Nigerians are some of the most prolific users of crypto worldwide. Uptake has been swift and cryptocurrencies – typically via peer-to-peer (P2P) networks – are used for everyday transactions countrywide.
Crypto has had a difficult history in Nigeria, but the sector is shaking off its association with scams and Ponzi schemes, and is on a path towards becoming a regulated element of the financial sector.
At the end of 2023, the central bank lifted its ban on banks operating accounts for crypto service providers, signalling a shift towards a more open, but regulated approach, something that is welcomed by many local crypto users.
Yes. The government lifted its ban on crypto in December 2023. The Nigerian Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reversed its stance, prompting the Central Bank to release guidelines for banks opening cryptocurrency accounts in January 2024.
This about-face has been seen as a reflection of at least two key issues: that a ban hasn’t worked (Nigerians are the world’s second-largest users of cryptocurrencies), and secondly, that such a large and developing market offers commercial opportunities.
Cryptocurrencies have overcome considerable bad press in Nigeria, with their popularity helping to counter their associations as a tool for scammers, and particularly well-known rogue digital currency investments like OneCoin and Mavrodi Mudial Moneybox (MMM).
Although the scams and ‘get rich quick’ schemes continue, crypto’s benefits, particularly P2P, underpin its popularity. According to Chainalysis’ 2023 Global Crypto Adoption Index, Nigeria ranked first globally for P2P exchange trade volumes and second overall for crypto adoption.
What is crypto’s appeal in Nigeria?
As with other countries where cryptocurrency take up has been strong, Nigerians are keen to protect the value of their money. Inflation is high, in December recording a 27-year high in the face of rising food costs. In June 2023, the central bank allowed the fiat to trade freely, prompting a drop in its value of more than 40% in the period to November. Alongside this, there are foreign exchange shortages. These three factors combine to increase the appeal of cryptocurrencies.
Additionally, money transfers in and out of the country incur high costs for those using the traditional banking system, which for Nigerians who are heavily reliant on remittance payments, makes cryptocurrency with its lower costs and swift transaction times, a much more appealing alternative. More than $20 billion-worth of remittances flowed into Nigeria in 2022, highlighting the value of a lower cost money transfer option. A 2023 World Bank study of remittances flowing into Nigeria and other sub-Saharan nations revealed fees as high as 36% for every $200 sent from overseas. Concurrently, crypto exchanges typically charge a fraction of this amount.
Was crypto an election issue for Nigeria in 2023?
Yes. The regulator and central bank’s change in stance has been welcomed and reflects comments President Bola Tinubu made during his election campaign in 2023. During electioneering he pledged to have the Nigerian SEC review regulations to make them more crypto friendly, and said that he wanted Nigeria to “take greater advantage of relatively recent innovations, such as blockchain technology.”
In this respect, there has been a sense that the Nigerian government was missing out on developing this burgeoning sector, one that could boost an economy facing difficulties, and potentially offer the government tax returns. A report by the Global Blockchain Business Council suggests that greater Bitcoin adoption in the region would support remittances, inbound payments to remote workers, and Bitcoin mining, generating sufficient revenue to solve the continent’s balance of payment problems.
The authorities have undergone a shift in thinking, as evidenced in the tangible changes made in the latest guidelines. These include the provision of licensing information for VASPs allowing them to operate bank accounts in the country.
Expanding crypto services in Nigeria: Yellow Card and Zone’s strategic moves
It has also been announced that the continent’s first licensed blockchain payment infrastructure company, Zone, will launch a remittance product in 2025. The central bank has licensed Zone as a payments switch, and it runs a blockchain network used by a number of Nigerian banks to process ATM transactions. Zone has plans to develop, stating that it wants to get into decentralized finance (DeFi). Given the limited nature of, and access to, traditional financial services in Nigeria (one in three Nigerians are financially excluded), this could have sizeable potential.
The impact of AML and KYC on Nigeria’s crypto landscape
With an increase in AML and KYC measures, the sector should develop and boost regional and global interest in the market, suggesting further partnerships and the development of new use cases.
It may also help Nigeria’s bid to be removed from the global Financial Action Task Force’s Gray List, which tracks countries that have problems with their AML and terrorist financing frameworks. According to the IMF, the Gray List typically reduces development financing and often results in a fall in capital inflows.
Navigating the future: Nigeria’s shift towards balanced crypto regulation and education
The country’s decision to drop its ban on crypto and instead increase oversight of digital assets aligns with the activities of other African nations. It is also something that Nigerians are pressing for. A Consensys survey released in 2023 revealed that 50% of respondents wanted crypto regulations that would both encourage participation and protect investors.
As the situation stands, obstacles remain that threaten to hamper the sector’s further growth. More work is required, not least, greater clarification of certain provisions and areas. To provide just one example, under new AML and KYC measures, it is unclear if individuals must declare exact transaction limits or virtual asset trades.
Education and awareness are other issues. The recent MTFE scam, which branded itself as a Shariah-compliant financial platform and was popular in Bangladesh, Nigeria and Sri Lanka, underlines the need to better educate the population in the use of cryptocurrencies, particularly for investing.
Alongside this, there needs to be stronger regulation to create a safer environment in which to operate, with recourse to legal support, where necessary. This will boost safe domestic usage as well as the confidence of external actors interested in Nigeria’s market opportunities, but currently deterred by the risks.
Rescinding the crypto trading ban and comments from the Nigerian SEC and president suggest that Nigeria is shifting towards a more accommodating stance on crypto and blockchain, as well as becoming increasingly cognisant of its potential economic benefits. As always, regulation needs to be both effective while also providing room for innovation, allowing the sector to develop while protecting legitimate providers and users.
What is a timeline of key legislation of crypto in Nigeria?
The Central Bank and Nigeria Deposit Insurance Commission (NDIC) set up a commission to investigate Bitcoin following the MMM Ponzi scheme.
In January, the Nigerian SEC issued a warning to Nigerians that no companies or entities involved with cryptocurrencies would be recognized or authorized. Additionally, it stated that there were no protections or insurances against financial losses involving cryptocurrencies.
In February, the central bank banned banks and financial institutions from supporting crypto asset transactions. Money-laundering and terrorism financing risks were cited. Additionally, some Nigerians involved in cryptocurrencies reported having their bank accounts frozen.
In May, the Nigerian SEC published new regulations about issuing, offering platforms to and custody of digital assets. It detailed how the country’s financial institutions could interact with digital assets. As part of this, an upfront capital requirement of 500 million Naira ($362,500, as of February 2024) was set for crypto exchanges seeking a virtual asset service provider (VASP) licence.
In May, the Nigerian SEC published regulations for digital assets, suggesting the authorities were seeking middle ground between a ban and a lack of regulation.
In December, the Nigerian SEC lifted its ban on banks operating accounts for crypto service providers, and the central bank stated that global trends suggested a need to regulate the activities of VASPs, which includes cryptocurrencies and assets.
In January, the central bank released initial guidelines for banks opening cryptocurrency accounts, but the ban remains on banks’ ability to trade or hold virtual assets within their own portfolios. The guidelines include stringent anti-money laundering (AML), know your customer (KYC) and other measures. Plus, banks are required to set what is described as “prudent” transaction limits and not allow cash withdrawals from crypto accounts.