The clamour for an effective body that would play the role of ombudsman between consumers and service and goods providers in Nigeria got a boost recently when the Minister of Trade and Investment, Dr. Olusegun Aganga, announced that a new Consumer Law was underway. But stakeholders received the news with mixed feelings, Raheem Akingbolu writes
Cases of consumer abuse and rip-off on the part of service providers and manufacturers of goods are among the challenges the Nigerian market is daily contending with.
Also, consumers complain daily about poor customer service, influx of substandard products and sensational promotions. But sadly, in most cases, complainants are always frustrated as a result of a weak system that lacks the necessary impetus to fight for consumers' rights.
Ray of Hope
However, a glimmer of hope surfaced recently when the Minister of Trade and Investment, Dr. Olusegun Aganga, stated in Abuja that a new consumer protection bill was being put together to better the lots of consumers.
He spoke at the Nigeria Consumers' Award (NiCA), where some organisations were honoured for their painstaking activities in the Nigeria market.
NiCA was organised by the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) to re-energise the Nigerian market-place for a healthy competition, which is capable of increasing consumer satisfaction from interactions between the consumer and provider of product and services.
Aganga, who was represented at the event by the Minister of State for Trade and investment, Chief Samuel Ortom, said government was poised to ensure that appropriate safeguards were being put in place to protect investors and consumers alike.
"Citizens' empowerment and well-being are key performance indicators of the Transformation Agenda of the present administration," he said. The minister further disclosed that the bill would soon be sent to the National Assembly.
According to Aganga, when passed into law, the bill, which he called The Competition and Consumer Protection Bill, would bring about a competition regime that would enable businesses to operate more effectively in the Nigerian marketplace.
"It will also enable the nation to harness the gains of privatisation and deregulation, modernise the legal provisions for consumer protection in Nigeria and at the same time build the required synergy between competition and consumer protection in the country."
He explained further that appropriate safeguards were being put in place to protect investors and consumers and urged all players in the nation's economy to contribute their quota to the growth of the national economy.
Confirming what the minister said, Deputy Director, Public Relations at the Consumer Protection Council (CPC), Mr. Biodun Obimuyiwa, further disclosed that the bill, when passed into law, would give birth to a more encompassing body called 'Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission'.
He also stated that price and competition among rival brands would be more regulated if the bill is passed into law.
He said; "Among other benefits, the proposed law will address issues related to price fixing and right of consumers. It will also check unhealthy competition among companies, which in some cases often resulted in organisation running down one another".
The Deputy Director also noted that the law will allay the fears of some foreign investors, who are reluctant to do business in Nigeria because of non-availability of competition law.
Assurances by the minister and CPC notwithstanding, there are fears in some quarters that the bill could be frustrated before it gets to final stage where it would become a law.
A Lagos-based Lawyer, Mr. Gabriel Udoafi, said it is too early to celebrate over such a statement, considering past experiences when government would say something and do otherwise.
He said, "To me, that a new bill is being considered to be sent to National Assembly does not translate to anything positive. I'm not pessimistic but will wait until the bill is passed into law because I'm aware of thousands of such bill begging for attention in the National Assembly.
"Nigerian consumers should not rest on their oars; we must continue to agitate until a good law is available to protect our interest. We must resist any attempt by any individual or group of people to frustrate the process at the National Assembly", he added.
Speaking further, the legal practitioner advised the government to make sure that the proposed law would be designed to ensure the rights of consumers as well as fair trade competition and the free flow of truthful information in the marketplace.
President of the Consumer Advocacy Foundation of Nigeria (CAFON), Sola Salako, who has always advocated the need for Federal Government to empower CPC to be able to pursue cases to logical conclusions, described the development as cheering news.
According to her; "It is obvious that CPC and other relevant government agencies that are supposed to be in the forefront whenever the right of consumers are infringed upon, are not able to do so because they lack both the financial muscle and legal backing.
"In the proposed law, it is necessary that government put the interest of all into consideration and consult widely to avoid making another mistake. All the same, I think it will do us a lot of good if we have a more articulate law," she added.
Lessons from Other Lands
Like the proposed new consumer law in Nigeria, in Australia, the corresponding agency is the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission or the individual State Consumer Affairs agencies. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission has the responsibility for consumer protection regulation of financial services and products.
In Germany, a minister of the federal cabinet is responsible for consumer rights and protection. But in the United States, a variety of laws at both the federal and state levels regulate consumer affairs.
Among them are the federal Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, Truth in Lending Act, Fair Credit Billing Act, and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. Federal consumer protection laws are mainly enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice.
At the state level, many states are said to have adopted the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act including, but not limited to, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, and Nebraska.
In India, Consumer Protection Act of 1986 is the law governing consumer protection. Under this law, Separate Consumer tribunals have been set up throughout India in each and every district in which a consumer (complaint can be filed by both the consumer of a goods as well as of the services) can file his complaint on a simple paper without paying any court fees and his complaint will be decided by the Presiding Officer of the District Level.
Appeal could be filed to the State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commissions and after that to the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC). The procedures in these tribunals are however said to be relatively less formal and more people friendly and they also take less time to decide upon a consumer dispute when compared to the year-long time taken by the traditional Indian Judiciary.
In recent years, many effective judgment are reported to have been passed by some state and National Consumer Forums.
Meanwhile as a member state of the European Union, The United Kingdom is bound by the consumer protection directives of the EU. Domestic (UK) laws originated within the ambit of contract and tort but, with the influence of EU law, it is emerging as an independent area of law. In many circumstances, where domestic law is in question, the matter judicially treated as tort, contract, restitution or even criminal law.