By Chuka Agbilibeazu
Prior to the enactment of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Act, FCCPA, in January 2019, Nigerians continued to bemoan the non-existence of a comprehensive consumer protection legislation in the country.
The advent of the FCCPA appears to have changed that narrative. The law seeks to promote and maintain competitive markets, protect consumers’ interests and welfare, as well as facilitate access to a wider variety of quality products, among others.
Having had the law in place for 18 months, the question now is how well is it being applied to safeguard the interest, safety and welfare of Nigerian consumers? The answer to this poser is not far-fetched. Recent activities of FCCPC, which is the body responsible for the day-to-day administration of the FCCPA, underscore the potency and efficacy of the law.
For instance, in the wake of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the FCCPC issued several statements cautioning against price gouging and the manipulation of supplies in a manner that distorts the market or temporarily restricts availability in order to unreasonably, unfairly and arbitrarily increase prices on account of the pandemic.
Precisely, on February 28 the Commission expressed concern that certain suppliers and retailers were taking undue advantage of citizens and engaging in unconscionable trade practices with respect to basic safety and protective apparel such as face masks and latex gloves, as well as personal hygiene products like sanitisers and anti-bacterial wipes, because the products were relevant and necessary in preventing infection or spread of COVID-19.
According to the commission, “abusing citizens’ sensitivity, apprehension, anxiety and vulnerability, especially during emergencies that could adversely affect national security is a violation of law.
“Specifically, S.17(s) of FCCPA, prohibits ‘obnoxious trade practices,’ or the ‘unscrupulous exploitation of consumers.’ … Any conspiracy, combination, agreement or arrangement to unduly limit or manipulate supply in order to unreasonably enhance price or otherwise restrain competition is a criminal offence under S.108(1)(b) and (c) FCCPA.
“Any exercise or exploitation of undue pressure in selling or the sale of goods or services, or price manipulation between displayed, and selling price are also serious violations of the FCCPA under Sections 115(3) and 124(1).
“Considering the circumstances and the vital national interest/security this illegal conduct undermines, the Commission intends to strongly enforce the full letter of the law, including the fullest extent of penalties associated with this conduct.”
True to its words, it was not long after cautioning businesses to desist from the aforementioned acts that the Commission arraigned four popular pharmacies and supermarkets at the Federal High Court in Abuja over allegations of price gouging. Babatunde Irukera, the chief executive officer of the Commission, who personally led the Commission’s prosecuting team, explained that the charges against the defendants were to deter outrageously increasing gouging.
In furtherance of its COVID-19 response programme, the commission also clamped down on a number of other businesses for stocking expired and or expiring products, including other infractions of the FCCPA.
However, while pursuing its COVID-19 tasks, the FCCPC did not abandon its routine activities. As such, on April 14, the commission announced that, pursuant to Sections 17(s), (t), (x), (y); 18, 32, 123-125; 127-130 FCCPA, it had commenced investigation of failed elective cosmetic surgical procedures by a surgeon.
The commission explained that this was based on complaints and dissatisfaction with respect to certain elective/cosmetic surgical procedures carried out by the said surgeon, including allegations that medical practitioner engages in conduct that is considered otherwise unprofessional, misleading, potentially injurious and resulting in possible fatalities.
Accordingly, FCCPC, on April 15, sealed the doctor’s operations “in an abundance of caution and consumer safety, pending further inquiry.”
Fast forward from April 2020, the commission on July 3, arraigned the doctor on a five-count charge bordering on refusal to honour the invitation for investigation over alleged failed cosmetic surgical procedures. The offences were said to have contravened the provisions of sections 11(1)(a), 33(1)(a), 110, 113(1)(a) and 159(4) of the FCCPA.
It could be argued that the FCCPA is being vigorously implemented at the moment because the current chief executive officer of the FCCPC, Babatunde Irukera, is an experienced lawyer and a committed leader. This could be true in so many ways, particularly as Nigeria is a country where we have constantly seen institutions perform abysmally, in spite of huge potentials.
However, in the case of FCCPC, the current chief executive continues to exhibit great leadership and knowledge of the field. For instance, as a lawyer, he personally leads all criminal prosecutions and civil matters involving the Commission.
Babatunde Irukera’s record of advocacy and representation in competition and consumers’ issues is exceptional and provides the clarity that both the Commission and industry need in addressing issues of customer service/protection, promoting a level playing field in the Nigerian marketplace, and ensuring regulatory stability.
He has been in active legal practice for almost three decades. His varied experience ranges from being in-house counsel to General Counsel, Managing Partner in a law firm, and advising senior government officials as well as key government institutions. Over this diverse career, Babatunde gained considerable experience in transactions, civil rights and commercial litigation, regulatory work, government relations and practice management.
Key areas of significant litigation and resolution experience for Babatunde include medical malpractice. He was key counsel in prosecution, negotiation and settlement of a large multi-jurisdictional case involving a major pharmaceutical company and the conduct of a clinical trial that resulted in injuries.
He also played vital roles in sector-related consumer protection advancements including advising the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority with respect to its role in sector consumer protection. He led the initiative in developing current aviation consumer protection regulations as well as the Passenger Bill of Rights.
From the foregoing, the signs are clear that the FCCPA is being put to good use to protect the Nigerian consumer. And if its current leadership continues to discharge itself creditably, the fortune of Nigerian consumers will change for good in no time.
Agbilibeazu is a legal practitioner.