11 January 2018

Nigeria: Knotty Issues As Lagos Floats Consumer Protection Agency

Raheem Akingbolu urges the government and leadership of the newly established Lagos State Government Consumer Protection Agency to avoid ambiguities in the modus operandi of the new agency

Like the proverbial cows without tails, consumers in this part of the world have consistently suffered abuse in the hands of heady manufacturers and service providers. Perhaps because of the country's weak institutions and nonchalant attitude towards protection of consumers' interests, local and multinationals seem to see the market as a place where any goes. In most cases, when victims of consumer abuse raise alarm, the matter is swept under the carpet, without sanctioning anybody or rewarding the person whose right is abused.

However, there has been improvement in the last four years with Consumer Protection Council (CPC), rising up to the challenge and putting some organisations on their toes. The new regime, which commenced with the appointment of a human rights advocate at the African Union (AU), Dupe Atoki, as Director General few years ago, has since recorded huge breakthrough in various sectors, including; Banking, Telecommunications, Aviation and Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG). Tunde Irukera, who currently heads the council, is believed to be toeing Atoki's path to keep up the tempo.

Despite the achievement, CPC and other stakeholders have admitted at many fora that Nigerian consumers are yet to be fully liberated. Among other challenges, the council has identified weak legal frame work and lack of human and capital resources to protect over 150 million active consumers in the country. The regulatory body has also identified consumer apathy, which has resulted from the fact that over the years, Nigerians have not been able to gain the confidence of the agency to provide sufficient protection for them, as a major challenge.

To this end, CPC has continued to lobby federal government for proper empowerment, educate consumers on their rights as well as tasking state governments to establish consumer protection committee as spelt out by the law that established the council. According to the council, this is necessary to corroborate whatever CPC is doing at the centre. It is believed that more grounds will be covered when there are local committees to protect consumers' interests.

Establishment of Lagos' agency

Perceived in many quarters as New Year gift to consumers in Lagos, the inauguration of Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency was celebrated last week by stakeholders. Aside from serving as a positive response to long time yearnings, the arrival of the new agency was timely and necessary to tame the excesses of business owners in the commercial city.

At the inauguration of the board, the state governor, Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, pledged that the new agency would protect the rights of consumers in the state and ensure they get value for money spent on goods and services. He also stated that concerted efforts would be made to end the daily reported cases of violation of consumers' rights in the State especially considering the vantage position of Lagos as the largest commercial market in sub-Sahara Africa.

He said the establishment of the board, aside from being another giant stride of his administration designed to guarantee the welfare of the people on a sustainable basis, was also meant to complement the reforms already embarked upon by the state government to ensure the ease of doing business in the State

"The establishment of the consumer protection agency is a strong demonstration of our commitment to the protection of the rights of consumers, the promotion of consumer satisfaction in the State and our resolve to ensure that they get value for money spent on goods and services.

"The need for the agency has become more imperative in view of the fact that Lagos State, with its huge population, provides the largest commercial market in sub-Sahara Africa, with the highest reported cases of daily infractions on the consumer rights.

"The Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency is therefore meant to complement our reforms on the ease of doing business in the State especially as it affects the development of the Industrial, Commercial and Consumer satisfaction value chain," Governor Ambode said.

Board composition

As a result of the choice of personalities that were appointed on the board of the agency, many observers have concluded that it has begun business on a good footing. Chaired by a Lagos lawyer, Mrs. Funmi Falana, it parades 11 other experts, drawn from the public and private sectors. Members include: a top Lagos state civil servant and General Manager designate of the agency, Mrs. Olugbode Ajoke; Mr. Oduyebo Jacobs, who is to serve as Secretary and the President of the Consumer Advocacy Foundation of Nigeria (CAFON), Mrs. Sola Salako-Ajulo.

But beyond their perceived charismas and the legal background of some of the appointees, the Vice President of Committee for the Defence of Human Rights (CDHR), Mr. Godwin Anyebe, has advised members of the board to get themselves acquainted with issues related to consumer rights, education and monitoring. He has also advised Lagos state government not to see the agency as another revenue generation agency but a government body that would protect interests and collaborate with CPC.

