Atoki: All CPC Interventions are Backed by Law

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INTERVIEW

The Director General, Consumer Protection Council, Mrs. Dupe  Atoki, lays bare the council’s determination to use all within its enabling powers to seek redress for consumers of goods and services, wherever there are infringements on their rights. She spoke to James Emejo

Given that the majority of Nigerians are still unaware of the functions of the CPC,  could you provide the clear-cut mandate of the council?

The Consumer Protection Council (CPC) was set up to provide redress for consumers in their engagement in product or service. It is generally the agency of government to take care of the interest of consumers and so considering the fact that in the market place, the consumer drives the economy and it is expected that there would be certain level of dissatisfaction with the products and services that are sold-and considering that we are still in the third world. The council was set up to ensure that where there’s a failure in the market, there’s a redress for consumers. So our basic mandate is to ensure that wherever consumers put their money, either in product or service, they get value for it and if there’s a failure, there’s a redress platform available in the CPC. So primarily, it is to provide redress and the law says speedily as well-and to also take campaigns that will lead to consumer awareness. As you are aware, if a consumer is aware, he is more proactive and can engage businesses to get satisfaction. We also have the mandate to remove haphazard products from the market that may be the cause of health situations and we are also able to enforce any law that protects consumers wherever it is situated in any sector as long as that regulation is to protect the consumers. If the regulator is not protecting the consumers in that area, we can use their laws to protect them-so basically the CPC stands as the watchdog over businesses to ensure that consumers who spend their money to buy a product or pay for service get value for their money.

 Is your mandate restricted to the private sector alone?

Any business, whether privately driven or publicly driven, as long as consumers pay for it, then the consumer is entitled to value for it. There is no separation as to whether we can engage just private businesses. Wherever you are running a business or the government is running a business, if they take consumers’ money, then they should provide value for it.

In view of the level of impunity in the country, what was the state of consumer rights violations when you took over the helm of affairs at the council three years ago?

That is  very important. As you would recall, I took over this mandate in the middle of 2013 and for quite a while I was lost as to where to start from because of the myriad of consumer abuses in every sector. If you take the telecoms sector, there were issues and still are-unsolicited messages, drop calls and poor network. If you look at aviation, there are flight delays and cancellations without redress; in the banking sector, there were lots of issues with the ATMs at that time as that was just coming in at that point, and  currently we are trending with bank charges; in the power sector then, the unbundling was just coming up when I took over office but prior to that there were issues with PHCN-lack of adequate supply of electricity, food and beverages-in all services and products, there were abuses all over the place. So it was a huge challenge to be able to come up with a focused intervention that will be productive and will be time driven.  Nigerians are very impatient and you need to come up with a strategy that covers the whole country with speed and spread. So, basically, I would say that every sector had issues with consumer abuses at the time I took over office.

Today, a hitherto relatively unknown CPC has gradually crept into the sub-consciousness of Nigerians, what has been your story so far?

Thank you. I just reeled out the market situation when I took over office  in order to effectively become productive in our interventions. It was actually necessary to have some data, one, about the visibility of the council, about the awareness of the consumer right and the awareness of where to get redress. So I carried out a survey which indicated that consumer awareness was very low, which I expected. And of course, there was gross impunity among businesses which is characteristic when there is no appropriate umpire to guide and to direct compliance. So, having found that, I then drew a four-year strategic plan which focuses on three main tripods. One, there is a great need to do an aggressive consumer sensitisation awareness to raise the awareness of consumers to know their rights and to be able to assert it to ensure that we begin to curb impunity.

Secondly, in view of the widespread consumer abuses, it became imperative that we could not address these abuses based on individual redress and so we came up with a sectoral intervention, where we take a sector of the economy and look at the abuses there, and intervene by addressing some of the issues and thereby sanitising that sector because an intervention in one of the big players in that sector will modify the behaviours of everybody and that’s what we have seen in the various interventions we have made-and so it reduces the number of complaints of the global compliance in that sector; and therefore, we now would be left with very minor complains in that sector. And so that has helped us. And the other arm of the strategy is to therefore, ensure compliance including prosecution, if necessary,  because as you do know, businesses all over would like to thrive and enjoy as much profit as they can, sometimes, even at the expense of the consumers but if there are enactments which can be enforced to bring them to compliance, then it must be put into practice. So, these are the plans that we have engaged in the last few years and currently, I can say that in the advocacy sector, we have an in-house studio where our staff are now trained. We produce our weekly television programmes in-house, we have saved the government a lot of money. We don’t need consultants to do that right now and so we have our weekly television programme which airs every Thursday 8.30 p.m on NTA International. We take a topic every week and we engage the topic and sensitise the consumer. We also have a weekly television programme on same Thursday on the federal radio corporation by 12.30-which helps us also to talk to consumers-and we have a very viral social media-I can say that consumers are more aware of their rights since my assumption of office and also the existence of the council. We have formidable success stories  of consumers who show appreciation…gradually, we are creeping into the subconscious mind of consumers but we still have a long way to go and our sectoral interventions have  yielded results in the areas which we have intervened. The story so far is that we have just tried to constantly engage consumers in the various platforms that we have, making sure that we are able to get their confidence;  that we are available to protect them and all  they need  is just to complain and we ensure that their complaints are addressed. But also to check the massive inflow of complaints by modifying the behaviour of businesses themselves to begin to provide proper service which at the end of the day will reduce complains.

