Mrs. Dupe Atoki, a lawyer, is the Director-General, Consumer Protection Council. In this interview, she speaks on the challenges facing the agency and other issues. Excerpts:
By Innocent Anaba
You have been in the saddle as Director – General of CPC. What has been your experience?
It’s been an exciting experience because I thrive in challenges and it’s an assignment that is full of challenges. The mandate of the council is to ensure that consumer rights and interests are protected. We have over 150 million active consumers in Nigeria, marked against the diversity of products in local, international and also services that are rendered. So, you can imagine the stakeholders that we are actually looking at.
However, interesting as this should have been, the first challenge I have is 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. I also see that the consumer illiteracy as one very big challenge, because you cannot protect people who don’t even know their rights. It’s when you know your rights that you assert it, but if you don’t, you remain docile, you remain trampled upon and you continue to be abused. So, those are what I found on resumption of office.
So, what measure did you adopt to address some of the initial challenges?
I carried out a survey across the country and the consumer awareness was very low which gave me great concern. I had to find a way to address that challenge and improve the consumer awareness in Nigeria. I found out that the agencies which are related in terms of products and services have not developed a system prior to now, where they engage each other to the maximum benefit of such collaborations. And so, every agency has carved out its own tough and is protecting it very viciously and this was detrimental to consumer’s interests. If the agencies of government which in my opinion, are building blocks to achieve the governance goal of government are not intertwined, then we will continue to remain very inefficient, because even in building a house, you must over lay the blocks and that’s when you get a good and solid structure.
You can imagine if you keep laying a block horizontally or vertically, that is not what governance is about and I think that agencies of government are instruments of governance and it is important for us to work together. I found that as an existing challenge and which has resulted in some of the agencies actually challenging the activities of the Consumer Protection Council, say out of ignorance that the council does not have the powers to carry out its activities. Of course, funding will remain a challenge.
Have you considered collaboration with other organisations as a possible alternative to funding?
In terms of collaboration, I think that is this year. We have agreed with some of the agencies that we will have an overlap with, for instance, the Standards Organisation of Nigeria, SON, both of us are actually in the same ministry. We have had a chat and we understand the need to work with each other because they develop standards but they don’t have the powers to enforce the standards in favour of consumers. The powers that they have are to sanitise the industry by either removing those products from the market, destroy them or seal the premises. It doesn’t translate to consumer education, so, at the end of the day, the consumer education, in ensuring remedy for the victims of violation of those standards are indirectly enforcing the standards that the SON has set.
So, we have come to the conclusion that because we do have powers of enforcements, which they do not have, we will work together. So, I think we will be talking to these organisations one after the other. Those of them which are amenable to such collaborations, we’ll work together.
Why can’t you collaborate with some multinational companies and non-governmental organizations that are operating within or share similar vision with your Council?
With non- governmental organisations, I don’t have any problem, particularly if they are registered to protect consumers. With NGOs, we are good to have those ready and are on ground and actually working for the protection of consumers, but with the multinationals, I think it’s a no-go area for us. They are the organisations or businesses for which we would have to enforce the Act against them in the event where they have not complied with the Consumer Protection Act. And for me, I think that I would rather stay clear of any area of compromise and deal with whatever challenge I have in another way. If there are opportunities to collaborate on the technical level, which will not arm twist us, that’s fine. But at the moment, I’m working with other international funders, who are actually ready to support the work of the consumers. Those funders are impartial, in fact, they are in business to fund and so, I don’t have any problem relating with them and I’m quite happy that I’m not going to be blackmailed at some point in time into submission when I call upon such organisations to comply with the Act.
Today in Nigeria, we have various service providers, electricity, telecoms who are not living up to expectations. What are you doing about this?
The CPC has become the Father Christmas, the Mr. Fix-it for all, you know. CPC what are you doing about telecoms? CPC what are you doing about light? CPC what are you doing about this and about that?’ I’m always amazed when I get asked these questions.
But you’re entitled to your views, because we put ourselves out as the agency that government had established to ensure that you get value for money. But in all sincerity, I think that the level of consumer abuse in Nigeria is so huge that anybody coming into it and promise within a year that he is going to surmount it is just unrealistic and that’s why I have made no promises.
Since I took over, I have made no promises but I will at the appropriate time deal with each and every of these areas. But for me, this was what also informed my Global Sectoral intervention in my strategic plan because I realised that the abuses are so huge, that if you want to resolve them by individual complaints, you will never be able to get it done. So, the strategic plan has come up with a sectoral intervention where you take these abuses and look at a sector impact, address that sector on a global holistic level and then everything moves.
Now, if we are able to address the food and beverage sector by ensuring that we speak to the sector through a particular intervention, everybody in that sector sits up and therefore, minimize individual complaints. And so that was my own interpretation of how to quickly deal with a heap of abuses which you can never address by individual method. And so at the beginning of my tenure, I invited them, before we begin to pass judgment, I thought it was important that we had a round-table discussion with the various heads of those providers.
So, we understand what their problem is and we also tell them that once consumers subscribe and money is deducted, they should get value for money and for us to have a discussion. But, of course, there was a very poor response from them, which all of you know. Of course, it is not uncommon that some manufacturers or service providers think that they don’t owe any obligation to any agency, but I think that any organisation or provider that thinks so is obviously unaware of the powers of the Council.
So, let me just say in answer to your question that we have all these sectors in our radar and we can only deal with them one at a time and I’m hoping that before my tenure runs out, I would have been able to touch each of these sectors and bring a positive effect which will reduce consumer complaint across board.