CONSUMER PROTECTION: Time To Seize The Moment
LATE last year, vehicular movement within Benin City, the Edo State capital, was hellish as over 1,000 electricity consumers stormed the headquarters of the Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC) at Akpakpava, in protest against poor service delivery and financial extortion by the management.
Marching through such major roads as Ugbowo, Ekosodin, Uselu, Aerodrome Close and Akpakpava, the protesters brought all major roads to a halt as the spiral effect of the demonstration extended to all adjoining streets in the affected areas. Of great concern to the protesters was the continued payment of N750 as fixed charge when power supply is nowhere near regular, so they vowed to permanently shut traffic until the BEDC management provided answers to the posers.
It took the intervention of the Edo State Commissioner of Police, Mr. Foluso Adebanjo, to calm the angry youths. Speaking for the protesters, the chairman, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Friday Obawonyi, said the situation was no longer acceptable, as many of the residents suffer the worsening epileptic power supply in spite of their regular payment of electricity bills. “There is no way we will accommodate that.
The fixed charge is N750 for every individual that has a meter. If you calculate the money they collect in Benin City alone, it is enough to generate electricity for Edo people,” he said.
The quality of service delivery and protection of consumers’ rights was the subject of focus when Abiodun Obimuyiwa, Deputy Director of Public Relations of the Consumer Protection Council (CPC), spoke with The Guardian, recently.
The growing disenchantment in terms of service delivery in the banking, telecommunications and power sectors, among others, and what actually the council is doing to defend the rights of consumers were also brought to the fore. Established by Act No. 66 of 1992, the CPC, an agency of the Federal Government, under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment commenced operations in 1999.
Obimuyiwa stated: “We are aware that Nigerian consumers are actually not happy from their interactions with the market place, in terms of service delivery and goods provided.
The good thing is that we are also consumers and we’ve witnessed some of these things just like every other Nigerian consumer. So, we feel where it pinches, and that’s why here, we are quite passionate about doing the needful to ensure that consumers get the best because when we please the marketplace, we also benefit from it.”
In terms of CPC’s intervention in the banking, telecommunications and power sectors, he said consumer protection is a multi-stakeholder affair, and besides, CPC being an omnibus consumer protection agency, there are other sector regulators.
In the world over, the consumer landscape is changing fast, not only within the overall demographics, but also, in values and attitudes. Today, the consumer is the real deciding factor for all economic activities, without neglecting the other parties in the chain.
Protecting The Consumer From Exploitation CONSUMER rights and consumer protection provide a way for individuals to fight back against abusive business practices.
There are laws designed to hold sellers of goods and services accountable, when they seek to profit by taking advantage of consumers’ lack of information or bargaining power. Consumer rights laws also protect the public from false or misleading advertisement.
For example, automobile dealers have been known to advertise at a reduced price in order to draw buyers. Once they arrive, however, prices are altered. The prospective customer is then pressured to go for a less favourable term.
In addition to these ‘bait and switch’ advertising tactics, consumer rights laws address things like warranty misrepresentation, defective products, forced arbitration clauses, identity theft, and other types of harassment and fraud.
OF critical importance is the essence of consumer and business education as a government responsibility in achieving desired objectives. It is believed that even with the presence of consumer protection organisations, consumers have a responsibility of learning to read labels of products to check the ingredients, date of expiry, among others since no organisation or law will do so for them at the point of purchase. Similarly, consumers are to read and understand contracts they are given to sign before appending their signatures.
The Director General, Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Dr. Joseph Odumodu, recently said countries that have mainstreamed international standards in their policies and regulations have been able to protect their populations, giving them better choice of quality products.
Also, to celebrate the 2015 World Counterfeit Day last month, the Anti-Counterfeiting Collaboration (ACC) Nigeria organised a sensitisation workshop, which drew participants from collaborating agencies. Chairman of ACCNigeria, Mr. Desmond Adeola, said that to fight counterfeiting, the government has to set in motion, steps to update the country’s legislation on anti-counterfeiting as the extant law does not have the measures to deter counterfeiting.
He said that over a trillion dollar loss yearly to counterfeiting globally by government, consumers, manufacturers, “every one loses and the counterfeiters seem to be the only one is gaining.”