What is the update on your recent interventions in the foods and beverages, telecoms and aviation sectors of the economy?

In the food and beverage, you are aware of all that transpired as a first attempt to actually bring to compliance a multinational from CPC’s point of view. After all the antagonism,  the prosecution of the key actors in the company, there is agreement to comply with the Council’s order and what we have observed is that the system is now cleaner in terms of the process and the products and the council now receives far less complaints than we did before arising from compliance. There are fewer complaints on half-filled cans, which was rampant or foreign substances in drinks then, there is great compliance arising from that. With the aviation, it is still an area which is still work in progress. I think there is still need for that sector to recognise the importance of CPC in the protection of the aviation customers. But you are aware that the council has requested for the prosecution of the Turkish airline arising from non-compliance with the order of the council and the Attorney General had actually given it 21-day notice for compliance. Again, that is the way we want to go to ensure that when the council rises up in response to complaints, we ensure that the businesses will respond and in the event of failure, we have our laws and we just put them into practice and that is one of the examples where we are hoping that it would not lead to prosecution and that the airline will comply in order to ensure that passengers also get value for money when they pay for transportation by air. The telecoms sector also is one area where a large number of consumers have complaints in different areas including unsolicited messages.  You will recall that just this  week(last week), I visited the Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Prof. Danbata for us to agree on how to work together to bring compliance as it regards some of these complaints and I think the meeting was fruitful and very shortly, some of these complaints are going to be a thing of the past in the telecoms sector.

Why was the CPC relatively  not visible  before your assumption of office or were the enabling laws recently amended to give the council more bite?

The law is as I met it. So there hasn’t been any new law so far but I am not able to hold brief for somebody else’s tenure but I do know or I can say that the law may have been implemented much better than what it was in the past, because I am a lawyer by profession-maybe that gives me an edge and so I know the law and I know the extent I can do. And I think that whatever we have been able to do since I came, it is because we back every action by law and we try not work outside the law so that businesses do not hold us to ransom. So I believe that the staff  are still the same, the law is still the same, our budget is even smaller than what was available before but I think that it is basically knowing the mandate and using the law to get what the mandate empowers you to do.

Would you seek to amend the CPC Act any time soon to enable you engage in more proactive operations?

To a large extent, what we have is good enough in terms of the powers.What we need is empowerment to use those laws to achieve the mandate. We could need empowerment to set up offices in a number of states. You know currently we only have six offices,  we should actually have at a minimum, an office in each state-that’s not in our law but we have to be empowered to set up that. If we work with what we have now, we would  be disadvantaged to the extent that we would not be able to protect consumers. But it could be better. We could have an enhancement in the law for instance in the area of e-commerce because that was not trending when the law was passed. So if we need any amendment if you ask me, it’s just to empower us in these new areas of trending that has come up, otherwise, the same laws that we have had for the past 16 years are the same law that we are using and are  yielding some level of results.

There have been increasing complaints by  Nigerians on the alleged arbitrary hike in bank charges. What immediate steps are you  taking to rescue consumers in the financial services sector?

Let me say to consumers here that these charges are approved by the Central Bank of Nigeria(CBN) and to the extent that they are approved by the bank, there is  a limit to our intervention on that. But what we would be looking at is whether the banks operate charges in line with CBN regulation and we do have occasions where the banks have stepped out of boundary as provided by the CBN. For example, the current stamp duty is limited to current account but we get complaints that banks also charge those fees on savings account. So in that area which we were able to look into, the charges themselves, we would not be able to contest with CBN why those charges exist but if they exist and are supported by law, then  we just ensure that banks play by the rules and we have redressed a lot of individual complains that come to us where banks have step out of bound but we are planning that we need to actually expose these charges to consumers so they know that these are the approved charges and they are able to match them with alerts they get from the banks because right now, if I ask you, you won’t know what these charges are, you just get an alert to say X amount has been deducted. So we are working towards ensuring that this is available on various platforms for everybody to know that these are the approved charges and if we do that, it will also reduce the tendency for banks to over shoot those charges because they know everybody knows exactly what amount has been approved for various activities.

Are you mandated to venture into the electricity sector where there has been consumer outcry over dissatisfaction in service offer, particularly the recent increase in electricity tariff?

