One of the biggest reasons why Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are incredibly appealing is that they are inherently resistant to regulation and government interference. If anything, Bitcoin is benefiting from the regulatory restrictions that have hamstrung traditional financial service providers, and is becoming a strong alternative for remittances and cross-border transfers in Africa.
But that doesn’t mean that governments are sitting on their hands and waiting to see how things will pan out. Nor should they. As cryptocurrencies deepen their foothold on the continent, we wondered how African governments are feeling and reacting to the entire thing. Here’s what we found.
Nigeria: Proceed at your own risk
Bitcoin is booming in Nigeria, and it can partly thank a busted online Ponzi scheme for a relatively painless inoculation into mainstream awareness. The Central Bank of Nigeria’s first public reaction to virtual currencies was in a January 12 2017 circular to Nigerian banks (PDF), warning them to deal in cryptocurrencies at their own risk, pending substantive regulation.
The circular was widely interpreted as a ban, but officials at the Central Bank have since acknowledged that they cannot stop Bitcoin, because it is obviously not within their control. Just don’t come crying or begging if you get burned.
Kenya: We’re looking into it
Kenyan regulators have also been repeating the standard caveat emptor line since 2017. But very recently, the Kenyan government became rather proactive. President Uhuru Kenyatta directed that a blockchain and AI taskforce be created, to explore the use of blockchain technology within Kenya’s existing economic framework.
South Africa: Can we tax this thing?
Bitcoin is big enough in South Africa (searches for “Bitcoin” from South Africa topped worldwide Google search trends for the term in August 2017) that the government has gone from mild curiosity to an experimental approach, to a keen interest in cashing in. While the South African Reserve Bank tinkers with a regulatory sandbox for Bitcoin et al, the South African Revenue Service (SARS) apparently considers cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin as intangible assets and has said that it will apply normal income tax rules. That means that South Africans who own cryptocurrencies should begin to prepare to have to declare gains or losses on their portfolios as part of their taxable income.
Egypt: Meh, what does the Quran say?
When the impending launch of Bitcoin exchange in Egypt was announced in August 2017, the general excitement was dampened by the Central Bank’s reaction to the development, which was to swiftly disavow cryptocurrencies and say that it had no plans to recognise or regulate them. This position got some serious religious reinforcement when Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Shawki Allam, said that cryptocurrency trading is forbidden under Islamic Sharia law.
However, things just got more interesting — last week, another Islamic scholar has said that Bitcoin is quite fine under Sharia law, causing prices to spike from what must be pent up demand held back by religious uncertainty. While these Fatwas are not legally binding, they carry great weight in Islamic societies, and it will be interesting to observe how the controversy plays out over time in countries like Egypt. In the meantime, gold-backed crypto is halal. Probably.
Rwanda: It’s interesting, but…
The Central Bank of Rwanda’s official position to citizens on Bitcoin is something along the lines of don’t invest, because it’s too risky, and we cannot save you if things go sideways. They are also wary of how cryptocurrencies are ideal for facilitating dubious transactions like money laundering and terrorism. But it has acknowledged that Bitcoin is worth looking at in the long run.
“We advise people not to invest in it today. We have put up a team, and working with stakeholders to study more around this currency at national level and a taskforce to position ourselves vis-a-vis these new technologies,” said central bank governor John Rwangombwa.
Still, bitcoin marketplace Paxful worked with an NGO called Zam Zam to launch #BuiltWithBitcoin, a movement to encourage cryptocurrency owners to donate to charity. The company donated $50,000 in bitcoin for the construction of a Rwandan school to kick things off.
Botswanan cryptocurrency enthusiasts are perhaps some of the most receptive to bitcoin and blockchain technology in Africa but the Southern African country’s Central bank has no intention to regulate cryptocurrencies and warns its citizens to stay away. Still, there is an active bitcoin community working on local solutions and spreading cryptocurrency awareness – just ask Alakanani Itireleng, Satoshi Centre founder and Botswanan bitcoin thought leader.
Ghana: “Here’s an official statement”
Here’s what the Bank of Ghana thinks: “The Bank of Ghana wishes to notify the general public that these activities in digital currency are currently not licensed under the Payments System Act 2003 (Act 662). The Bank of Ghana is currently investing a lot of resources to further enhance the payments and settlements system, including digital forms of money and also to introduce cyber security guidelines to safeguard electronic and online financial transactions.”
Some banks agree too, refusing to adopt bitcoin and blaming the lack of regulation. That said, Ghana is leading the adoption of blockchain technology in another area: real estate. A bunch of NGOs and blockchain-focused companies are working with the government on a Blockchain powered land registry. What a time.
Mauritius: Not interested. Next!
The Bank of Mauritius warned against cryptocurrency trading saying, “… cryptocurrencies are not issued or guaranteed by the Bank. Users of cryptocurrency are exposed to risks. The public is advised that exchange platforms for cryptocurrencies are unregulated. The Bank will not accept any responsibility in case of any loss which members of the public may incur on account of any dealing in unregulated cryptocurrencies.”
However, the country’s largest bank (by market share), State Bank of Mauritius (SBM), currently accepts cryptocurrency as loan collateral, showing the private sector’s willingness to adopt cryptocurrency while regulators drag their feet.
Morocco: Dirhams or nothing.
The Moroccan Foreign Exchange Authority and its central bank have disavowed all forms of cryptocurrency going as far as threatening penalties as laid out under their current laws. The ban was setup after a local digital services company, MTDS, announced that it would start accepting bitcoin payments – although there is no evidence that both incidents are connected. The company has since shelved those plans.
All in all, it looks like the cryptocurrency industry in Africa is currently gaining more momentum from a user/private sector standpoint rather than a government/regulatory one. Users are still bullish on the technology all over the continent and regulatory authorities are either working their way to creating policies, cashing in on the craze or warning against adoption.