He also noted that counterfeiting is not only about money, as about two million jobs are at risk yearly from counterfeiters. “We believe the legislation in our country needs to be updated; there must be a deterrent for counterfeiters, something to discourage them, because right now, there seems to be no deterrent. We must also strengthen the mechanism of enforcement.”
Abiola believes that for the war against counterfeiting to be won, consumer education is essential. “All of us need to be educated because we are all consumers, one way or the other, and there are so many consumers out there who do not know and have any information about the quality of what they buy and are being offered.
The average African consumer is underserved in the first place, now it is now served with counterfeited and pirated product.” The Head of Consumer Feedback and Collaboration, SON, Mrs. Nwaoma Olujie, said though the society still see the crime as less serious, it is critical for government to update the laws with a view to strengthen enforcement that allows for necessary sanctions.
Olujie said: “The society believes that counterfeiting is a victimless crime because they see it as an alternative means of having a product. It is a serious crime, when you consider the huge impact associated with counterfeiting, that is why we must join hands together in ensuring that we get rid of these monsters.
It is taking huge toll on the economy of this country. A lot of hazard is associated with counterfeiting. So, as an agency, we are deeply concerned in ensuring that products put up for sale in Nigeria is of good standard.
Often times, the products don’t meet standard because the perpetrators of the act want to make huge profit at the expense of consumers. That is why we are having collaboration in order to ensure that we achieve optimum results.” Modupe Atoki, the CPC boss, harped on the importance of educating the consumers, as an informed consumer is assertive stating that once the consumer is educated, they will fight for themselves, which will curb the impunity.
She maintained, “there is nothing hazardous as a product not meeting standard.” While pointing out that the dearth of intelligence is one of the key challenges affecting the performance of the agency, Atoki said CPC needs assistance to enable it tackle issues on counterfeiting. She said, “we have found out that manufacturers are very protective of their brands.
We have also discovered that most companies do not want it to be known that their products are subject of counterfeiting, so, they are not willing to voice out, while some others are not willing to provide what really marked out their product from others.”
Atoki, therefore, urged businesses to work with the agency in its bid to sensitise consumers on the means of identifying the original products as against purchasing counterfeited ones, which could be hazardous to their well being.
On his part, the Director of Enforcement, NAFDAC, Kingsley Ejioforwho, said his agency was willing and ready to put an end to the activities of the criminals, urging other stakeholders to lend their support. He disclosed that recently, 15 trailer loads of counterfeit drugs worth N10 billion were confiscated and destroyed.
A non-governmental organisation, Financial Institutions Customers in Nigeria, noted that the activities of the Nigerian banks are aimed at defrauding its customers, who also include, the Federal, state and local councils.
In a statement, the organisation said, “over 60 per cent of the profit before tax being declared by an average Nigerian bank emanates from spurious and illegal bank charges unknown to the laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.”
The statement further said, “all that the bank needs to do to earn stupendous return is to put spurious bank charges to customers account and also reduce the interest payable to savings account holders without any just cause. For example, just imagine a bank having one million current account holders and that each month, the bank surreptitiously and clandestinely debits N1, 000 illegally, which would translate into N1b monthly and N12b yearly, just like that.
Only very few customers would feel the pinch if N1,000 is illegally deducted from their accounts monthly, whilst many bank customers would not even bother to notice it.” It added, “meanwhile, you will agree with us that the average profit before tax of most banks in Nigeria is not more than N12 billion — Most businesses that collapse in Nigeria is not as a result of poor management by the owners, but albeit the nefarious illegalities of the banks, who ensure that they ruin the customers businesses.
As banking professionals, we expect Nigerian banks to grow their customers as it is done in advanced economies, unfortunately, in Nigeria, reverse is the case, as banks take delight in killing their customers over spurious debts.”
In April 2012, over 3,500 complaints from angry bank customers were lodged within 30 days, and after investigation, over N5b were discovered stolen from those customers by their banks, which CBN had to force these culprit banks to return to the customers. On the banks, for instance, the CPC partners with Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) to make resolutions.
This way, it resolves a lot of complaints, including issues relating to Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) and shortchanging in any form etc. “Besides these, we also interface with CBN to checkmate the non-adherence to guidelines by service providers operating under licence of the apex bank.
For any of the service providers that violate consumer’s rights or falls short in adherence, we clamour for severe punishment.” On the issue of ATMs, Obimuyiwa said that things are turning out for the better.
