Time to prosecute companies, directors who violate consumer rights

on   /   in Business 12:58 am   /   Comments

By Omoh Gabriel, Business Editor &  Franklin Alli

Last week, the Minister of Communication Technology, Mrs. Omobola Johnson and Mrs. Dupe Atoki, Director-General, Consumer Protection Council, sealed a synergy aimed at protecting the more than 100 million general system for mobile communication, GSM users in the country against rip-offs by operators in the industry.  Excerpt:

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Will what you are doing lead to a shorter approval time ?

The answer to that question is yes! It will lead to a shorter approval time because we are not only negotiating for improvement in infrastructure but also for market standards at the federal level. We are saying that from the day you apply for right of way, you should get the approval within 30 days. The right of way at the federal level has been reduced by 90 per cent.

We have negotiated and agreed with all state governments to reduce right of way on state highways and also reduce charges on infrastructure in Lagos State. We have reached a landmark agreement that has reduced right of way by 85 per cent and charges on infrastructure by 45 per cent.

Ekiti, Cross River and Lagos states are partnering with telecoms companies to build metro fibre by giving outright waivers on right of way cost in exchange for a share of revenue.

And that also applies at the state level. For base stations, there is an approval that has been passed by the Ministry of Environment for the articulation of base stations. Right now, they have to do environmental impact assessment with effect from 2014. All these efforts, we believe, will lead to a shorter approval time.

Why does it take you so long to regulate the industry?

It is not that it takes so long and the CPC has alluded to that. I think that we need to be deliberate and purposeful in the way that we supervise and regulate the industry.

Like I said, we were aware of the problems and challenges the telecoms operators are facing such as the cost of right of way on state and federal highways to lay fiber optic cable, the issue of multiple and sometimes arbitrary taxation on ICT infrastructure by state and local governments, destruction of their infrastructure through deliberate acts of vandalism, terrorism and natural disasters such as floods and of course, having to power each base station with diesel generators.

We gave them 18 months and we said we will work on these problems in 18 months and we expect that they would do their own part and work on those infrastructure.

I have just read out to you some of the landmark achievements that the ministry has made with a lot of effort. But we are seeing that the mobile network operators have not been committed in the aspect of infrastructure and so that is why it is taking us this long.

It is important for us as a government to understand, to communicate and to work with the agencies that will work with the supervisor, so that it is not as if we just come and make them do things when we know that the environment is not sustainable.
We are getting to the point; we have a much steady environment and as we speak, we are improving it every single day and we are at the point where we think that telecoms operators must sit up and do their own part in terms of trying to meet the quality of service requirement set for them.

Do you approve the promotions being done by the service providers?

There is a difference between promotion and lottery. Promo normally has to do with service; you get more airtime because you have done a particular thing or you are on a particular tariff but lottery is a game of chance and I think that the person who asked the question was talking of lottery instead of promo.

Lottery is a game of chance which is played through telecommunications and it can also be played by other corporate organisations but unfortunately, the Nigerian Communication Commission, NCC, does not have mandate to control lottery.

There is a body, a commission, Nigerian Lottery Regulatory Commission that has been mandated to control lottery, and if there is for example issues of payment or fraud in the lottery process and so on, the lottery regulatory commission will handle it and not the NCC.

The NCC comes in only when the quality of service is being affected in a way by the promos or lotteries that are going on on a particular network and as we have mentioned, we lowered the parameters for these past 18 months which will expire on the 31st of December, 2013.

And I can tell you that all the original quality of service parameters have been set, and we have put the the service providers on notice that the lower parameters of service will be nullified come December 31st .

What have you been doing on consumer education?

I agree with you that we need to do a lot on education of consumers. From my international experience, consumer education in Nigeria is low; there is no dispute about this. The first level of protection of rights is the awareness of rights system.

When consumers are aware of their rights, where and how to redeem them, the first part of our mandate will have been achieved; you can’t protect or seek redress when you don’t know if your right has been violated or not.

When you know that your right has been abused, you can then complain to the Council to get speedy redress. So for me, two areas on my radar are consumer education and the second is redress. So I agree that I have a task on my hands not only for the telecoms sector, but all sectors in the economy.

You mentioned banking; I add aviation, electricity, and so on, and for me it was almost a consuming situation when I realised the vastness of the work that needs to be done by CPC but I just want to say give us a little time, we are beginning and I have a consumer education task force to come up with what we need to do to get messages out to consumers sector by sector.

We have done the aviation sector and we will be rolling out what the consumer rights are shortly in the aviation sector, we have also concluded on the telecoms sector which we will be telling you shortly what your rights are. In due course, there will be heightened consumer education across board.

In case of violation of consumer rights, who do you prosecute, the company or the managing director?

