Despite stringent regulations on crypto, the show will go on

This week, two Nigerian banks began blocking the accounts of individuals trading crypto and the accounts of cryptocurrency exchanges. It followed regulation from the Central Bank of Nigeria banning the activity of cryptocurrency exchanges in the country.

It sent crypto exchanges like BuyCoins, Luno, Quidax, etc., which have become immensely popular in Nigeria, into a frenzy; the task before them was to move their money from Nigerian banks before the freezes went into place. It was a curious move by CBN in a week where Bitcoin had hit record highs and coins like DOGE were gaining value.

Ironically, the CBN had some part to play in making crypto so popular. Whatever the intentions, the CBN’s persistence in maintaining an exchange rate for the Naira at N360 to the Dollar for years has led to confusing FX policies. There is a list of items for which importers cannot source FX, and in December, another policy on International Money Transfer Organisations (IMTO) sent Nigeria to the dark ages.

The Nigerian market and the numerous smart players in it are not strangers to the regulators’ heavy hand, and they have some experience working around it. For FX restrictions, importers simply turned to cryptocurrency to buy and pay for items.

The use of cryptos cut the CBN out of the process, and last year, Nigeria traded a little over 60,000 Bitcoins, the second-highest transaction volume globally. If there was any doubt about the veracity of those trades, exchanges like BuyCoins released their reports for 2020, showing massive trade volumes, up from a year before.

Yet, despite the rising popularity of crypto exchanges, the question of regulation remained the elephant in the room. To be fair, it is a conversation that is happening globally. A currency outside the government’s control and has shown such volatility will give regulators pause.

There are two initial questions around the regulation of crypto. The first is who should regulate cryptocurrencies? In Nigeria, the answer falls somewhere between the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN). The SEC has long been skeptical, warning investors off cryptocurrencies in 2017.

Remarkably, the Commission made a turnaround in 2019, stating that it now considers crypto as a legitimate investment class.  The CBN, for its part, has always taken a less enthusiastic view. In January 2017, it issued a circular warning to banks against any transactions in virtual currencies. In 2018, the CBN doubled down and reiterated its warning against digital currencies.

What are the real issues with crypto?

One of the most significant issues around crypto is its semi-anonymous nature. By their very creation, they are designed to operate without an overlord, sovereign, or whatnot. While this is interesting in theory, in practice, it can become a powerful tool in the hands of bad actors; this is the CBN’s argument.

Another issue that builds from the anonymity of digital assets is that it makes it a domain for bad actors to commit fraud. Through fake crypto exchanges, pump and dump scams, Ponzi schemes, and malware attacks, prospective investors can lose money trying to invest in crypto.

In countries where crypto regulations are in place, such as the United States, one workaround reduces some of the anonymity around digital assets. In December 2020, the U.S proposed new regulations requiring crypto exchanges to report anyone’s personal information with transaction values of above $10,000 daily.

This sort of Know Your Customer (KYC) requirement, which some may argue defeats some of the purposes of digital assets, may make crypto exchanges function a bit like banks, which is anathema to the proponents of digital currencies. This could have been one approach that the CBN could have taken, given that it has hinged its concerns on fraudulent transactions and the possibility of using these semi-anonymous assets to finance terrorism.

There are also proposals for crypto assets crossing borders to be reported by exchanges. In some of the regulatory conversations in the U.S, the most significant change would be more KYC requirements. Some may argue that exchanges in Nigeria, some of whom have berated regulators, should have engaged them instead. Others argue that despite the ban, there is still some sense in engaging the regulator now that public opinion is on the side of the exchanges. 

Of course, the ready answer to this would be that when ride-hailing operators in Lagos state engaged the government and relevant regulators for over a year, it yielded no results. It may not be a perfect analogy, but a healthy fear of regulation is a feature of African markets.

How are other African governments approaching regulation?

In at least six African countries, cryptocurrencies are banned. There are bans on all digital assets in Algeria and Morocco with fines that break the existing rules. On the flip side, South Africa, Senegal, and four other African countries have shown progressing thinking in regulating crypto.

In 2016, Senegal launched the eCFA, a digital currency built on blockchain that can be stored on mobile wallets, while Sierra Leone is vocal about its plan to be Africa’s first “smart country.” In South Africa, while crypto is not recognized as a legal tender, the South African Revenue Service (SARS) considers it an asset.

It means that SARS will be open to collecting taxes on crypto, as evidenced by some recent reports that the tax authority asks individuals to disclose crypto purchases in their tax filings. It is an exciting approach that signifies that there will be more regulation.

Regardless of what the regulators in Africa do, crypto has become attractive for regulation to kill it off effectively. What is more likely to happen is that companies and individuals will circumvent these regulations.

A missed opportunity for real control and revenue?

This week, BuyCoins announced that it is back to taking deposits from customers, two days after the CBN threw the exchange an unexpected blow. Early observers pointed out quickly that the CBN’s policy was unlikely to stop crypto trading; instead, it would introduce friction.

If anything, Nigerian founders and companies are familiar with working around infrastructure and policy challenges. In this specific instance, peer to peer trading, which is harder to regulate or control, will become popular.

In the end, it appears that the CBN may have shot itself in the foot, missing a significant opportunity to collect tax revenues or implement KYC measures to have some measure of control. One thing is clear. This is a pyrrhic victory for the regulator, but for the crypto exchanges, the show will go on.

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