Muyiwa Ayojimi is the convener of the League of Consumer Advocates, a group committed to advance the cause of Consumer Rights in Nigeria. He is also a legal practitioner with practice experience of over a decade in Experiential Commercial Law with strong bias for Consumer Protection. An Associate of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators Nigeria, a member of the Society for Corporate Governance Nigeria, a member of the Nigerian Institute of Management and also a Notary Public of Nigeria, in this chat with KABIR ALABI GARBA, Ayojimi shares his thoughts on issues of consumers’ rights and why he thinks awareness about consumer protection is low in the country. Excerpts:
As a legal practitioner and consumer protection advocate, how would you rate the level of awareness of consumers’ rights among Nigerians?
Consumer rights awareness in Nigeria is near nil. As a legal practitioner, I have not seen torrents of consumer suits against infringements or an effective and effectual redress on basic rights, demanding that rights are respected, protected and protesting market abuses and social injustices which undermine them. In other climes, consumer rights are seen as human rights, but here, they are not.
What motivates you to take up consumer protection as an area of interest?
It was Alexander Sapara Williams, the first lawyer in Nigeria that said “a lawyer lives for the emancipation of his people.” I stand to live for the emancipation of consumers in Nigeria. Consumer protection is integral to the well-being of every sector of a society; from the public to the private sector. The other day, I got into a home appliance store and I observed a hot argument between the shop attendant and a customer, who I later found out had bought a stabilizer, which he claimed upon putting it into use, created a shock to every other socket in his house and that when he switched it off, everything was normal. He therefore requested that the item be changed having just bought it from the same store a week back. The attendant refused and posited that the item was bought in good condition. It took my intervention to request for a chat with the manager and advise him on the need to replace the item since the guarantee/warranty period was in place and for him to pass the bulk to the manufacturer.
Examples abound. From the unsolicited text messages to the annoying estimated utility bills, to delayed or cancelled flights, the one man business next door, to the shylock landlord, the nonchalant artisan, the blue chip companies and the multinationals have all instinctively or distinctively been part of the violation of consumer rights in Nigeria. It has therefore been a passion for me to get involved with varying consumer protection issues of different colours, cutting across sectors and in the continuous bid to fan into flame in Nigeria, the basic tenets of a satisfied consumer pledge, which are; the right to basic needs, the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, the right to be heard, the right to redress, the right to consumer education and the right to a healthy environment.
All of these have and continuously been eroded by either the government or providers of goods and services. We have developed a strategic plan of actualizing the fulfilment of these tenets for the Nigeria consumers through concentrated advocacy, dispute resolution mechanisms and the future launch of the Black Book by The League of Consumer Advocates every anniversary of the world consumer rights day.
Kindly assess Nigerians’ response to World Consumer Rights Day always marked on every March 15? Are we doing enough? If yes, what impact has the celebration had on numerous agitations by consumers? If no, what are the windows of improvement?
The awareness is like a vapour. It appears on the anniversary of the consumer rights day and disappears immediately thereafter. The current electoral process swallowed up the 2015 awareness or celebration. The electorates, as consumers of good or bad governance, have the right to vote, be voted for and ensure that their votes count. It was therefore a misnomer for the IG to state that waiting after voting at a polling unit until the votes are counted, amounted to loitering. It’s a consumer protection issue. Consumers must resist intimidation of any guise from providers of goods and services. And so, we have not done enough as consumers to celebrate ourselves and be celebrated. Today’s consumer would still purchase certain products and on spotting a defect, decide not to comment but trash and go ahead to get another one; receive a poor service and choose not to complain, but move to the next service and only contented with informing an unsuspecting consumer not to patronize the service.
The first window of improvement therefore beyond consumers themselves being involved by speaking out, is for government to strengthen the inherent weaknesses in the enabling Law. Secondly, provisions for enforcement must be revamped. Thirdly, the agencies of government, as I have canvassed at some forums, cannot be judges in their own case. Consumer rights and procedures for redress cannot be subsumed with the functions of these parastatals. They cannot regulate and at the same time receive complaints and be able to treat them successfully. That is why the consumer is frustrated. The lack of a specific framework for the defence of consumer rights is lacking. There should be effective enforcement. The redress mechanism must be stratified and small claims courts established as an arm of the high courts where for example one can charge a contractor for defective supply or service. Let there be only one agency on consumer protection and enforcement of rights with multifaceted functions of dealing with every type of consumer complaints with specialized units. This would address the issue of relationship with sector regulators, which leads to overlap of functions.
