All 15 companies in the evaluation process were reportedly accessed based on criteria such as Anti-Money Laundering protocols, technological efficiency, adoption, systems security architecture, and CBDC implementation experience, among others. Cointelegraph’s findings show that Bitt emerged with an aggregate score of about 82%, which was the highest among the 15 contenders.
Bitt was also the only company to score about 80% and was among only two firms with relevant experience in live CBDC operations. This fact also reportedly played into the sandbox evaluation stage conducted by the evaluators under Nigeria’s Public Procurement Act.
The CBN will likely be looking to leverage Bitt’s experience in the national digital currency space as well as the company’s CBDC management protocols to establish its eNaira project. Bitt has reportedly licensed its Digital Currency Management System to the CBN for the eNaira CBDC project.
While launching DCash back in April, Bitt CEO Brian Popelka identified the baked-in interoperability protocols in the design of the Eastern Caribbean CBDC. These features may likely prove pivotal in the central bank’s efforts to foster easier remittance flows for Nigerians using the eNaira digital currency.
Proposed eNaira operations
While announcing Bitt as its technology partner for the eNaira project, the CBN highlighted the “unmistakable” global CBDC trend among central banks. Indeed, matters relating to sovereign digital currencies are now commonplace among central banks, with some countries already conducting pilot studies on CBDCs.
In late August, the CBN reportedly sent a 57-page sensitization document to commercial banks in the country detailing proposed operating models for the eNaira project. According to a copy of the draft guidelines seen by Cointelegraph, Nigeria’s CBDC, dubbed “Project Giant,” is designed to act as a complementary form of legal tender to the country’s fiat. As such, the eNaira will maintain parity of value with the naira but will function as a non-interest-bearing CBDC.
In terms of the operating model for the eNaira, the CBN has reportedly proposed a hierarchical structure for the CBDC with the central bank at the apex of the pyramid, servicing financial institutions and government agencies that, in turn, provide the digital currency to merchants and retail consumers. Based on the draft guidelines, the CBN is looking to onboard both banked and unbanked Nigerians.
At least a third of Nigeria’s adult population is reportedly unbanked, with the CBN’s June 2018 estimate putting the figure closer to 37%. Of the over 47 million verified bank account holders in Nigeria, only a third are reported to be active in terms of banking transactions, possibly indicating that the majority of the country’s addressable market is still largely underbanked.
While the CBN appears keen to broaden the scope of financial access in the country with the eNaira project, the CBDC will employ a tiered identity verification model with a transaction limit attached to each tranche. According to the sensitization document, Tier 1 (the unbanked) will have to provide National Identity Verified phone numbers as well as other ID documents to qualify.
As previously reported by Cointelegraph, Tier 1 will have a 50,000 naira ($120) daily transaction limit. Existing bank account holders will fall under Tier 2 and Tier 3, with the distinction being the extent of their ID verification process.
Tier 2 and Tier 3 will have daily transaction limits of 200,000 naira ($487) and 1 million naira ($2,438), respectively. Beyond Tier 3 are merchants with a similar daily limit, but entities in this group will reportedly have no restriction on the amount of eNaira that can be withdrawn to their bank accounts daily.
CBN’s crypto ban
In February, the CBN banned banks and other financial institutions from servicing crypto exchanges in the country. As a result, Nigerian cryptocurrency traders are unable to fund trading accounts from their banks.
At the time, the central bank clarified that the move was not geared toward prohibiting crypto trading in Nigeria but to prevent the flow of cryptocurrencies within the country’s banking sector. In subsequent Senate hearings after the fact, some lawmakers agreed with the CBN’s position, saying Bitcoin had made the naira almost useless.
Since the ban, several commentators in the crypto and broader fintech space have argued that the prohibition does more harm than good. With the CBN moving to roll out its CBDC, there are concerns that even more stringent anti-crypto policies might be on the horizon.
In a conversation with Cointelegraph, Chiagozie Iwu, CEO of Nigerian crypto exchange platform Naijacrypto, said that the emergence of harsher anti-crypto laws was a possibility, stating:
“Yes, we expect the CBN to champion even more anti-crypto policies, as it is clear it sees crypto as a hindrance to its monetary policy objectives even though data confirms that as a fallacy. Every crypto company in Nigeria should innovate ways to work within a restrictive system and think about jurisdictional changes.”
Fears over a possible crypto crackdown appear to be hinged on the expectation that Nigeria may follow China’s footsteps in restricting cryptocurrencies in the wake of its own CBDC. Indeed, the CBN has previously highlighted policies enacted by the authorities in China and India as a justification for its anti-crypto stance.
For Iwu, Nigeria’s crypto community must pivot toward jurisdictional independence to prevent being caught under restrictive government policies. “Crypto by its nature is decentralized, the push towards more decentralized methods of utilizing blockchain innovations should be the primary push,” Iwu added.