Legislative Structure, Guarantee For Consumer Redress – Salako | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Legislative Structure, Guarantee For Consumer Redress – Salako

Posted: Oct 5, 2015 at 12:01 am   /   by   /   comments (1)

Ms. Sola Salako, President of Consumer Advocacy Forum Of Nigeria (CAFON), is one woman who has been at the forefront of  defending the right of consumers in every sector of the country. However, she is not alone in this new battle as she has teamed up with a concerned group, Change Vigilante to demand answers from one of the highest revenue earners, Nigeria Communication Commission on why the regulatory agency has failed to live up to its responsibility of protecting the consumers. In this interview with our Correspondent, Olamide Bakare, she shares her concerns on why the group is taking action against the NCC and other issues 



Recently, an advertorial was placed in some newspapers to put the NCC on it toes. What informed it?

One of the greatest challenges we have in Nigeria is the lack of transparency especially among regulators. Government is basically from the perspective of the consumers. But unfortunately, the consumer is at the receiving end of a whole lot of unethical and unhealthy practices from the services providers. The consumer does not have the redress structure and so they are heavily dependent on the regulators to help in the areas of check and balances such that they would be able to fight on their behalf. But when you now find that the regulator has not been up to par with their responsibilities, you start to ask questions why the regulator is not performing its role to ensure that consumers are protected. NCC is a very critical regulator in Nigerian economy because communication is the backbone of practically all our sustenance. From social to business life, there is no gainsaying the fact that everything about us revolves round communication. Since the regime of the GSM came in, we have gone through a whole strata or different phases in getting to where we are. We started off with very high tariff when entry level was very high. But you would expect that16 years down the road, the consumers would start to feel the benefit. Before, it was because we thought we were confronted with the issue of infrastructure, but we had 16 years to put that in place, which were done at the expense of the consumers. Despite the fact that consumers money are being spent to build infrastructure, yet we still have consumers raising one complaint or the other about poor quality services, high tariff compared to the fact that the subscriber base have increased. Usually, in normal economics, the bigger your market, the lower the cost since this overhead would have been spread. But surprisingly, this is not happening in Nigeria. Apart from that, you have service providers who come up with all sort of packages that are intended to exploit the consumers and yet you have regulator in place. So, our organization is teaming up with other concerned stakeholders, Change Vigilante, which was conceptualized in line with the change fever we are experiencing so that we can begin to feel it in every aspect of the Nigerian life. On this basis, NCC has become the first port of call for this network. Why are we asking the question?. We will like to know so that we can have the information. However, one may be quick to ask why we are asking the question. For us, we would like to have an idea of what NCC is doing. Is there some form of compromise within its structure that is eventually being felt by the consumers?. Take for example, If NCC supposed to do what is expected of it, and does not do it, the consumers bear the brunt. As a matter of fact, Nigeria still pays one of the highest tariffs in the world. For the level of money that Nigeria invest on their telephones, why have we not gotten to a stage where packages are being offered to Nigerian in minutes  and not per second so that if I am in a contract with you, If i pay you say N100 for a month, I get a certain number of minutes. Here, we are still the ones buying our phones. In other climes, phones are part of the packages because the phone is just a mean by which I get the service. In every place that I have been, the phones are part of the packages. If I want to get on your network, I should be able to say I want and you give me the option of phone and I pay a certain amount of money every month. And the phone itself can be traded in along the line. But here, we still buy the phone separate, pay for the service. These are the kind of things we want the regulators to be negotiating for the consumers with the service providers but unfortunately this is not the case. We found that even despite public outcry over bad service, things still remain the same. Even though NCC had penalized them recently but yet nothing has changed. They penalised them for a lot of infractions but Nigerians are not aware what those penalties are, and how much did they pay and what happen to the money. We are asking those questions because we believe that NCC, which is the apex body, must be transparent and accountable. We need to be sure NCC is doing what is supposed to be doing. We are also wondering what the national assembly are doing in the area of oversight function that helps advance the interest of consumer. We want to know what is going on between the national assembly and the service providers. If they give us all these information and there is nothing going on there, then it means that they just need to do a lot more work. If otherwise, let Nigerians know that there is a racket going on, that is, people are complicit as it were. That is the reason why we are the one bearing the brunt of that lack of transparency between NCC and National assembly. That is what the FOI request is based on. We are trusting that NCC will do the needful by providing the information within seven days which had expired long ago. If they don’t do that, we are willing to seek legal action to mandate them in providing the information. We feel that taking such a step will send a signal to other regulators that the Nigerians consumer will not fold its arm to see himself being cheated unduly. If we are going to make our systems work, all of us must get involved in it. Getting involved in it however means that you demand your right, using whatever legal provisions that are available within the court to seek information and keep regulators on their toes so that they will not see themselves as be-all but also accountable to us as consumers. For the regulator, it is their responsibility to protect us. If they are not protecting us, we want to know what is affecting their structure that is making it impossible to do so.