Yes, of course, all of us are affected by this but I go back to the mandate of the council again. Areas of pricing, tariffs and associated issues are strictly out of the mandate of the council. Now, if a business decides that it wants to sell its product for X amount, it is not up to us to say no, it is too expensive, you can’t do that,  what we will say is that okay, you sell it for X amount, we want to ensure that the consumer gets value for that X amount. So issues of tariffs and costs do not rest with us. But when they have a competition law, it then will make it easy for the agency that will be implementing that competition law to begin to look into areas of pricing and tariffs to ensure there’s a level ground. But having said that, we are very well aware of the concerns of consumers not only with the tariff but even with the electricity supply itself as well as the metering, which is a  sore point on most consumers. In that area we are able to intervene and we have had meetings with NERC, to work together to implement their regulation particularly on consumers who have paid for meters and yet are billed arbitrarily. When that happens, that consumer should not only be billed, they should not be disconnected. So we are working to bring this to the attention of the consumers to say these are your rights if you fall within this category and you are entitled to refuse being billed or to refuse disconnection. There are quite a number of areas where we are not in a position to intervene but we do know that they because concerns. However, where the activities are unscrupulous and they exploit consumers, we are on top of it and we will redress it; there are so many commendations that we have received from consumers… like I did say, we have a lot on our plate which we can’t wish away by a magic wand but gradually, it is like an elephant-we are nipping here and there, taking the low hanging fruits and getting into the sub-consciousness of consumers to always make a complaint and don’t grumble. My word to consumers is that it is your money, you earned it, don’t give it as a gift to businesses-complain! and I think we are very committed on this side to ensure value for money for consumers.

As laudable as the CPC objectives are, Nigerians still believe your operations are limited considering the magnitude of consumer rights abuse in business organisations across the country. What are your greatest constraints?

Yes, we can say there’s still a lot more to be done but what we have done should not be underrated. There is still a lot more which I also agree and like I did say from the beginning that the vast level of abuse in Nigeria was something that was overwhelming even at the beginning we needed to find a proper strategy to address it. We have not gotten there at all but we have taken good strive towards energising consumers to fight for their rights by engaging in a proactive way that would get redress for them. And so what are the handicaps? For me, my philosophy is that I don’t always want to dwell on challenges to excuse failure, and that’s what I have engrained in the personnel in CPC-it is a poor easy way out to justify failure-everybody will always have one challenge. When you are successful, it is how you have been able to rise over a challenge. Nevertheless, there are numerous handicaps. One was the level of understanding of the mandate even by the staff themselves because they are the foot soldiers and that I redressed by making sure that all the staff were trained on the act itself and they do now understand exactly what is expected of them in the implementation of the mandate. The second one is the limited staff strength. The whole of CPC is about 260 staff to protect about 170 million people and matched with six offices in a country that has 36 states and in a vibrant consumer economy. So you can see that we were doomed to fail from the beginning on our manpower level to be able to meet our expectation; and then the normal funding which I always don’t want to talk about-it becomes a sing song and nobody takes you seriously when you say you are not funded. So, what I have done is to approach international donors. They have supported us to a very large extent to do what we are doing to get to the level that we are. I would say that to a limited extent, there are inter-agency rivalry where some sector regulator build a barrier and believe that they are the sole-authority in that sector-and the fact is that we remain the apex agency of government to protect consumers of product and service across board. A sector regulator will usually have their core mandate. Protection of consumers under that sector cannot be fully situated with them. In fact, we conclude that you cannot be a regulator and a protector of consumers under that sector-it’s impossible. Because you regulate, you deal with businesses, you know their challenges, you empathise with them, you find reasons for failure, you can’t then on one hand force them into compliance with your standards that you have set and at the same time looking at the consumer perspective and be able to protect. So it’s naturally not possible-while I will not dwell more on that because we have powers to override anyone who blocks our entry into any sector but it is there. It is visible, it exists with us but I decided to concentrate on the providers in that sector away from the regulator because they are the ones that are obliged to work with the council and obey and comply with the sectors. I believe that once we get to be appropriately funded, the capacity in the council is a continuous one-we will keep building on what we have and we would keep using our powers as long as the authorities are in support of what we are doing. The challenge is huge but like I did say, I overlooked it and try to see how I can solve them and leave a successful legacy here.

What legacy would you want to leave behind after the expiration of your tenure?

I would wish that at the end of my tenure that CPC would be a more significant driver of consumer rights protection in Nigeria and I say a ‘more’ because we would continue to escalate our achievements as the years go in. We are significant but I want it to be a very great significant driver by protecting, educating, empowering consumers, representing all consumers and enabling them to become assertive and responsible in market place through the full application of the consumer protection law with respect to integrity, professionalism, empathy and fairness to all. As I have rounded it up on the implementation of the law-that’s what will drive the significant interface of the council with its mandate of the general protection of consumers in Nigeria. And I do hope that whoever is taking over will continue and improve on where we have stopped.

Considering your tight official schedule, how do you relax after every business day?

I found out that when I took up this job, I don’t even have a closing time in terms of the fact that I may not be in the office but I am at home working, I have at all times a notepad besides me where I jot down ideas and keep working. So I don’t have a closing time so to speak. But apart from that, I enjoy my company a lot. I enjoy my garden at home, weekends I sit down and relax, my children are all grown up but I spend a lot of time with my children and grandchildren, which  allows me to see what they are doing actually. There’s a lot of time we spend together courtesy of the internet but I do enjoy my company and I do find time to read spiritual books because in all that I do here I give all the glory to God. He gives the uncommon wisdom and I think it is the uncommon wisdom He has given me that has helped me to override these challenges that are not new-they have been there and He has given me that support. When am not busy doing anything, I am busy meditating and keying into God’s presence where it’s very relaxing.