Director General of Consumer Protection Council (CPC), Mr. Babatunde Irukera, in this interview with Ralph Omololu Agbana, spoke on the council’s achievements and challenges amid current efforts towards more efficient mechanisms to protect consumers.
The Consumer Protection Council (CPC), among others things is empowered to eliminate hazardous products from the market; provide speedy redress to consumers complaints, and undertake campaigns as will lead to increased awareness, ensure that consumers interest receive due consideration at the appropriate forum. To what extent have these been realised?
All things considered, I believe the council has done remarkably well. Assuming office in the Council has been my closest opportunity to see exactly how the council works and what goes into a day’s job. Ultimately, we are talking about less than 300 people with almost 200 of them in Abuja and the remaining in 7 other cities to police 36 states, 774 local government areas and 180 million people. Consider for a moment how many business providing consumer goods or services.
In the food and beverage industry alone, we have more than 100 major players, and I am not even counting minor players. Some of these major players have varied products with some of them having as many as 30-50 Stock Keeping Units (SKU) on offer. Some of the visitors I havereceived in the council come into my office pleasantly surprised after sitting in my waiting area and watching consumer testimonials of how the council resolved their grievances.
This said, we are currently developing more efficient mechanisms for addressing consumer dissatisfaction, and we have been having discussions with industry and service providers about a collaboration that works and promotes customer service, fair resolution of complaints and overall prioritisation of consumer issues.
Since coming on board, what are the major targets you have set for your team?
I have been on the job for approximately six months. My assessment of the council when I assumed office made it imperative that we develop some really short-term objectives. It was clear to me that the council’s effectiveness in protecting consumers critically depended on key internal and structural issues that needed to be promptly addressed.
As such, it became a matter of urgency to inspire a de-motivated, over-stretched and sometimes uncoordinated workforce; acquire critical tools to function; provide alternative physical infrastructure; re-establish, and in some cases, expand cooperation and relationships with other regulators; engage industry, and refocus some of the council’s priorities.
In this regard, we are at advanced stages of negotiating and concluding the widest and most comprehensive Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with other key sector regulators to clarify the best possible methods to address consumer violations in their sectors. We have made appreciable progress in engaging industry and other regulators, and I am confident that the relationships and mutual understandings that are emerging are vital foundations for a more robust and effective consumer protection regime.
We have started a series of high-level engagements within government to prioritise our mandate and how it aligns with the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP) and constitutional role of the government. We have received encouraging attention and the Presidency has provided incredible leadership in ensuring that protecting citizens from abuse and exploitation is a priority. These engagements have assisted with motivating employees and providing some of the vital tools needed.
In addition, the council is resolving the question of failing physical infrastructure at all offices across the country. While addressing these structural issues, the council has also intervened in the complaint resolution process and more complaints are being received, far more are being resolved, and industry is responding in a significantly more encouraging manner to consumer satisfaction and issues, especially from market protection, and complaint prevention standpoints.
The council is certainly more visible, and we are on the cusp of key sector intervention that will benefit consumers immensely.
Since assuming office, I have evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of the council and made representation to government at the highest level. Thankfully government has been receptive to the logic of my engagement, which is the need to see consumers, and not oil, as the resource base of the country.
You assured the delegation of the Nigerian Tobacco Control Alliance, when they paid you a courtesy visit in July that CPC would enforce the provisions of the National Tobacco Control Act. What is the content of the provisions, and what steps have been taken in this direction to protect the rights of the citizens in the choices they make and those who may be exposed to injury from tobacco smokers?
Tobacco has been identified as a major risk factor for different chronic diseases. However, it is not a prohibited product. Regardless, while respecting the right of smokers to engage in the habit of their choice, the smokers themselves, as well as society must be protected from the harmful effects of smoking.
Immediately the CPC received a letter from the Health Minister about enforcement of protection provisions in the National Tobacco Control Act, we created our internal enforcement assessment scope, team and strategy. The council has contributed to joint enforcement training with other agencies, and initiated a standards review to immediately address the new packaging and labelling requirements under the new law.
The council is also advocating for a chemical component standards review. We are informed by SON that the review is now imminent. We intend to ensure broad representation including from the scientific, civil society and socioeconomic analysis experts in creating the safest possible standards. Further, the council has advised the industry about provisions in the law that limit industry/government interaction and prohibits any such interaction that could be aimed at, or result in influencing regulation of their products.
In addition, to ensure compliance with the law, the council is currently investigating any relationships between a key industry player’s CSR apparatus through its non-profit foundation to ensure the foundation is not used as a leverage or channel to promote, advocate or encourage tobacco business or engagement with government and society in a manner that defeats the purpose of the Act. The outcome of that inquiry will determine the next steps. Finally, the council is developing appropriate control messages and enforcement mechanisms that will come into force as the new standards emerge.
