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Babatunde Irukera is the Director General of the Consumer Protection Council (CPC). In this exclusive interview, Irukera who played key roles in consumer protection advancements before his appointment as Director-General discusses the viability of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Bill, saying it will strengthen the consumer protection regime in the country, if passed into law. “The biggest thing the bill stands to add to the current consumer protection regime is that it will clarify certain areas as well as block gaps that give rise to the exploitation of consumers.”
Irukera who assumed office six months ago discussed the challenges he met in office saying “the most daunting challenge was dearth of resources in the sense that we had a Council where human capital was insufficient and unmotivated,” adding that there was also need for capacity upscale as well as upgrade of physical infrastructures in CPC headquarters and branch offices in states across the country.
“So I spent most of the past six months in office trying to address these critical challenges. Gratefully, we have made some progress,” he said.
Irukera discussed the achievements of the Council in his first six months in office saying the period under review has been eventful and remarkable.
Commending government for support, he said: “The Federal Government has been very supportive. The presidency, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Budget Office recognise the importance of consumer protection and they literarily understand our passion for change and improvement in the CPC, and are doing the best to give us the support we need to succeed, and we are succeeding.”
Francis Kadiri reports.
The Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Bill has been passed by the National Assembly, and is soon to be presented to President Muhammadu Buhari for his assent. If the president assents to the bill, what would be its impact on the country’s consumer protection regime?
I certainly think that that bill when passed into law would dramatically change the consumer protection space for several reasons. It will administer change from a structured stand point and also from a specific provision stand-point. From a structured stand-point, it will introduce a totally different component of consumer protection that is not currently a legal regime in Nigeria – the competition law.
Competition law is essentially about the economics of consumer protection which has to do with providing choice and fair pricing while preventing exploitation. There is nothing that promotes innovation as much as competition. Once you have a vibrant competition regime, consumers are always the beneficiaries. There are specific provisions within the bill-in-progress that expands the scope of the current Consumer Protection Council Act.
One of the most innovative things about the proposed bill is that it also seeks to stablish a competition and consumer protection tribunal. The tribunal creates a separate judicial process track for consumer protection and competition issues. This in itself is a very important reform in how disputes are resolved and certainly how companies and consumers seek to resolve disputes within the space.
What difference would then be felt?
One of the most important things that the bill in progress will do when passed into law is that it will provide the needed clarity. The whole nature of legislative process is that once you create a law, it is only when it gets to the market that you can see its behavior. So we have seen how the current CPC Act is behaving in the market place. It has been in force since 1992 and the Council has been operational since 1999.
So the biggest thing the bill stands to add to the current consumer protection regime is that it will clarify certain areas as well as fill certain gaps including blocking the gaps that give rise to the exploitation of consumers.
What challenges did you inherit when you came into office six months ago, and how have you turned them into achievements?
There were multiple challenges when I came on board. The most daunting was the resource challenge in the sense that we had a Council where the human capital was not only insufficient, but also lacked motivation. Apart from these, there were capacity issues i.e. the need for staff training in order to scale-up the level of staff expertise in the multiple tasks of the Council.
Another major need was that of physical infrastructure in the head office and all the zonal offices. There was significant need for infrastructure upgrade because the structures were failing.
Then Council didn’t have sufficient tools to carry out its multiple functions. I spent most of the past six months in office trying to address these critical challenges. Gratefully, we have made some progress especially that we are soon to relocate from the office complex here in Abuja to a suitable one. We will not stop at that, we will replicate the infrastructure success across our offices in various states. We are also working to achieve the same feat in Lagos and Port Harcourt. In Bauchi state, the office is already relocating to its new structure. We have received assurance that the Katsina office is soon to also relocate. In addition to these CPC has been able to open its office in Kano.
Another success in progress has to do with our quest to the government of Niger State. The government of Niger state has just responded to our quest and they are talking to us about a better space.
As a matter of fact the Federal Government has been very supportive. The presidency, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, the Federal Ministry of Finance and the Budget Office recognise the importance of consumer protection and they literarily understood our passion for change and improvement in the CPC, and are doing the best to give us the support we need to succeed, and we are succeeding.
CPC is the regulator of the market and Nigeria has got a market of a hundred and eighty million people which is the equivalent of the DPR in the oil industry. This administration understands that CPC is a very important regulatory organisation that must be properly resourced.
The other challenge that existed when I assumed office was the need for synergy and relationship with other organisations. There is overlap of functions between CPC and some other regulatory organisations like the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority, the Central Bank of Nigeria, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), the Standards organization of Nigeria (SON), and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) among others. So we began to engage the sister organizations and we are still working to expand the scope of the Memoranda of Understanding with them. I am happy that we have also made tremendous success in this regard.
So I have been executing foundation works and we are soon to begin to fire the cylinders as a Council and then our work will be far more efficient and impactful.
It is noteworthy that the Buhari administration recognises the importance of consumer protection as a result of which government is committed to resourcing it as much as possible. That in itself determines how far and how fast the Council can run.
We have been able to engage industry on what we consider to be the importance of consumer protection and how to hold people accountable.
What will Council do to create an interface between consumers and service providers in the interest of consumer protection?
We are doing something very serious that aims to ease the participation of consumers and industry in consumer protection: We are developing the automation of the consumer protection process such that it will be easy to harvest complaints and attend to them easy. Consumers will be able to lodge complaints from their mobile sets and other devices as easy as possible. The automation process will provide an avenue for industry and service providers to benefit from the process by being able to respond to the various complaints that will be lodged by consumers. As a monitoring organisation, CPC will be a watchdog that will monitor the complaints and watch how quickly they are resolved by service providers.
How would you protect illiterate consumers in rural areas who need to be protected from abuse but who are not literate to seek redress?
That is a very important aspect of our mandate and to fulfill that, CPC is about to start a nationwide campaign with UNIDO. The campaign involves going to the states to sensitise consumers on what we believe are the important rights that consumers should know about.
The first thing is for consumers to know their rights. Secondly consumers should know that there is a regulator responsible to hold industry accountable to obeying the rules of engaging the consumer.
What I have done is to let service providers know that the focus of this administration is very different from what used to be. My consumer education agenda is that service providers are expected to have done resourceful research on messages and how to get the attention of consumers in 774 Local Government Areas in Nigeria. They have created the dissemination channels to ensure that their products reach these locations. So we will also hold them responsible for educating the consumers in the nook and crannies where their products are found.
They should also as well deploy the skills they used to market their products to educating consumers on the products, and advise consumers about their rights. For example, it is not enough to say that your data plan is the best, service providers must also be able to tell consumers what to do when they have a problem.