Expensive Money Is Money-Spraying the Problem?

Money-spraying is not the problem and should be seen not as the lack of national pride but as a display of cultural pride: a cherished tradition that shows deep respect and appreciation for the power of music and dance. 

Editor’s note: This essay is available in our print issue, A New Chapter for African Artefacts?. Buy the issue here.

It’s been 12 years since my grandmother, Mama Aba’nla, passed away. But the memory of earning my first 10,000 naira at her funeral remains vivid. At the beginning of the occasion, family members I had not seen for several months exchanged pleasantries, before my siblings and I retreated to our ‘corner’ (each group within the family had a designated seating area, as is typical in traditional Yoruba events). The band—a lead singer and three instrumentalists—took centre stage and called different sub-groups of the family up to the stage to dance. ‘Eyin omo omo mama, e dide, e mujo (mother’s grandchildren, get up and dance)’, was the cue for about 15 of us to make our way up to the stage. I remember dancing with so much reckless abandon to the band’s rendition of ‘My Mother’ by King Sunny Ade, holding the ends of my agbada and swaying from side to side as the band leader repeated the line ‘ta lo wa ninu ogba yi, omo kekere kan ni (who’s in the garden, it’s a young child)’. Several older family members stepped up to the stage to douse us in crisp 20- and 50-naira polymer banknotes, and I danced even more vigorously, bending my knees, and dropping to the ground level from time to time to pick up my money as my parents, uncles and aunts gently placed banknotes on my head and my agbada.  

For a typical family in Ibadan, where I’ve lived for most of my life, a key part every weekend (or every other weekend for the less socially inclined) is attending celebrations to mark life’s milestones: weddings, birthday parties, burial ceremonies, you name it. Anyone who grew up in Ibadan can attest to the fact one thing all these events have in common—beyond wonderfully crafted music, radiant outfits and food worth describing as erotic—is ‘money-spraying’. During these events in southwestern Nigeria, it is common to see admirers spraying crisp, new banknotes on people as they dance and or sing.  

Money spraying is deeply embedded in the Yoruba celebration culture of owambe, but the Central Bank of Nigeria outlawed the practice in 2007. The bank declared money spraying as ‘an abuse of a symbol of national pride’ and blamed the custom for the prevalence of dirty, mutilated naira notes in the country. In addition to the CBN’s stance, the prevailing narrative on the culture of money-spraying in popular media disproportionately emphasizes words such as extravagant and flamboyant, with a certain media outlet even describing it as a ‘national embarrassment’.  

Irrespective of one’s stance on spraying culture in Nigeria, its prevalence and persistence should afford it a more critical and nuanced view, which is largely missing from media coverage today. To provide such a view, it is important to explore the history of money spraying in Nigeria, the social conditions which led to its emergence, and its role in the growth of an illegal ‘market for money’—mint market—in Nigeria.  

SO WA’N BE: THE EVOLUTION OF MONEY SPRAYING CULTURE IN NIGERIA

The Yoruba have a saying:Lai s’ilu, tani je s’ere okurugbe (without drum music, there is no way to celebrate).’  

The origins of money-spraying in Nigeria are intertwined with the rich history of traditional Yoruba music, which embodies the Yoruba culture of praise poetry, oriki. Central to the role of money spraying in modern owambe culture is juju music, a style of Yoruba popular music derived from gangan (talking drums) and percussion instruments, and which played a foundational role in the global popularity of contemporary Nigerian music. While the pioneers of juju— including Tunde King, Julius Araba, Alabi Labilu and Akanbi Wright—gained some popularity in the Lagos music scene in the 1930s, the expansion of the genre was hindered by socio-economic conditions brought about by World War II. With acute food shortages and a generally depressed economy leading to much lower disposable income, luxury events and patronage of hotels and lounges where musicians typically performed was low.  

Although juju continued to develop after the war, and musicians such as Ayinde Bakare, Tunde Nightingale and IK Dairo became popular among socialites in Lagos and Ibadan in the 1950s and 1960s, the preferred style of music amongst southern Nigerian elites in this period was highlife, with the likes of Rex Lawson, Bobby Benson and Victor Olaiya dominating the scene with hits such as ‘Sawale’ (remixed in 2010 by Flavour N’abania), ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Omopupa’.  It was this period, however, that saw a shift from the previous style of performance where musicians would sing sitting down for multiple hours to a more dynamic performance style which incorporated dancers to bridge the distance between the performers and their audience, with different juju styles such as so wa’n be (or sowambe), sabada and agidigbo gaining popularity. In line with the Yoruba praise culture, juju musicians would also panegyrize the highly respected members of the audience, who would almost subconsciously respond to the words of the singer and the talking drum by ‘spraying’ the performers with banknotes in appreciation of their showmanship.  

Driven by a combination of three main factors—a mass exodus of eastern Nigerian highlife musicians from Lagos during the 1967-1970 civil war; an expanding middle class as a resulting of the 70s’ oil boom; and the introduction of additional instruments such as pedal steel guitars at a time of increased international appetite for jazz-funk music—the predominant juju musicians in the 1970s, Ebenezer ‘Chief Commander’ Obey and King Sunny Ade, established Juju music as the dominant genre of music in Southern Nigeria and became an international phenomena, with the Chief Commander touring United Kingdom and United States in the late 1970s and King Sunny Ade performing at Glastonbury Festival and earning a Grammy nomination in 1983.  