What is the Patients’ Bill of Rights jointly mooted by the CPC and the Nigerian Medical Association out to achieve, and at what stage is the Bill before the National Assembly?
The Patients’ Bill of Rights (PBoR) as rightly noted is an initiative of the Council and the NMA. My first project on the job was to invite the NMA to collaborate on this. It is essentially a code of expectations and standards that healthcare workers recognise as their duties to patients, and that patients understand is a right they have in their treatment or care. They are not newly created standards, rather they are a reinforcement, reminder and notice to both caregivers and patients for the protection of consumers.
It covers typical issues such as clear information and understanding for patients, right to second opinion, confidentiality, respect, decision making/control over course of treatment, and ancillary issues that are otherwise basic, but are being taken for granted or not being respected. We believe entrenching these standards will significantly increase the quality of healthcare, while physical infrastructure takes time to develop. It is not proposed, or intended for legislation. It is not a “bill” in the context of proposed or intended legislation. We are hopeful that the PBoR will become operational shortly, as the work is in final stages.
Some consumers have posted on the social media how CPC’s interventions have led to a change of products that became faulty, not too long after they were bought. How has the council been able to achieve that?
The council is empowered by law to provide redress to consumer complaints. We use different regulatory tools to accomplish diverse outcomes for consumers. The council’s robust and insistent approach to deploying these tools have helped to secure remedies for consumers.
Also, like I said before, the aggressive and extensive engagements we are holding with industry and other regulators is sending the right signals, and companies are proactively becoming more responsive both as a product of our avowed collaborative regulatory approach, and express and body language, showing that we intend to pursue remedies to the fullest extent of the law, as well as, bring the full weight of the law where violations occur. I have tasked industry that our mutual objective should be fewer complaints altogether, and more and swifter resolutions.
What is the procedure for submission of complaints to CPC by aggrieved consumers and what hopes do they have for direct compensation in the event of consumer abuse?
We have multiple channels for filing complaints. Our electronic platforms include a portal on our website, Facebook page, Twitter handle and by SMS. We also receive physical complaints by those who fill out our complaints forms, or write us; and in cities where we have offices, that is walk ins.
Other methods are by calling our hotlines to either complain or provide intelligence on what is considered inappropriate in the marketplace. As noted earlier, a new complaint resolution mechanism that will further increase the channels, including mobile application is currently under development.
Although we are broadening these channels, our focus remains ensuring that the primary resolution process is for complaints to go the companies; and sometimes the sector regulator such as NCC, NCAA, NERC etc, and then escalated to the CPC for a secondary resolution process, where the primary process fails or is irresponsive.
Our approach to satisfactory resolution is a remedy that sufficiently addresses the loss or injury suffered by the complainant. That is what we regard as compensation. The council, or any regulatory authority for that matter, is not a forum or vehicle for making money or securing damages. That is the role of the judicial process.
Indeed, we consider real loss and injury in advocating for what is appropriate remedy, and we will penalise egregious conduct where necessary, but not as damages to consumers. Any punitive pecuniary measures are for industry intervention and to prevent abusive conduct, not for stronger or better financial positions for consumers, than they would have been if the violation did not occur.
What are the key challenges besetting the council?
Key challenges include how vast our nation is and the nature and scope of resources to fully protect consumers both from a human capital standpoint and otherwise. In addition, the challenge of educating consumers to the point of sufficient sophistication and full understanding of their rights, considering literacy and access levels, especially further away from urban areas.
One key strategy we are developing to mitigate these challenges is making it clear to industry that the responsibility for protecting their customers and clients is primarily theirs. That protection cannot be ancillary to their business, rather it must be the core of the business.
We are insisting that consumer education is a shared responsibility, especially because they have perfected messaging in a manner consumers understand best, and have created the most effective channels to reach all in advertising; they must deploy both tools to educate consumers about their rights and what protection is available. Our environment is peculiar, so we must devise strategies that are best suited to the environment.
In taking advantage of the vastness and vibrancy of the market, companies must take on the corollary responsibility to protect rights by meeting the consumers exactly where they are on different levels. We will continue to work with the government to secure the expanding and continuing support that we are gratefully currently receiving.
As it were, the record shows that the council has never received the amount of attention and support this administration is providing since its inception. Not only is this a significant assistance, it is also a message to industry that this administration considers consumers and their protection a priority. Finally, we are exploring innovation and technology to promote efficiency and scale up operations.
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