By Innocent Anaba
Mrs. Dupe Atoki, a lawyer is the Director-General, Consumer Protection Council, CPC. In this interview, she speaks on the challenges facing the agency , the suit between the Council and Nigerian Bottling company and other issues. Excerpt:
You have been in the saddle as Director – General of CPC. What has your experience?
It’s been an exciting experience because I thrive in challenges and it’s an assignment that is full of challenges. The mandate of the council is to ensure that consumers rights and interests are protected. We have over 150 million active consumers in Nigeria, marked against the diversity of products in local, international and also services that are rendered. So, you can imagine the stakeholders that we are actually looking at.
However, interesting as this should have been, the first challenge I have is consumer apathy, which has resulted from the fact that over the years, Nigerians have not been able to gain the confidence of the agency to provide sufficient protection for them. I also see that the consumer illiteracy as one very big challenge, because you cannot protect people who don’t even know their rights. It’s when you know your rights that you assert it, but if you don’t, you remain docile, you remain trampled upon and you continue to be abused. So, those are what I found on resumption of office.
So, what measure did you adopt to address some of the initial challenges?
I carried out a survey across that country and the consumer awareness was very low which gave me great concern, I had to find a way to address that challenge and improve the consumer awareness in Nigeria. I found out that the agencies which are related in terms of products and services have not developed a system prior to now, where they engage each other to the maximum benefit of such collaborations. And so, every agency has carved out its own tough and is protecting it very viciously and this was detrimental to consumer’s interests. If the agencies of government which in my opinion, are building blocks to achieve the governance goal of government are not intertwined, then we will continue to remain very inefficient, because even in building a house, you must over lay the blocks and that’s when you get a good and solid structure.
You can imagine if you keep laying a block horizontally or vertically, that is not what governance is about and I think that agencies of government are instruments of governance and it is important for us to work together. I found that as an existing challenge and which has resulted in some of the agencies actually challenging the activities of the Consumer Protection Council, say out of ignorance that the council does not have the powers to carry out its activities. Of course, funding will remain a challenge.
What of funding, are well funded?
Government can never fully fund any organisation. It’s an utopia that we should not even attempt to imagine. But for us, it’s compounded by the fact that we do not generate income like some other agencies. We cannot charge complainants for complaints that they have brought to us, we are a pro-bone agency. So, it’s there, but I really do not want to flag that out too heavily, but it is a very important issue that needs to be addressed, because if we have to actualize one of the mandates of the Council which is to educate consumers, then we must be appropriately funded to be able to use all the various media, to engage consumers to understand what their rights are. But I think that the government, when it is sufficiently sensitized about the role and the activities of CPC and its relevance to the economic development, should be able to give a second thought to the issue of adequate funding. So, briefly, those are the challenges I have.
What is the structure of the Council, how many branch offices do you have?
In terms of the structure of the Council, there are seven offices one in each of the geopolitical zones and an extra one for Lagos because of the commercial activities in Lagos and our headquarters. In a country where we have over 170million people, I think that is grossly inadequate. And with a staff strength of barely 250, that again is a challenge, a great one which I believe we need to address urgently.
Have you considered collaboration with other organisations as a possible alternative to funding?
In terms of collaboration, I think that is this year. We have agreed with some of the agencies that we will have an overlap with, for instance, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, SON, both of us are actually in the same ministry. We have had a chat and we understand the need to work with each other because they develop standards but they don’t have the powers to enforce the standards in favour of consumers. The powers that they have are to sanitise the industry by either removing those products from the market, destroy them or seal the premises. It doesn’t translate to consumer education, so, at the end of the day, the consumer education, in ensuring remedy for the victims of violation of those standards are indirectly enforcing the standards that the SON has set.
So, we have come to the conclusion that because we do have powers of enforcements, which they do not have, we will work together. So, I think we will be talking to these organisations one after the other. Those of them which are amenable to such collaborations, we’ll work together.
Why can’t you collaborate with some multinational companies and non-governmental organizations that are operating within or share similar vision with your Council?
With non- governmental organisations, I don’t have any problem, particularly if they are registered to protect consumers.
With NGOs, we are good to have those ready and are on ground and actually working for the protection of consumers, but with the multinationals, I think it’s a no-go area for us. They are the organisations or businesses for which we would have to enforce the Act against them in the event where they have not complied with the Consumer Protection Act. And for me, I think that I would rather stay clear of any area of compromise and deal with whatever challenge I have in another way. If there are opportunities to collaborate on the technical level, which will not arm twist us, that’s fine. But at the moment, I’m working with other international funders, who are actually ready to support the work of the consumers. Those funders are impartial, in fact, they are in business to fund and so, I don’t have any problem relating with them and I’m quite happy that I’m not going to be blackmailed at some point in time into submission when I call upon such organisations to comply with the Act.
