The Director-General, Consumer Protection Council, Mr Babatunde Irukera, speaks to IFEANYI ONUBA on steps being taken by the council to check violation of consumer rights, among other issues
It’s been over a year since you became the DG of CPC. What was the level of consumer rights violations when you took over the helm of affairs at the council?
The level of abuse was very high. First, I can speak as a consumer myself and then I can speak about what the record of complaints that the CPC was receiving when I arrived 18 months ago was. But what was interesting about the high level of consumer complaints also was that it wasn’t truly a case of consumer dissatisfaction.
The disparity between the number of complaints and the overall consumer apathy was significant in the sense that a very small number of people were complaining, compared to the number of people who were dissatisfied. So, essentially, it seems to me that more consumers felt that their options were really limited. There were not sufficient mechanisms or channels to truly hold providers of services accountable and for users to ameliorate their losses.
What were some of the steps you have taken since the assumption of office to address consumer rights abuses?
Let me start with what it is now, so we can walk back to what we did. The paradox of what has happened is that we are doing a lot more work now. The complaints have gone up by well over 300 per cent. In one year before, I think in 2016, the CPC handled about 1,000 complaints across the board but in the period when civil servants went on strike in three days, we had about 1,000 complaints. And so what we were handling in one year, we are now receiving in three days.
Does that mean the quality of goods and services has decreased?
No, what has increased is an awareness of consumers of their rights. Secondly, what has also increased is that there is now some levels of confidence in the regulatory process and the resolution mechanisms that truly people can be held accountable. And that, of course, makes people to complain a lot more.
So, what steps have you taken to change the previous narrative?
One of the things we did was to start a quality campaign across the country and what we call ‘demand and insist’, which is to sensitise consumers that a certain standard is not a privilege and sometimes, companies provide goods and services and they don’t have the prerogative to determine what quality they provide.
They have an obligation and there is a jurisprudential approach to a duty and once a duty is upon someone, there is a right somewhere. So, if companies have a duty, it shows consumers have rights, and perpetrating that message has gone a long way because we took the message across the board.
The other thing that we did is to improve engagement by the council from a visibility standpoint through our communication channels, especially through new media and other softer communication channels. People now obviously became more aware of how the council works.
We have also increased the level of enforcement and developed information- and intelligence-gathering capabilities significantly. Every time we move on enforcement, it’s been based on intelligence and each of the enforcement activities turned out to be that the intelligence was really credible.
Earlier this year, you met with top officials of online marketing companies in Nigeria and one of the outcomes of that meeting was that the council would come up with guidelines to effectively regulate the conduct of those companies. Where are you on this?
We have adopted five guiding principles about the rights of consumers, getting a refund when they order if things don’t go right, marketing and advertisement being factual and not misleading, and full disclosure.
The good thing is that all the key online marketing companies have agreed and so we have mutually adopted guiding principles for the business. What we are looking to do with that is to have a business guideline document that becomes enforceable.
We have a working group, made up of the marketers and us, and it will be very final soon. That will be a very important watershed in that industry because for the first time, you will create what we, as consumers, can have and decide to work with.
When will the guideline be released?
Before the end of the first quarter of next year, the guidelines would be out.
The CPC in July 2018 opposed the hike in subscription rate by DSTV. Despite this opposition, the DSTV has yet to reduce the rate. Is the council handicapped in ensuring compliance to its directive?
We are in court and the process is going on. The council’s position remains consistent, which is that the court has given an order and compliance with the honourable court is important. Also, it is the court that has the tool to enforce compliance and we will make sure they do. Some of the things that have happened are appeals against the decision of the lower court.
However, we are arguing that they should not be heard at the appellate level until they comply with the order of the lower court.
The CPC is exploring ways of preserving the questions of law before the court for ultimate determination and compliance. But at the same time, we are seeking to enforce some of the key consumer protection issues in the cable television industry. We have got some traction on that. There seems to be more appetite on the side of DSTV to, as much as possible, comply now with regulatory oversight to the exclusion of what has been presented to the court. Those possibilities are ongoing.
Recently, the council, in a bid to address some of the challenges in the power sector, conducted series of town hall meetings. Have these engagements assisted in reducing the complaints of consumers in the sector?
One of the things that happened with those engagements was that we were bringing the power firms to the locations. Essentially, we were midwifing complaint resolutions, and some of the complaints were being resolved there.
Secondly, it provided the power distribution companies the opportunity to really know what the problems are in the communities and to let the Discos tell the communities what is being done to address these complaints.
For the period I have been in office, we have made very serious ambitious strides to metering. The Nigerian government recently started licensing private companies to meter. All of these are part of reducing the pressure and the work that the CPC is doing in that space.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in July launched the Patients’ Bill of Rights to improve the delivery of service in the healthcare sector. To what extent has this initiative achieved its intended objective?
Prior to when we launched the PBoR in July, I have been on the job for 14 months. In those 14 months, I think we received two complaints about healthcare providers. But between July and October (last year), we have over 30 complaints. So, what the bill has done is that it has eliminated the complacency that was in the industry. Patients are now holding healthcare providers more accountable.
The PBoR is that one particular right that the service providers must be aware of and so it’s more important that the care-givers recognise, defer to and respect these rights. One thing that we are beginning to see is that private hospitals are now adopting the PBoR as a performance code. I was invited as DG to launch the adoption of the PBoR as a code of rights by different hospitals. So, I would say we have made quite a good progress in that area.
Few weeks back, there were reports that some dangerous chemicals were used to preserve beans. Apart from the statement issued by the CPC to warn consumers on the need to effectively wash beans thoroughly, what other steps are being taken by the council to check this development?
Consumer protection is also protection of businesses and I will tell you why. Look at businesses that have brands, those brands have their consumer loyalists. So, it is important to also make sure those brands remain in the market so that consumers loyal to those brands also have access to them. What we have done for beans is that it turns out that there are a number of issues that need to be addressed in preservative system whether it’s meat or fish or beans in Nigeria.
With respect to beans, we issued a statement and we have sat in meetings with the ministry of health. We have midwifed a lot of the discussions and so we have done a lot of sensitisation now. The CPC is part of a task force team that is made by the minister of agriculture, and one of the things that they did is to visit the market. We are using all the channels that the CPC has to get information out on what to do and what ought not to do. We are also monitoring.
What key programmes will the CPC be implementing in 2019 to protect the rights of consumers?
We will continue to enhance the things we are doing. What is important for us is that whether under the current legislation or the proposed new legislation, we want Nigerians to know that what we are doing is important. We will be regulating the temperature of the interaction between businesses and their consumers by making sure it’s optimal. So, while we want to make sure that businesses succeed, we want to make sure that consumers are protected and want businesses to know that absolutely under no circumstances will any practice that negates the rights of consumers be allowed to go without some level of regulatory intervention.