As these musicians gained popularity, with talking drums and Yoruba praise-singing remaining at the core of their performances, money spraying became mainstream and remained a component of Fuji music, which took over after the decline of Juju in the mid-1980s. Since its inception in Nigeria, money-spraying, much like music performances, has evolved from being an activity of the rich to middle and even low-income people spraying money at their events. While more flamboyant displays of money-spraying attract more attention in popular media, the prevalence of humbler displays of this practice should serve as a reminder that it remains rooted in the Yoruba culture of appreciation and gift-giving.  

Speaking to me on the subject, Kunle Tejuoso, the owner of Lagos-based record and bookstore, Jazzhole explained:  

Like with many other things, there are extreme cases where people are abusing the culture of money spraying by showing off excessively. But when you look at the majority of cases, where people are spraying 20 and 50-naira notes, it becomes clear that it is a symbol of appreciation not a show of flamboyance. 

OWAMBE AND THE MARKET FOR MONEY IN NIGERIA

Money is expensive now. We buy it very expensive’ – ‘Mint’ vendor in Lagos State 

The CBN’s criminalization of money spraying in Nigeria is based on the perception of the practice as a contributor to the prevalence of ruined naira notes in circulation. The bank also believes that money spraying plays a role in the presence of the ‘mint’ market, where new banknotes are sold at a price higher than their face value—typically ranging from 20-30 per cent premium depending on the amount of money purchased.  

Like money spraying, trading banknotes was outlawed by the Central Bank of Nigeria Act 2007. However, the latter is more aggressively enforced, with several reports of mint vendors being arrested in the past few years and punished with either six months of prison time or a fine of N50,000. The mint vendors charge such high fees as they typically purchase these notes at about 10 per cent premium from sources higher up the value chain, such as large markets or commercial bank staff. 

In the past, it was common practice to obtain new naira notes at commercial banks in preparation for an owambe, either by following due process or leveraging ‘connections’ amongst bank staff. However, in more recent times, it has become near impossible for common people to obtain clean notes from banks, who usually report having no new banknotes available in their vaults. As a result of this, people are left to purchase these notes at a higher price from mint vendors, who typically openly advertise their services on the streets. According to the CBN’s 2020 annual report, the number of banknotes delivered from Nigerian Security Printing and Minting PLC, Nigeria’s banknote printing organization, to CBN’s branches, and subsequently to the vaults of commercial banks, has been on the rise since 2016, making absence of these new notes in banks’ vaults all the more interesting. This suggests that an overwhelmingly large proportion of new banknotes which are supposed to be delivered to banks by the CBN mysteriously ends up in the hands of mint vendors’ suppliers, whoever they may be, who capitalize on the socio-culturally driven willingness to pay for new banknotes.  

IS MONEY-SPRAYING THE PROBLEM?

The production of naira notes is rife with inefficiencies. Nigeria currently imports a large proportion of the substrate used in producing naira notes, which possibly explains the 45 per cent increase in unit note production cost between 2016 and 2020. In possibly the most astounding case of inefficiency in its currency management system, Nigeria reportedly spent N538 million on the disposal of N698 million worth of banknotes in 2020, with similar numbers recorded in the preceding years. In acknowledgement of these currency management inefficiencies in Nigeria, the CBN recently announced plans to redesign and circulate a new series of N200, N500 and N1,000 banknotes. 

While the spraying of banknotes during parties admittedly causes some damage to the notes, the difference in the state of these notes after being picked up by the designated ‘money pickers’ at these parties is a far cry from what the CBN describes as mutilated in its Clean Note Policy. Nigeria is a cash-based economy of an estimated 200 million people, with cash transactions accounting for over 95 per cent of all payments in Nigeria. As a result, each banknote exchanges hands thousands of times in its 18–24-month lifetime. For comparison, in 2015, cash payments accounted for 48 per cent of all payments in United Kingdom, where a £5 paper banknote at the time would reportedly exchange hands 258 times on average in its 24-month lifetime. The high frequency of usage is a major contributor to the unpleasant state of notes in circulation, and the growth of electronic banking and mobile money in Nigeria promises to reduce this frequency by reducing the proportion of cash-based payments.   

Rather than criminalize money-spraying culture ‘in a bid to ensure banknotes in circulation are clean and of high quality’ as the CBN has argued, perhaps it would be more effective for the apex bank to intensify the push towards electronic payments and block loopholes that make the mint market flourish.  

Money-spraying is not the problem. In fact, instead of being seen as a lack of national pride, it should be seen as a display of cultural pride. When I look back to my grandmother’s funeral, what I remember most vividly is my dance and the satisfying feeling of my family showing admiration as I strutted my stuff. After what felt like hours of dancing, the band leader called the next family sub-group and we grandchildren hopped back to our seats, smiling ear to ear, visibly proud of the performance we had just put in. Half of my 10,000-naira reward for this performance eventually went to my mother who ‘kept’ it for me, and apparently continues to keep it till this day, while the other half went to the woman at the fried-fish stall we drove past on the way back from school. The first 10,000 naira I ever received in my life came from money-spraying: a cherished tradition that shows deep respect and appreciation for the power of music and dance, the joy of owambe, the spirit of togetherness, and the love of culture

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