With the assumption of a new helmsman as NCC boss, don’t you think this action could be interpreted as the onerous call to unravel the mystery in the operation of the agency?

Nigeria needs to unravel a lot of mysteries. I am sure we all know that we have been finding all kind of stuff going on in high places that we didn’t have any access of information about. With a new sheriff in town, we are hoping things will get better. We actually put a request long before now, because we didn’t know there was going to be another helmsman. For us, it is working together for good as it were. Even for the helmsman, it is an opportunity for him to find out what has been going on the sector, by knowing what to avoid and what to put a stop to. By the time they provide these kind of information, he will be able to see what is going there which will help in doing the necessary reorganization needed. We also want him to get the signal that we are interested in what is going on.  We are insisting that NCC meets the expectations of us, the consumers by ensuring that we get protected. NCC has the regulatory function over the service providers who deal with us. Since APC is representing government on our behalf, then NCC needs to do things in ways that we give us an assurance that we do have a regulator which is protecting our interest .This has nothing to do with the new helmsman but it is coming at a timely period for him. It is not targeted at any person. We just want information because it will help us demand for better consumer protection structure to be put in place. We are doing so to ensure that the process works better for us as Nigerians.

Beyond this, the agency tried to intervene on behalf of consumers in areas where consumers were shortchanged and the regulator fined the service providers.

That is where the question starts from. We are aware there have been fines. But the question is what happens to those fines. I know that the fines were not passed to the consumers. Take for instance, during the time of Ndukwe as NCC boss, the service providers were fined and were asked to refund N7, which was unreasonable.  For example, if you don’t know what I have lost in terms of bad service, drop calls, illegal charges and at the end of the day, all I get is N7 credit, then it did not make any difference. But since then, we have had fines, but we don’t know how much has been collected till date. Apart from that, even if it is not for public consumption, which is not true, what have they use the money for because the services have not improved. Not only that, NCC has failed in other responsibilities. It is our belief that NCC should have undertaken a public enlightenment, information that will help in using the services better. If for instance, NCC had used the money to create more awareness for me, so that I can be a better consumer, then it will be easy to conclude that the money was used judiciously. But there is no where we were told how the money was used. We would like to found that how much the NCC charges the service providers in the last five years, how much the service providers have paid the agency  in terms of service, fines and regular rents because they pay you every years in terms of license.  If we look at all of these, it is easy for us to tell either of the party to reduce the fee or payment. If it is too small, we will tell NCC that they are allowing them to get away with murder. We need to have information. We want openness because we know once that is done, that is when it will be easy to say we are getting value.  If there is a bottle neck somewhere, we will like to find out. Is it that NCC is more dependent on them that they overlook their infractions on the consumers? If that is so, we will tell NCC to stop. We are doing this so that we can get better service. As at today, we are overcharged. We would like to know what NCC spend its money on. If will get these information, it will be clear indicators to the areas where issues need to be addressed  so that consumers can enjoy better service and value for their money in that industry.  If the regulator is making too much unwholesome money, the chances are that the regulator will look the other way when the service provider is putting pressure on the consumer. Now, if the regulator is not getting enough money, then there are chances that the service provider is getting away with murder because nothing is going back to the regulator. So, these are the kind of information we would like to know. We would like to know if NCC is spending its money on lobbying National assembly, service providers which is hindering it from demanding that the effect of overbearing cost that Nigerians go through. For instance, there is a claim that NCC had banned one of the service providers from promotion due to the fact that they are insisting that it is the dominant in the market. However, checks revealed that the dominance was manipulated to prevent competition. You must realize that since there is no anti competition bill, people can get away with anything. I understand that somewhere along the line, the service provider whose promo was banned, suddenly came out with another promo. It is claim that the promo is fraudulent. As consumers, we are confused about the number of packages that service providers put out every week. For me, it is a way of confusing the consumer. In confusing you, there is likelihood that you won’t pay attention. One of the things I will like the NCC to pay attention in the areas of packages is cited in this scenario. When the consumer is on a prepaid package, he pays the service provider ahead. That means I put my money with you in trust stating that I will use the money to make certain call after which you now debit.  But how come I don’t have a statement of account sating how much calls have been made.  If I give you to say I want to buy this, you must be able to provide me with how I spend the money. Without this, you are clearly cheating me. Because the money in your care, you can put any kind of spurious charge on it which put me at your mercy. For me, I think there should be NCC directive that every consumer should have access to his or her account to see how he is spending the money. These things happen because they know the money is available there and can put charge on it, take it and there is nobody to call them to order. If it was a postpaid, you would have to prove to me the day I signed to these packages. For prepaid account, I think one of the things NCC should do is to insist that service provider provides statement of account to consumers either on a daily basis or monthly so that it will be easy for consumer to dispute claims. If I loads money and the credit finishes fast, I cannot dispute it since there are no statement to indicate how it was expended. But right now, you cannot do that because you don’t even know what.