How could consumers get compensated for diseases contacted as a result of consuming foods not well packaged or processed?
The first rule is a duty of care to be exercised by all parties – The manufacturer adhering to best production standards, consumer education about the product on one hand, the consumer making a choice as to what constitute a healthy diet on the other hand. It would remain an herculean task for a consumer to claim that a certain disease began as a result of a packaged product. The consumer has to prove the link between the product and the certain disease, since a disease or an ailment has a build up circle. The packaged food is an invitation to treat and the consumer in that circumstances cannot visit the result of his/her choice on the manufacturer at that point, safe the fact that, there was a deception over a long period of time on the nutritional facts and the nature of the product components.
Do you think consumer protection agencies are doing enough in the area of ensuring standards in the FMCG manufacturing sector?
The consumer protection agencies are doing well in revenue generation with imposition of multitudinal pre-compliance processes and procedures. It is not however enough to have regulations/standards which the agencies do, but to continue to monitor and ensure the maintenance of such standards. For the agencies, permits, licenses and periodic show of compliance represents about 90 per cent of their core objectives and deliverables. The agencies need to metamorphose to the level of making consumers thrive when they have more of quality choices not fewer.
There are also advocacy groups that ought to be working to protect the consumers’ interest; do you think they are doing enough?
We have in Nigeria today more individually directed NGOs on consumer protection and they have been in the forefront of creating awareness within their given space with minimal reach and funds, with growing doggedness and show of solidarity particularly on March 15 of every year. The same cannot be said of the Consumer Protection Council which has the space and funding but lacking in operational precision on consumer issues. Some of the advocacy groups have recently been found were set up with inordinate ambitions and as such, they cannot fulfil the lofty ideals of consumer rights. The compromising nature of their campaigns usually speaks for themselves. However, I would say we do not have enough advocacy groups in Nigeria unlike Europe and America and that is why the voice is still like the one coming from the wilderness. Consumers need to be encouraged to join the groups and the groups also should explore collaborations to ensure effective campaigns.
How can the food manufacturing companies be more socially responsible since the high rate of overweight, obesity, high blood pressure are linked to packaged foods?
This year’s theme is helping consumers choose healthy diets. There is a recommendation towards a global convention to protect and promote healthy diets to combat obesity and non-communicable diseases. According to that report, while no country has succeeded in reversing the tide in the increase of obesity and diabetics, measures to protect and promote health diets should be adopted. They include: education, skills, communications and public awareness, provision of nutrition information, ensuring responsible food and beverage advertising, promotion and sponsorship, controls on advertising, improved nutritional quality of foods and reduced levels of potentially harmful nutrients, nutritional standards for food services in schools, hospitals and public institutions, and interventions to influence positive consumption patterns. Unhealthy diets contribute to more than 11 million deaths a year. This means, it is now a bigger killer than tobacco. While these diseases cannot be completely linked to packaged foods, the responsibility of companies therefore is to avoid deceptive packaging and sale of products by educating consumers, creating awareness and perhaps assist in health support programmes and projects.
From a legal perspective, are there limitations against the enforcement of consumer protection law?
Talking about enforcing consumer rights, it is assumed that these consumer rights have been established and are protective of the consumer. However, this assumption is not absolute and even if it were, the reality is that the consumer is ignorant of those rights or has an erroneous conception of, or is simply passive about them. The effect is then that the consumer who must take the initiative to enforce infringed rights as no one would do this for him/ her cannot. Reasons abound for this state of affairs, for instance, motivation to take action may be lacking where claim is perceived as insignificant; the cost to take action may be too great; the formality and remoteness of the courts may appear too daunting and the amount stand to recover, if successful may not make litigation worthwhile. Central to effective enforcement of consumer rights are critical issues such as, preliminary issue of determining the extent to which the consumer is adequately informed prior to entering a transaction.
Another issue is the extent to which the consumer is informed as to his rights. Again, the provision of affordable, efficient machinery for the enforcement of the consumer right is key. Lastly, is the need for representation of consumer interest in bodies with mandate touching on consumer affairs. Overall, it is necessary to understand the relationship between the market and legal process.
This interview appeared first in The Guardian last year.