"Considering the cosmopolitan nature of Lagos and the state's huge population, creation of Consumer Protection Agency is long overdue. Equally, we should commend Governor Ambode for his choice of leadership of the agency. Without mincing words, Mrs. Falana and her team are quality individuals with impressive pedigree.

"But beyond that, government should endeavour to create a platform through which they can be adequately tutored on what the agency requires. For instance, this is the time for the likes of Falana to demonstrate and prove to members of the public, who always have reservations anytime a human right activist is appointed or elected as a leader that the community can deliver. I point out this because it is believed in some quarters that human right activists are in most cases autocratic. To correct this impression, Mrs. Falana and her team should give the agency human face to have a good working relationship with stakeholders.

Modus Operandi

To avoid overlapping with CPC in discharging of its responsibilities, the agency is expected to carefully spell out its modus operandi. For instance, while the CPC Act recommends committee for state, the Lagos version decided otherwise by naming itself as agency, which makes it a bit cumbersome. Observers have also expressed their worries on the way existing agencies in Lagos clash with federal government agencies. In this regard, two agencies; Lagos State Signage and Advertisement Agency (LASAA) and The Lagos State Lotteries Board (LSLB), have not only clashed with their counterparts at the center, they have given the state bad publicity because of their shabby approaches to regulation and creation of unnecessary bottlenecks for practitioners in outdoor and lottery sectors respectively.

Besides, in Imo State, where a state own consumer agency was first established, it soon became an embarrassment to both the state and CPC because of the way staff of the agency were extorting money from companies. At a point, the then DG of CPC, Mrs. Ify Umenyi, had to issue a statement to dissociate the council from the activities of the Imo State Consumer Protection Agency. From then on, stakeholders in that part of the country began to relate more with the Zonal Office of CPC in Awka and not the Imo State agency that was seen as money-spinning agency.

To avoid a similar scenario in Lagos, a lawyer, Mr. Chidiebere Onuokoro, while commending the government for the establishment of the body, urged government to monitor the agency very well so that it will not be turned to another revenue generation body.

"This is a welcome development if the new body is on the strength of the CPC law. I understand your sentiment that it can be turned to a money making venture but we should not forget that consumer protection agencies are not license issuing agencies. LASAA and LSLB were primarily established to generate revenue for the state through regulation, rate collection and allocation of sites as the case may be but this cannot be said of Lagos State Consumer Agency. Though, I have not seen the law that established it but with Mrs. Falana in charge, I don't expect any illegality and abuse of office. That is my take,"

Meanwhile, while reeling out the terms of reference of the board, Gov. Ambode had said noted that the agency had been designed to be an effective service centre for the protection of the interests of Consumers, settlement of Consumer disputes and for other connected purposes as enshrined in the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency Law, Cap.C13, Laws of Lagos State, 2014.

He said owing to the responsibilities of the agency, members of the board were carefully selected both from private and public sectors based on their impeccable character, remarkable track records, experience on the subject matter and passion for the job. The Governor, who urged members of the board to hit the ground running, also tasked them to be dutiful and nurture the new agency to become an institution that will guarantee timely delivery of effective services to aggrieved consumers, just as he enjoined Lagosians to utilize the alternative commercial dispute mechanism to be offered by the agency that will guarantee reduced time for the resolution of consumer related cases.

Besides, the governor ordered that office of the agency should be located outside Alausa to bring about the sense of independence and engender confidence of the people. According to him, "I have just directed that I will like this agency to be situated outside the civil service premises. We don't want you to be part of us so that the sense of independence that we are giving to this agency is to ensure that we command the respect of consumers generally in the State. "I want to let you know that we expect you to hit the ground running; I expect that I must start to get feedback as to what is happening to consumer rights and then to the citizens generally within the shortest possible time," the Governor said.

Responding on behalf of the appointees, Falana thanked Governor Ambode for the opportunity given them to serve the people, assuring that they would work in the best interest of consumers and leave very good footprints on the sand of time.

As members of the public continue to celebrate the new regime, one question that is yet to be answered is what becomes of the new agency if the expected anti-competition law is eventually passed. If the law comes into being, it will repeal the consumer protection act, consume CPC and give birth to Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. Then, what becomes of the Lagos agency afterwards? Time will tell.

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