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Nigeria and the tragic case of two cans of Sprite

A drama of the absurd is  playing out in our country. At the centre of it is a supposed case of “two half-filled cans of Sprite.” The dramatis personae in this bizarre drama would want Nigerians to believe that two-half-filled cans of Sprite are responsible for the millions of Naira so far spent on press conferences, media coverage and the hiring of prosecution lawyers. Yet, all of this is happening in a country in which its leaders spend resources going all over the world, calling for investments, calling on corporations to site their factories and manufacturing plants in Nigeria. It would indeed have been laughable, if it were not so tragic!

Before we proceed further, a quick snapshot of the drama: Last February, the Director-General of the Consumer Protection Council, CPC, called a press conference in Lagos in which she announced that a consumer had reported a case of “two half-filled cans of Sprite.” She did not say that a laboratory test had confirmed that the remainder in the cans had become dangerous or poisonous for that reason.

She did not adduce any reason why and how two half-filled cans of Sprite constitute a challenge to the quality of products. Rather she proceeded to venomously attack the manufacturing companies, Nigerian Bottling Company and Coca Cola, warning that “Nigeria would not be a dumping ground for sub-standard products.” She proceeded to list out several orders, including asking the manufacturing companies to subject their manufacturing processes to CPC oversight.

A few days ago, the country woke up to hear that apparently on the instigation of the CPC, the Attorney General of the Federation had taken both Coca Cola Nigeria and its bottlers, Nigerian Bottling Company to court. Upon taking both companies to court, the CPC quickly issued a press statement to that effect, even before the court had served notice to the companies. Later in the week, it again issued another press statement stating that November 4 had been fixed for hearing of the suit by the Federal Government against the two companies.

Antics of bureaucracy

Investors who are familiar with the antics of the bureaucracy in corruption-ridden Third World countries know and understand the script very well: They are likely to laugh and shake their heads in derision at how far some so-called developing countries can go in order to self destruct.

But the real danger is for those investors in the developed countries who do not understand how things work in poorly organised and corrupt third world countries. Given the sacredness that should be attached to the process of a country supposedly suing a corporation, such investors may indeed be worried about what is going on in Nigeria. It is important that we do not allow a few government officials driven by ego and their selfish interests to pull the wool over the eyes of such investors and create a negative image for Nigeria.

The major regulators of operatives in the soft drinks industry are the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control, NAFDAC and the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, SON. NAFDAC has well-equipped laboratories and trained staff and conducts quality control tests at all phases of the production process. SON plays a complementary role as well in this regard, all to ensure that  production is in line with global best practice, for the good of Nigeria. Does the CPC have the facilities, the staff and the wherewithal to oversee the production process of a manufacturer of soft drinks? Does it have a laboratory to assess quality or standards? Does a half-filled can of Sprite mean that the contents of the can of Sprite have become dangerous or harmful?

The whole world is, today, witness to the news that Toyota is recalling well over a million cars to its factories worldwide. Thankfully, Toyota’s factories are sited in developed countries of the world. Had the company made the mistake of siting such a factory in Nigeria, perhaps by now, regulators in the ilk of the CPC would have gone to town, maligning the multinational corporation. They may even have taken the company to court and threatened the MD with possible “several years in prison if found guilty.”

As knowledgeable people around the world – whether developed or developing- know, manufacturing is not an error-free process anywhere in the world. A company churning out millions of cars to the market monthly, can record an error or two in one or two cars. A manufacturing plant churning out a thousand cans of soft drink by the minute can certainly record one can or thereabout being short-filled or even over full. There is no perfect manufacturing process in the world. What every industry strives to achieve is near-zero defect production.

What the government and its agencies should be helping the industry to achieve is near zero defect production. The current resort to name-calling and abuse of multinational companies is a sad and unfortunate commentary on the quality of officers in some of our government agencies.

There are reports that indicate that both multinational companies have since gone to court to seek an injunction to challenge the court case by the Federal Government. This is a good way to go. It is most unfortunate, however, that in the eyes of the unknowing investor out there in the developed world, these developments have taken an unnecessary toll on Nigeria’s image and as well as the credibility of the CPC as a regulator that should be taken seriously.

The National Assembly needs to re-look the whole issue of multiple regulation in what is turning to be a rather chaotic operating environment in Nigeria’s private sector. Specialised regulation should remain the forte of organisations that have the expertise to regulate specialised sectors. The CPC has been known to shut down base stations and offices of telecom companies in the past, forcing the Nigerian Communications Commission, NCC, to warn in a recent advert, on the dangers of such impunity. If indeed, we are as serious about industrialisation as we proclaim at every opportunity, then we need to imbibe the professionalism of the developed world in managing and overseeing multinational industrial organisations which choose to set up shop in Nigeria.

Ikenna Agu, a freelance journalist, wrote from Lagos




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