The Economic Times, Nigeria’s Factual Economic Magazine, caught up with the Director-General of the Consumer Protection Council (CPC), Barrister Tunde Irukera, at his office in Abuja. Irukera, a lawyer of high repute, opened up on his plans to protect Nigerian consumers. His enthusiasm about enforcement of the statutory laws that ensure goods and services meet expectation and satisfaction of the consumers are here captured by the Editor, Yusuf Issa An-Nuphawi. Excerpts:
Your Council is statutorily saddled with the responsibility of ensuring consumers get value for money, are the consumers protected?
The answer to that is Yes, I believe that consumers are protected. Now does consumer protection means there are no violations? No. Consumer protection service is an ongoing process, there are certain fundamental understandings or expectations, from the transaction between consumers and service providers. Sometimes a consumer will become dissatisfied with the quality of service or quality of the product. What really affects protection is split two ways; sufficient intervention in market place to minimize incidence of dissatisfaction; when dissatisfaction does occur, we ensure there is transparent and rightful intervention to provide meaningful remedy. Your question is whether those two components occur, my answer is yes, and each time there is a violation, there is a process and we are working through the process. We generally and actually always secure the appropriate remedy or at least address whatever the problem is.
Some electricity consumers, especially those that do not have meters, are not satisfied with estimated billing, what is your reaction?
The electricity market is a very peculiar one, we are recovering from years of neglect of vital industry in the country; there was privatization and now the company has been split into generation, single transmission company and multiple distribution companies. The big issue that the consumers really have is with the distribution companies because that is the final and direct interface of the value chain with consumers. One of the biggest problems is the estimated billing or crazy bill, as they otherwise called them. We absolutely agree with consumers on that. We have taken a strong position that people should only pay for what they consume and estimated billing is very opaque, it lacks transparency sometimes there are no fundamentals that support how the bill is prepared. The assumptions that the Distribution Companies work with, sometimes, do not have rational support or basis. In fact, when that kind of process is institutionalized, the consumers are the victims, we are advocating on daily basis about the estimated billing. I think that it is receiving attention. Recently NERC came out with the directive that consumers should not honour any estimated billing. That is good but that is not enough, everybody recognizes that the reality is that the people should even be best protected, I believe everybody qualifies for sufficient protection, but the people should be most protected because they are the most vulnerable, and these are the residents. Like you rightly said, outside the city, the meters are almost not in existence. Recently we’ve seen that the Federal Government is promoting a rapid metering campaign; the Vice President commissioned a metering factory in Akwa Ibom. There are other initiatives that show how the Government is rapidly closing the gap between the metered consumers and non-metered consumers. Once there are meters, billing will be more transparent. I’m sure that satisfaction with the question of billing will reduce soon.
There are manufacturers and distributors’ rules of “no refund of money after payment,” and “goods received in good condition cannot be returned” on their receipts, do you think they are fair to the consumers?
Depending on the circumstances, to some extent, they are not particularly fair. However, there are circumstances where you buy a product especially a customized product and the manufacturer or service provider takes you through a process and allow you to see the design, you come up with a conclusion and agreed. In that case, when something is produce exclusively for you, a return or refund is more difficult. If they do not meet specifications that were mutually agree, modifications to bring it to the agreed specifications may be acceptable. Having said that, I totally disagree and CPC disagrees with the fact that once you purchase goods you are not eligible for a refund where the goods do not meet the appropriate expectations or appropriate standards. We are developing regulations around that which are warranty and guarantees regulations that will specify when refund is appropriate, when repair is appropriate and when replacement is appropriate.
According to your 2016 report, the total value of substandard products removed from Nigerian markets was over N242.3 million with food and beverages taking the lion share of over N200 million. How do you collaborate with sister agencies, such as NAFDAC and SON, to tackle the challenge of substandard products in the country?
First, I must let you know that the figures you see in the report is not the global figure, that is with respect to the functions of Consumer Protection Council, I just want to clarify that. We have relationships with most other regulators, certainly we have a relationship with SON and I have met with the Director-General a few times, since I assumed office. We have been working closely with NAFDAC also. I have met with the Director-General a number of times. One thing we are promoting is a far more robust memorandum of understanding that clarifies the role of each regulator. Now, in each of the statutes, there are specific roles that are common to these three organisations. There is regulatory overlap, which we are trying to address. We are leveraging on the expertise or the core areas of each of the regulators to ensure that consumers actually get the best possible protection in a cost effective and efficient manner. The quick example is that one of the first people who visited me after assuming office was the Zonal Head for the South-East, and I asked a question about what is going on in the South-East, what should I be aware of? She said that the biggest problem in the South-East is counterfeiting, and the situation is completely out of control. What I did following that was to initiate contacts with the Director-Generals of both SON and NAFDAC to come up with joint plan on how to address counterfeiting. This is an ongoing project right now.
The Bill for the establishment of CPC as a Commission is awaiting harmonisation by the Senate and the House of Representatives, what are your expectations and the benefits to consumers?
Our expectations are that the bill certainly has some revisions of what CPC does. It provides more resources in terms of statutory language and it expands the role of CPC to critical and vital consumer protection initiatives such as competition law. The Consumer Protection Council is ready. We are planning how the Council will be best positioned to enforce the provisions of the potential law when it becomes one; we look forward to it.
One big thing is that it expands some of the scope of the existing consumer protection laws which was enacted in 1992. This Law requires some revisions to be more modern and effective. Secondly, it improves competition and regulatory components of consumer protection work and that is a vital part of consumer protection. Part of consumer protection is that people have choices, and the market operates reasonably and prices are fair, that is what competition does.
As a visionary Director-General, where are you taking CPC to in a few years?
I hope that CPC is going to be a place where there are less complaints and where goods and service providers are more in tune with the consumers doing the best they can to provide services that truly meet the expectations of consumers.