We read of a matter involving the agency and Coca-Cola, that you took Nigerian Bottling Company bottlers of coca-cola to court. What actually happened?
Ahead of my statement, let me say they went to court first, so they started this legal tango. And to added that the matter is already in court, so its sub-judice, but what I will let the public know is what they already know via the media, that there was a complaint on a product of Nigerian Bottling Company, NBC, licensed under the authority of Coca- Cola product of Sprite which was half filled and was purchased and the person complained. Surprisingly, because Nigerians don’t care, and would say ‘well, this is Nigeria.’ But because we believe the time has come for every infraction, no matter how minor it is, as long as it doesn’t give value for money for consumers, we must look into it.
It’s easy to say ‘what’s the big deal,’ which is what most people have responded, “what’s the big deal about half can of sprite when there are cockroaches and there are flies and whatever,’ but there is a starting point. And so the Council took it up to invite the parties and conducted an investigation which lasted about three months when documents were received, onsite visits to the factories were carried out and we came to the conclusion that there were much more infractions beyond the two half cans of Sprite and we addressed those infractions via recommendation we made known to the public as well as the company to improve.
These recommendations are to improve their production and to assure the consumer that the products that come out of their factory are standardized and meet international standards. There is nowhere in the world that you buy or find a half-filled product on the shelf. It may be allowed by some scientific faction in the course of production but you should take it out and destroy it.
So, what did you do in the instant case?
We sent the information to them to comply and pay the necessary investigation cost. But rather than do that, they proceeded to the court within two weeks of receiving the letter, two weeks of receiving this report, to contest the authority of the council to investigate, I mean, that is never put in the public domain. CPC has gone ahead to immediately prosecute the NBC. That we are wielding the big stick unnecessarily and aggressively but ‘no.’ I mean, the court case got started by the two companies and the matter is still in court where we are being challenged for performing our statutory functions.
Because the CPC has also its own powers to prosecute for non-compliance with the order of Council, the Attorney-General rightfully too, has commenced the process of ensuring compliance with the order of the Council by filing charges against them, not only the companies, but also the two Managing Directors of the companies for failing to comply with the order of the Council and another for failing to obey the summons. I think the rest is history but, I mean, the records must be put straight that as early as two weeks after we issued our orders, they challenged the orders in court and that should be also be put in the public as well.
Today in Nigeria, we have various service providers, electricity, telecoms who are not living up to expectations. What are you doing about this?
The CPC has become the Father Christmas, the Mr. Fix-it for all, you know. CPC what are you doing about telecoms? CPC what are you doing about light? CPC what are you doing about this and about that?’ I’m always amazed when I get asked these questions.
But you’re entitled to your views, because we put ourselves out as the agency that government had established to ensure that you get value for money. But in all sincerity, I think that the level of consumer abuse in Nigeria is so huge that anybody coming into it and promise within a year that he is going to surmount it is just unrealistic and that’s why I have made no promises.
Since I took over, I have made no promises but I will at the appropriate time deal with each and every of these areas. But for me, this was what also informed my Global Sectoral intervention in my strategic plan because I realised that the abuses are so huge, that if you want to resolve them by individual complaints, you will never be able to get it done. So, the strategic plan has come up with a sectoral intervention where you take these abuses and look at a sector impact, address that sector on a global holistic level and then everything moves.
Now, if we are able to address the food and beverage sector by ensuring that we speak to the sector through a particular intervention, everybody in that sector sits up and therefore, minimize individual complaints. And so that was my own interpretation of how to quickly deal with a heap of abuses which you can never address by individual method. And so at the beginning of my tenure, I invited them, before we begin to pass judgment, I thought it was important that we had a round-table discussion with the various heads of those providers.
So, we understand what their problem is and we also tell them that once consumers subscribe and money is deducted, they should get value for money and for us to have a discussion. But, of course, there was a very poor response from them, which all of you know. Of course, it is not uncommon that some manufacturers or service providers think that they don’t owe any obligation to any agency, but I think that any organisation or provider that thinks so is obviously unaware of the powers of the Council.
Coincidentally with regards to the telecoms sector, the minister, Dr. Mobolaji Johnson, is very aware of the powers of the council and has encouraged the sector regulator to ensure that they work with the CPC in bringing closure to consumer complaints. So, let me just say in answer to your question that we have all these sectors in our radar and we can only deal with them one at a time and I’m hoping that before my tenure runs out, I would have been able to touch each of these sectors and bring a positive effect which will reduce consumer complaint across board.