The profile of the Consumer Protection Council has risen over time due to its commitment to the promotion of international best practices. But allegations of selective justice are currently being levelled against its management, Raheem Akingbolu reports
For years, the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) was considered a toothless bulldog because of what seemed like a lack of political will that could make it follow issues related to redress of consumers’ abuse to the logical conclusion. As a result of this, the council had always been dismissed as an agency of government that only existed in name until two years ago, when Mrs. Dupe Atoki was appointed as Director General. Atoki, a lawyer with robust profile was until her appointment, the Chairperson, African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, an African Union organ.
By January 2014, barely six months after she assumed office, Atoki and her team had displayed a sense of commitment that showed the world that they meant business. The council thus promised that things would improve and that business owners would stop seeing Nigeria as a dumping ground. CPC was quick to identify poverty, weak regulation and failure of consumers to pursue their cases as some of the challenges facing regulators in their quest to protect the rights of Nigerian consumers. The council warned itself to the hearts of Nigerians when it went after some sectors that were initially considered untouchable. Some of the sectors include; telecoms, aviation, banking and power. The sectors were marked out as areas that recorded the highest level of consumer rights abuses in Nigeria.
The first major breakthrough was the collaboration between CPC and the Ministry of Communication to tackle the problem in the telecommunications industry. At a press briefing addressed by Atoki and a former Minister of Communication in Lagos, Dr. Omobola Johnson, the operators were warned against provision of poor services to subscribers and that if nothing was done to right the wrong, they would face sanction. Atoki had personally warned that any of the operators found to be fleecing subscribers through poor service delivery would face the law.
In the same way, CPC moved on to the Aviation sector and kicked against ill-treatment often meted out to passengers. In particular, it condemned the operation of the Ethiopian Airlines on Saturday, May 18, 2013 at the Nnamdi Azikwe International Airport, Abuja, when passengers were shabbily treated and described the act as a violation of international best practices.
The Council in a letter, where it called the airline to order, said its reaction was based on several complaints received from passengers of the said flight, particularly those of the Business Class, who felt their rights were wantonly abused.
Following the council’s complaint the airline had swiftly apologised to the affected passengers through the Council.
Another Airline that was called to order was AERO Contractors. In the case of the airline company, the council appeared to have used statutory legislations of the federal government in carrying out its investigation and enquiries. This entails establishing the infractions and awarding compensation based on existing consumer laws including but not limited to the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA)’s Passengers Bill of Rights.
Coca Cola and multichoice
CPC also came down hard on Coca-Cola and the Nigerian Bottling Company, (NBC) with a threat of severe sanctions after it found the companies wanting on product quality.
“Pursuant to a consumer complaint received by the CPC regarding two half-empty cans of Sprite, products manufactured by NBC under the licence and authority of Coca Cola, the Council in accordance with its Act, investigated the complaint and found among other things, that the cans of Sprite were defective and had health and safety implications for consumers,” Atoki had said at a press briefing in Lagos.
The issue soon went sensational and led to a legal tussle between the council and the global beverage company. At the end, it was resolved but the message was successfully passed. Other issues that have been addressed under the current leadership were; indiscipline in the financial sector and ‘check the BB (Best Before) date’ campaign that was strongly back by the federal government. The council strengthened the campaign when it gave a six-month ultimatum to product dealers to stop indiscriminate storing, which could undermine the quality of products in the market.
It was also to its credit that MultiChoice Nigeria launched two new sports channels, Super Sport 11, (DStv Channel 231) and Super Sport 12 (DStv Channel 232) dedicated to showcasing the EPL and La Liga respectively on the DStv Compact bouquet. The new package was said to have come from CPC’s Order given to MultiChoice, which directed it to ensure a reasonably equitable spread of popular sports and other channels hitherto concentrated in its premium bouquet over all available bouquets.
Despite its achievement, some recent steps embarked upon by the council are attracting criticism. Two weeks ago, the council and the management of Multichoice addressed journalists in Lagos to give the Pay-TV Company a clean bill of health.
Atoki, who spoke on behalf of the council, commended the management of Multichoice Nigeria for successful implementation of the customer focused initiatives prescribed by the council early this year. She said the Pay-TVCompany, has achieved the targets set out by CPC to improve customer service.
The DG said the mandate of the council was to ensure that consumer’s rights and interests are protected, adding that the council has been working with MultiChoice Nigeria in achieving this and that she was confident that the issues have been addressed.
Aside the fact that the declaration shocked observers, considering the fact that the same government agency recently raided the company, its continued silence over the activities of StarTimes was also worrisome. As a Pay-TV operator, StarTimes is believed to be guilty of the same offence DSTV was sanctioned for.
A Lagos based Lawyer; Mr. Taju Adeyemi believes that StarTimes is being pampered unnecessary in Nigeria. In an interview with THISDAY, Adeyemi, who described the business relationship between StarTimes and NTA called for thorough investigation of the stake of Nigeria in the business.
“To me, StarTimes – NTA relationship is enslavement by foreigners. While we cannot blame CPC for Nigeria’s stake in the business, which I think is around 30 percent, the council and other regulatory agencies can compel the management to do the right thing in the market. Apart from the issue of ownership that is generating rumpus among Nigerians, the company is seeing as a sacred cow in the market. I don’t have any special interest in Multichoice and have consistently condemned the way the South African company extort Nigerians but that notwithstanding, searchlight must also be beamed at the activities of the StarTimes,”
Adeyemi, who also called for the investigation into what transpired between CPC and Multichoice that forced the council to make a sudden u-turn, said government agencies must be transparent while addressing issues that concern Nigerians.
Nigerian Breweries purported investigation
Another issue that recently attracted criticism was the pronouncement by the council that it has commenced investigation into the veracity of the claims of the Nigerian Breweries Plc (NB) regarding the health benefits of beer consumption. In a statement issued by the council, it was stated that the claims were capable of luring unsuspecting consumers into unwholesome consumption of the product.
Some media reports from the recent symposium held in Lagos by the breweries giant have asserted that consumption of beer has many nutritional, health and therapeutic benefits.
CPC, in a swift reaction, has sent a notice of the commencement of investigation of the claims to the leading company, quoting relevant sections of its law mandating it to protect consumers from misleading advertisement or information on any consumer item, among others.
The Council, in a letter signed by its Director General, Mrs. Dupe Atoki, listed some of the claims, which include that beer is not an alcoholic beverage and that if taken regularly and in moderation has many defined nutritional and health benefits and can indeed be part of a healthy life style.
Since the pronouncement over the investigation was made, many questions have been raised by observers. A journalist, Mr. Silvanus Idowu, who was present at the symposium, though commended the council for its efforts in curbing the excesses of operators in many sectors but pointed out that the event was not put together to address the benefit of beer consumption alone.
“Except the council wants to be mischievous, experts who spoke at the event spoke on both the negative and positive of beer consumption. There was no single person who spoke that didn’t touch on both sides and at every point, the fact that beer must be consumed in moderation was emphasised. Beyond this, it is just a one off programme and not a campaign that was deplored to be sustained in advertorials. Perhaps, the council should have blamed those who report from one angle of the story without looking at the other side,”
The journalist also urged CPC to build redressed structures for Nigeria consumers as well as looking beyond the multinationals, especially the operators in the fast moving consumer goods.
“May be it has not occurred to CPC, there are many areas that need attention. For instance, I don’t think there is any producer of Plantain Chips in the market that have put ‘best before’ on their pack and this is dangerous,” he said.