What should be the role of the national assembly in the whole scenario you have painted?

You know that this is a new National Assembly and so we are actually using this to set an agenda. Even though there is no committee yet, we want to set agenda for the new committee. That is why we are asking for the information which we intend to push to the National assembly. The National Assembly has a role to play in this. The role of the assembly is to ensure that they put the regulator on their toes to ensure that they are following their responsibility to the Nigerian people. If there is some compromises going on between them, we would like to know. We have got to believe that the new change government is interested in putting everything in place in a manner that is transparent and accountable. And this is the best time to seek this kind of information from NCC. Like I said, NCC is just one of the many regulatory institutions that need to be put on this kind of alert. For the Nigerians consumer, there is no help for them anywhere. The people who are supposed to look out for them are not seemingly playing that role. Now, that we have laws that enables citizen to make demands on public structure, I think we should explore the law to the benefit of the whole nations. By the time we are through and able to identify the way forward, we believe some things can be done better. On the part of NCC, I don’t think it will be easy to say that they are totally a failure. No, it can be done better. Nigeria can easily feel the impact of their roles in their bottom line. Their money should be able to give them more value than they are getting right now because there are a lot that are going on that is shrouded in secrecy. We would like those things to come out in the open.  Take for instance, the recent directive by the President that all agencies should remit money into one single account, this idea is geared towards accountability. We are willing to pay for whatever it will cost to pay for that information. What we intend to do is not to witch hunt, not targeted at anybody. We just want information that will help advocate for better consumer right so that Nigeria consumers can get value for their money.

What has been the impact of consumer right advocacy in terms of giving consumers the right education on their rights?

When we started the Lagos consumer forum, it was set up with the idea to generate awareness. Not until we started this, consumer awareness was not very strong. If you ask me what we have achieved with the consumer forum, I would say we have finally succeeded in increasing the level of awareness even to media correspondents. Since we started in 2009, there has been a significant growth in consumer awareness. In Nigeria, the question that may arise is whether we are feeling the impact or not. To a large extent, I will say we are not doing badly. I will say a bit. Consumer protection does not stop at creating awareness. There has to be structure that will stop the process. Take for instance, if I buy something from you and I am not satisfied, there is a process to get redress. Now, Nigeria is very weak in structure. We don’t have good legislative structure, we don’t have law that can be amenable. Even the people that are meant to implement the laws are not enlightened. We are battling with the task of putting the necessary structure in place. It is only when the structures are in place that consumers can seek redress as fast as possible. So, there is a whole lot of back end work going on. You can see a bit of it such that nowadays, even service providers are a bit more alive to consumer issues. Before you raise an issue with them, they are less recalcitrant unlike before.

Right now, what we are pushing hard on is the passage of the competition bill. We are working really hard to lobby the new 8th assembly to pass the bill. The bill is a more robust, regulatory structure. Once it is in place, service providers will stop exploiting the consumers anyhow. With the law, it gives more bite to consumer protection in Nigeria and enables the regulators to be funded properly and enforced sanction better. If we can get the bill passed as soon as possible, and get the new president to sign it into law, then, it will kick start a more vibrant process that will now impact directly. Right now, many of the things we challenge the service providers on are not backed by law. With the new bill, the NCC and consumer will be able to bite. The law is not about the public or consumers alone, it also takes care of the interest of private sector. We don’t want to kill business. When you have a good competitive environment, businesses grow better.

Comments (1)

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