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Nigerians Are Now More Inspired To Enforce Consumer Rights – Irukera

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Mr. Babatunde Irukera is the Director-General of Consumer Protection Council (CPC). In this interview with LEADERSHIP, he speaks on efforts the organisation is making to deliver its core mandate among other burning issues.

What is the level of collaboration between the CPC and agencies like the Nigerian Customs Service (NCS) and the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON)?

Very robust. Engagement with the other agencies is very robust. I speak with them, depending on what the issues are, on continuous basis. One of the first things I did was to pursue Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with different other regulators – the Central Bank, NCC, Civil Aviation Authority etc. In almost every sector where we have intervened, we have always walked with the sector regulators. For instance, at one point, when there were issues in the food industry, we cooperated with NAFDAC.

In more than one occasion we have done that. With respect to aviation, in resolving some key issues, we collaborated with the NCAA. Right now we have opened investigation into the telecommunication service and it is in collaboration  with the NCC. We are constantly working with  the National Energy Regulatory Commission (NERC) to resolve issues in the electricity sector and working with the CBN also to address issues in banking.

Nigerian consumers believe they cannot easily get justice whenever they are shortchanged by manufacturers of products or service providers. Why is this so?

Well,  the apathy is strong for two reasons. First is the despondence that have come over a period of time where people easily didn’t get solutions, or their grievances where not sufficiently addressed. That is on one side. On that same side is the fact that, true, because there was no serious consequence management mechanism in place. Companies that provide service or produce goods do not believe, and rarely prioritise customer care from the regulatory standpoint.

From the commercial standpoint, I suppose they were doing what they thought they could do, to protect their brands and advance their businesses. I am not going to say that they were completely negligent of the principle. But from the regulatory standpoint, I don’t think they did that much. That is on the one side. Then the other side is also from the consumer education and consumer awareness standpoint. Whether people really know their rights and recognize that those rights appropriately are their rights and obligation of someone else to respect.

How is CPC educating consumers on their rights and how they can obtain redress when those rights are violated?

One thing is clear. When I arrived here, Consumer Protection Council was getting about an average of between seven hundred and a thousand complaints and that was for  a whole  year.  But right now even in a week, in two days we can get 300 complaints. So we are getting a lot more complaints. Now, getting a lot more complaints is not because things are getting worse in the industry because in reality things has gotten better. But the awareness has increased and people have just become more inspired to enforce their rights. You know, one of our key campaigns has been ‘the demand and insist campaign’ where we are asking people to make sure they demand on theirs rights, and when those rights are not respected, they should insist and only when that does not happen should they come to the CPC.

In addition to that, because of that wide spread campaign and the better visibility for CPC, that has improved the complaints channels. Also,  we have expanded the existing channels. So, now, I am constantly on twitter and other social media platforms. When people complain on social media platforms we take it up and look to address it. But much more than any of these is the fact that hopefully in a matter of weeks we will be launching the broadest and most comprehensive conflict resolution mechanism and applications that is created. So, that really opens up the channels. In addition, we have opened up physical offices. We have open an office in Kano recently and that is also a place to receive more complaints.

There have been some remarkable enforcement activities by CPC, can you share how difficult or easy those activities have been?

Nothing, absolutely, in any way characterize any of the enforcement activities we’ve done as easy. Very challenging. Sadly, what I have found in the environment is that the CPC had to start its regulatory work, literarily, almost from an adversarial  standpoint  and industry resistance. Industry resist, sometimes even other regulators resist. But over a period of time, I have the mutual confidence that is required from industry and the regulators to know that at the end of the day, what we are looking for is to optimize the market and make sure everything goes on well. I think we are arriving at that but yes, the nature of the industry is to try and keep business high and to keep government out of their business.

And in an environment, where we think that abuse has been excessive in the past, you can imagine what that resistance will be. But what I have been very clear about is that the law is what it is, the law is very clear. I believe that every ethical service provider, goods producer and the CPC want exactly the same thing. And so if you are ethical, obviously we should be on the same page. So, I think we’re experiencing may be less resistance. May be not less resistance but certainly better understanding of the fact that we are here to stay and the earlier  we figure out how to collaborate for effectiveness the better for the market eco-system.

During the Conference  on the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, you advocated civil and criminal liabilities against tobacco firms for tobacco harms.Tell us more about that…

Prior to coming to CPC, I had quite extended experience with tobacco litigation. I have some knowledge about that. I suppose the point you are addressing is on Article 19 of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control recognizing litigation as one of the most important tool for tobacco control and holding tobacco companies accountable for what they have done  in the past and also holding them accountable for how they carry on with their business now and in the future. So yes, I chaired the panel on Article 19 during the Conference of Parties in Geneva.

And essentially it supports or create toolkit and access for stakeholders, policy makers, enforcers, their lawyers in different parts of the world, on how to approach the question of liability. And all it needs is simple product liability theory. If you create something, you manufacture something, and it is used in manner that creates injuries, you must be held accountable for the injury. That’s a simple theory of liability that applies in any jurisdiction under any law. Whether it is common law, civil law anywhere in the world.

And so, what the Conference of Parties is encouraging nations or states and member to do is to use their local laws and globally accepted theories of liability to ensure that tobacco companies are held accountable. As a regulator, all we are saying is that whatever it is that protects consumers as long as they use the product by legitimate method, if they experience any injury on account of that, whether through litigation or a regulatory process, those who produce those products must be held accountable.

There is the controversial Electronic Nicotine Delivery  Systems (ENDS) which is touted as less harmful. Some of those products are now marketed online. Do you see this as a threat to Nigeria?

Well, I think any access to any tobacco product that is unrestricted and that is not managed in accordance with a very strict access law is obviously a threat to public health. So whether it is a combustible product like cigarette or a non- combustible product like the new generation product like ENDS, I firmly believe that online sales which do not have the normal restriction or the normal access control, present certainly a great risk. And from the little understanding I have of ENDS, it is a very innovative product. I think it is important first, that we really truly fully understand that product, the scope of it, the component of it , the science of it and a whole lot of other things before we determine whether it should even be accessible in the first place and then what kind of access. I think e-commerce is a very important part of business and it has come to stay. And I think we must promote it but we must also balance that with public health.

You have served two years as Director-General of the Consumer Protection Council (CPC). Tell us what kind of environment you met when you assumed office?

You know, I will look at it from institutional standpoint and market standpoint. When I came to the agency it was obviously under-resourced, staff were not at their best level of motivation and so we had to get cracking on how to optimize the potentials of the purpose for  which the agency was created. From the market standpoint, it was not visible. Known but not well known. CPC wasn’t nearly regarded as it should be regarded. Industry did not regard it in a manner that is appropriate for a regulator to be regarded and consumers also didn’t regard it as well as it could from the standpoint of whether it is still able to provide solution to their challenges. So that is what I met.

What is your message to Nigerian consumers?

My simple message to Nigerian consumers is that, it is not a privilege that you buy and expect to be treated fairly in what you buy or what you take. You have a right and the jurisprudence of having a right is that when a right resides in you, somebody else has a duty to respect and comply with that right. So, for the people who make things for you to consume, your right translate to a duty in them. I would say demand  your rights every time. And when they are not complied with, insist on them. When they demand and insist and still don’t get the appropriate product or appropriate service, the regulatory process, especially the Consumer Protection Council, will support some kind of retribution to address whatever injuries you suffer.


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