According to him, a comparative analysis of complaints from within the last few years to the current period indicates that consumers are beginning to face fewer problems in service delivery.
He also noted that the CPC has gone further to print a manual on How to use your ATM, translated into the three major Nigerian languages. “We discovered, overtime, that some banks have prototype responses to complaints from use of ATMs like ‘The user compromised his security PIN’, without actually digging into the case presented. As we caught up with the loopholes, things began to improve.
According to the Civil Aviation Consumer Protection Regulations Part 19 of the Nigerian Civil Aviation Regulations (NCARs) 2012 Volume 2, defaulting airlines ought to cater for affected passengers during any 15-hour delay. Passengers are entitled to refreshments, meals, free telephone calls, SMS or email, hotel accommodation and free transportation to and from the hotel.
Following the stipulations of the law, any airline is expected to put into action, such palliative measures for each passenger, who is stranded amd payment of N5,000 due to them after two hours of delay; N1,000 each for phone calls, SMS or email.
Others include N10,000 for return transportation to and from their hotel in Abuja; and N25,000 for one night of hotel accommodation. The PBR was enacted by the Federal Government to assuage the abuse of consumer rights in the aviation sector, which include undue delays/cancellation of flights without proper notice and compensation, mishandling of passengers luggage, poor customer relations and lack of redress for aggrieved consumers.
As a result of the CPC onslaught, it is believed that the NCAA started displaying the banners spelling out relevant portions of the PBR and what affected passengers should do, having found a willing ally in the council. When Regulator Becomes A Problem SHOULD the CPC’s measures be punitive or just to correct service providers? Obimuyiwa, in response to this question restated that service providers and manufacturers allege over-regulation when they are on the wrong side of the law.
“They allege that they are over-regulated, but there is no over-regulation. The position of the CPC on the Nigerian market economy or any other economy is that there is a supply and demand in every economy. On the supply side, are the sector regulators who set the templates, the regulations and the rules for operations?” Obimuyiwa said that when service providers and manufacturers want to avoid doing the right and ethical thing, they claim they are over-regulated. This was stated in relation to the controversy on an issue between some financial institutions, the Weights and Measures Department of the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment and the CBN over issues on regulatory appropriation duties. The case of Coca-Cola is cited as one of the CPC’s over regulation. Many wondered why CPC has dispersed so much energy on what they perceive to be a “storm in a tea cup” over an otherwise simple issue of two cans of soft drink, which were not sufficiently full. Interestingly, food and beverage manufacturing, the industrial sector to which both companies belong, is already actively regulated by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC and the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, SON, among others.
None of these core regulators, both of which have functional laboratories with which to make definitive conclusions on product quality, have raised any complaint whatsoever on the quality of the products churned out by the Coca Cola companies. “Of all that has been done by the sector regulators, how much has been complied with by these operators; the service providers? We look at it from there.
When things are not done properly, we call them to order. We tell them, what is wrong and what is supposed to be done. When they feel too big to comply. We’ll wield the big stick,” Obimuyiwa said.
The point where service providers take or share risks of products with defects or services not properly delivered drives on the high point. Obimuyiwa responded: “For us at the CPC, we believe that the service providers are there, because the consumers are there. So, from all their actions and activities, they must put consumers first because if the consumers do not patronise them, they will not be in business”.
He, however, believes that most of the faults lie with the consumers, who most of the time, do not shop with informed details, hereby making certain choice, which the seller might, sometimes, not oppose, because he has to make sales. But sometimes, the service provider gives their opinion and product suggestions, which the consumer does not agree with, therefore, choosing a product that, may not serve their needs.
Many watchers of events in the country are of the opinion that rather than hound companies operating in Nigeria, government agencies such as the CPC should strive to ensure that businesses meet their obligations, while ensuring that the interest of the consumer is protected.
This can be done without going overboard, as it is with CPC requiring Coca Cola to pay N100million for a manufacturing defect on filling of two cans of Sprite out of a massive production batch. Such information as warranty and product functioning and returnability must also be confirmed, including the terms of purchase. Impatience in the part of the salespersons or service providers should also form basis of patronage.
These details are necessary and important because, however effective they may be, no agency nor regulatory body can reach every point or area, so, most of the time, the best resolutions can only be from the consumer’s precautionary measures. Most of the time, answers are not given until the right questions are asked, that’s why the consumer must be informed before engaging in a valid transaction.