You see what EFCC does; you prosecute the company and the director as the case may be, so the company is primarily the first entity to be dealt with, when we summon for instance some of these multinational companies, they have their headquarters outside the country, if my investigation requires that one of their officers in charge of Africa should be summoned to attend investigation in Nigeria, he would be summoned and if he disobeys, we will know what to do with him, we would try to use that power as soon as possible.

I think that with regards to the promotions, the Consumers Protection Act also mandated that you seal the promotions such that it is not defective and therefore all promotions should be registered with the CPC to ensure that at the end of the day, the consumers are not short-changed, by false declaration or false promises, and I do realise in the analysis that I have made that a lot of companies don’t submit their promotions to the council.

I think by the time we reposition ourselves and our legitimacy is firm, a lot of things will be in the right order.

What is happening to the Consumer patronage bill at the National Assembly that should strengthen the council to effectively carry out its statutory functions?

The bill before the House of Representatives is to repeal the existing bill for a new Act. Of course, when you review a bill, obviously there is a gap that has been identified and I don’t think that there is any law that is self-sufficient.

There is always a need to renew laws as issues come up. One of the highlights I keep saying about the bill is that it has thrown light on e-commerce which was not in existence at the time when the Act was adjusted in 1999; e-commerce is now included and we need an updated regulation to deal with e-commerce which was not in existence.

Now to strengthen the council, yes, the bill now mandates that each state should have CPC presence, contrary to what is on ground now, we have CPC in zones and a state representing the various zones so Osogbo for instance is representing south-west, Port Harcourt is representing south-south, that can’t cover anywhere, so the bill now has mandated that there should be creation of an office or an extension of CPC in all the states so that we can protect the rights of rural dwellers.

So we would continue to look at other methods to enhance what we have; what we have now can’t make any meaningful impact on the rights of consumers. And I don’t want to take up a task that is super-human.

It is impossible to reach 160 million people with six skeletal offices that are barley functional. It is impossible!. From the sector where I preside, we are the only organisation that touches on every sector of the economy- we cover the whole of 160 million people.

That is my constraint. And that means that government should look at the mandate of CPC and match it with commensurate funding if only first, for public enlightenment campaigns to enable us carry out our mandates efficiently and to a better level.

I cannot promise that I can get to the rural consumers now but we will soon get there if and if only our funding is enhanced. We are making a presentation through the minister for a proper analysis of the Council’s mandates and an enhanced funding provision to enable us get down to as  many people as possible .

What is the punishment for the company that violates consumer rights?

The challenge of doing business in Nigeria is the usual justification for these violations by service providers. However, as far as  CPC is concerned, as long as a business is in operation, and consumers pay for the service or product, Nigerian consumers must get value for their money.

Under the Consumer Protection Council ‘s Act, CPC has the power to sanction, prosecute and compel any product or service provider, to answer a lawful inquiry, disobedience of which are criminalised.

In addition to these, violators risk prosecution and jail terms of up to five years if investigations carried out revealed that they have deliberately short-changed consumers in service delivery. While NCC can impose fines on an offending company, CPC can in addition commit such offenders to jail terms for having contravened any consumer protection enactment.

How widespread are your offices nationwide?

The spread is limited; we have offices in the six geo- political zones which mean we have six offices but Lagos has its own office because of its cosmopolitan and commercial advantages Lagos brings into the business.

This means we have seven offices in addition to the headquarters. That is what I met on the ground and this is one of my challenges. We can’t reach the public if we are going to operate on the current structures that we have.

Each of the zones probably has not more than 20 staff and the zonal headquarters are expected to cover at least five states; that is work.

So I am in need of reviewing this structure and getting it down to the grassroots and again, that is where there is the need for print and electronic media. If the truth must be said, we can’t be everywhere in Nigeria; there is no way that will be possible even if we have an office in the 36 states, we can’t still cover the whole nation.

Do you have toll-free lines, and what is the rate of consumers’ complaint you receive weekly, monthly?

No we don’t have toll-free lines. Toll-free means you can call and you aren’t charged. I am hoping that we can do that. In addition, I am hoping that we can develop a contact centre. Contact centre is not just your telephone alone, you can have on Face book, Twitter and all other social networks.

I am in the process of finalizing that so that we can receive up to 100 calls at the same time because I know that the roller-coaster effect of massive advocacy is that Nigerians are very good to rise up when they are shown the way. So we should expect an avalanche of complaints and mostly the necessary receptacles for those complaints.

There is also in the pipeline call centres that can recive several calls at the same time and it is also processed in a manner that will enable quick response. The second question on the number of complaints, let me say that I am not able to give you precise number now; but I can say that it is low compared to Nigeria’s population.

What is CPC doing about ‘goods once purchased can’t be returned’, whereas there is six to one year warranty on the product?
You are right. A lot of people get away with the issue of warranty, and we will be getting there shortly. CPC does not have its own power to enforce warranty. We don’t have that so we must develop one and to ensure that is in line with the best international practices with regards to warranty and we will develop it.

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