Nigeria's Bitcoin Conundrum

The backlash against a Nigerian central bank directive on cryptocurrencies echoes a dilemma facing governments around the world: how to regulate Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies without stifling innovation. When the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) issued a circular in early February warning banks and financial institutions that “facilitating payments for cryptocurrency exchanges is prohibited” and that they needed to identify and close accounts associated with them, it set the country’s crypto community alight. This week, a representative for Nigeria’s central bank chief Godwin Emefiele reportedly sought to clarify the February 5 directive, telling reporters that it was not aimed at discouraging people from trading in cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, but served to enforce orders in place since 2017 banning crypto transactions in the country’s banking sector. But the 2017 directive did not prohibit crypto exchanges from using banking and payment channels. It simply required banks and financial institutions to ensure that their crypto-exchange customers have effective anti-money laundering and “anti-terrorism” financing controls in place. The backlash and confusion echo a crypto-drama unfolding around the world as virtual currencies like Bitcoin grow in popularity and scale new heights during a time of unprecedented financial uncertainty stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, as well as uniquely domestic challenges.

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