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The Life And Times Of The Woman On The Fifty Naira Note
The naira is the official currency of Nigeria and one of the symbols of its nationhood. First issued in 1973, this currency has seen several devaluations over the years but more importantly, it has been deployed to honour some of the Nigeria’s past heroes. However, this important national symbol has also been used to reinforce age-old patriarchy through the sheer proportion of male portraits that grace the naira especially the fifty naira banknote
By Kolawole Talabi
In 1991, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) issued a new denomination of the naira, Nigeria’s official currency and legal tender for transactions within the country. Within months of its circulation, the newly minted denomination had humorously assumed a new denotation on the streets. Nigerians, surprisingly, dubbed the blue-hued banknote ‘Better Life’ in a period when the country had barely recovered from the economic woes of IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme despite the estimated $12 billion oil windfall of the Gulf War.
Since average incomes and the accompanying standard of living had fallen due to the prolonged austerity, why then did struggling Nigerians dub the new banknote ‘Better Life’?
Although life was not better in Lagos or Asaba, the country’s first lady at that time – Maryam Babangida- had ceremoniously embarked on a financial jamboree purportedly towards uplifting Nigerian women out of poverty. Launched in 1987, two years after her husband seized power in a military coup, Mrs Babangida’s welfare project was called the Better Life Programme for Rural Women and amongst its noble objectives was “raising the consciousness of the rights of women, the availability of opportunities and facilities, their social, political and economic responsibilities.”
The ‘Better Life’ tag has since stuck to the fifty naira note. Even though the Central Bank of Nigeria has issued four higher denominations since 1991, no other banknote has had such metonymic appellation as the fifty naira banknote. Regardless of the sentiments of good fortune which it inspired, the fifty naira bill has a rather ugly side that most Nigerians, especially women, have not taken note of. Whether my accident or intention, the fifty naira banknote is an affront to the dignity of Nigerian women with which it supposedly shares a convoluted history.
Designed to inspire feelings of nationalism that is rooted in the equality of Nigeria’s different ethnicities, four culturally relevant portraits which depict Nigeria’s diversity appear on the fifty naira. On the reverse side of the banknote, another set of portraits showcasing the industry of Nigerians appear with three men engaged in fishing, an economic activity that is predominant in rural areas. Both sides of this banknote seem to appeal to Nigerians to embrace diversity and industry as a means to peace and progress. Unfortunately, this is where the good story ends and the sad one begins.
At a closer look, the fifty naira note is very much a symbolic expression of the entrenched patriarchy in Nigeria’s postcolonial society. Out of the seven portraits on the fifty naira, only one is female. As a matter of fact, the fifty naira has been reissued once since its initial launch in the early 1990s. In the first design, the lone woman on the front occupies the central portion of the banknote. Despite being outnumbered by her male ‘counterparts’, she appeared as a key figure in the designer’s attempt to symbolise Nigeria’s unity in diversity.
By the time the fifty naira was redesigned in the 2000s, her portrait had been moved to the left margin of the note. Now, it seemed that she appears as a fixture on the margins of Nigerian society. This subtle change in the design of this particular banknote is an example of the inequality that the average woman faces in Africa’s most populous country and economic powerhouse.
Despite their contributions to Nigeria’s advancement, women are still assigned provincial roles in state affairs and they are overwhelmingly discriminated against in many facets of our national life.
National symbols such as currencies convey nuanced feelings of the significance a society places on its past and present icons. Globally, progressive nations have used women figures as portraits on their currency to commemorate the roles which they have played in history. Queen Elizabeth II graces the British pound and Evita Peron is an immanent feature on the Argentine peso. The recent decision by the US government to put Harriett Tubman on the twenty dollar bill is a testament of the political will that recognizes the contribution of a black woman to America’s greatness.
In Nigeria, this hasn’t been the case. In fact, just one of the nine currently used denominations of the naira bears the portrait of a woman on its front. The naira has thus been used to reinforce the inequality that exists between the genders. Mrs Babangida and her successors (about seven since her husband was forced to step down in 1993) have all missed an opportunity to use their status to campaign for redesigning the naira to drive the narrative for gender equality and also, call for a rethinking of issues that afflict women at the margins of society.
Despite being a signatory to the Maputo Protocol, Nigeria merely pays lip service to the rights of women to social and political equality with men. Since 2005 when Nigeria ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, the Central Bank of Nigeria has issued another banknote—the thousand naira banknote and the naira’s highest denomination. Like its precedents, the thousand naira note is graced by men. In, fact the 1000-naira bill has the portraits of two men—former governors of the apex bank.
Even the roll call of past and present governors of CBN is overwhelmingly male. Out of the 12 chief executives who served the bank since its establishment 58 years ago, only one is a woman -Sarah Alade. And she merely served in an acting capacity. What is more, Alade served the shortest tenure of all her predecessors and eventual successor, Godwin Emefiele. Like the woman on the fifty naira banknote, her stint at the top was a footnote that was quickly turned to make room for a man. The story of the woman on the 50-naira bill is the story of most Nigerian women.
Despite the ‘good intentions’ enshrined in the lofty goals of the Better Life programme, the social conditions of rural women in Nigeria hasn’t really improved since its launch almost 30 years ago. Today, Nigeria ranks 125 on the gender equality index of the UNDP. Moreover, the successes of the welfare project have been overshadowed by the fact that the founder’s husband, General Ibrahim Babangida, the self-styled military president, institutionalized public sector corruption in all tiers of the governance in a country that was recently described as “fantastically corrupt”.
Instead of eliminating gender inequality in Nigeria’s political structure, we have created a cabinet-level women’s ministry that does nothing more than reinforce the superiority of men. Nigeria has not really made life any better for its rural women; rather, we have allowed them to become appendages of their husbands. Rural women engage in farming and produce food for the nation yet they own less land than men. The role of women as primary caregivers is unquestionably stamped into the national conscience but their contributions to national output are greatly downplayed.
As a state party to the Maputo Protocol, Nigeria has many obligations which the country must perform with regards to the rights of women. It is not enough to create quotas for women in the legislature or offer them executive appointments which only fill gaps when and where men are unavailable. We must engender a culture of equality right from birth. We must value our girls as much as we do the boys. Whilst this is a long journey, we can begin to take the first steps of feminizing our national symbols of which the naira is major.