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Consumer protection, price hikes, poor service delivery and Nigerians’ dilemma

In some countries of the world, prices of goods and services are controlled by regulatory agencies charged with the regulation of prices of products. In such climes, buyers could return items to their sellers if the products do not deliver the value their makers promised. In some other countries, citizens could protest on the streets if the price of items like bread or some essential products are increased arbitrarily. In some other societies, buyers are at liberty to return products t and get refunded or such products are replaced, no matter how long. Regularly, automobile producers ask buyers of their vehicles to return them in replacement for brand new ones even after several years of driving such cars. But sadly, Nigerians do not have such privileges, JOHNMARK UKOKO writes.

In most countries of the world, brand makers think twice before they increase the prices of their products. In some countries, bakers do not increase the price of bread without having to contend with protests against such move.

In such climes, some politicians lost their positions because they supported and approved a slight increase in the price of bread. This scenario is common in the Arab world where the citizens could protest for several months against what they consider unjust government policies or actions.

Regularly, various automobile producers recall their brands to their factories whenever they perceive any form of defect in a particular car model. Surprisingly, when such actions are taken, Nigeria is usually not considered nor do Nigerians who bought such brands get compensated like their counterparts in other parts of the world.

In Europe and the United States of America, buyers of any brand are usually at liberty to return their vehicles if they feel such product fails its promise to the extent that makers of such brands introduce warranty in nearly all their vehicles, which give buyers guarantee for some years of such product.

If the buyers of such brands are not satisfied with the performance of such automobiles, they are expected to return such defective products to the seller and get brand new ones or even get a refund of their money usually without any fuss.

But such privileges are rare in Nigeria as Nigerians are sold defective products daily and when they return such products to their sellers, they are denied replacements or refund of their money.

Producers and sellers of wares increase the prices of their goods and services, a situation exacerbated by the absence of regulatory frameworks and institutions to regulate prices and maintain order.

For instance, telecommunications providers have ripped Nigerians off for over 20 years, as they continued to pay for dropped calls and other failed services, while telephone users are charged for Short Messages (SMS), which are never delivered to their recipients. In Nigeria, data or airtime could be wiped off without being used by the telephone user without an option of redress, as the country lacked effective consumer protection for citizens.

Local banks sent birthday and other celebration anniversary greetings to their customers unsolicited and charged them, without any institution to complain to for remedy.

Bank cases are also very challenging. Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) malfunction regularly and account holders are constantly debited without cash dispensed. Despite the Central Bank of Nigeria’s (CBN) efforts and promises that such transactions should be reversed within 24 hours, sometimes it takes several weeks or months for customers to get a reversal for such transactions.

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Victims of such transactions are then asked to visit their banks where they are made to fill one several forms before the errors are ratified. In some cases, such failed transactions are never corrected, making bank customers out rightly lose their money.

Buyers of goods in the local market are most unfortunate in this situation, as they buy defective products daily and if they dare to return such products to the sellers, they are either beaten up or denied a refund of their money, just as some cases had led to police intervention. Some Nigerians have either been killed or maimed while fighting to get justice for buying defective products.

In the aviation sector, after selling tickets to Nigerians travelling on their routes, airline operators fail to keep to flight schedules as some keep their passengers waiting for hours and sometimes for days. The practice in most parts of the world is for the management of such airlines to keep their passengers in the hotel or compensate them and apologise for their inability to keep to their schedules.

But in Nigeria, most local airlines do not comply with the directives of the regulator- the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN). Even some foreign airlines that comply fully in their clime fail to do so when they come to Nigeria just as they collude with their local counterparts to mistreat Nigerians who fly their airlines.

Most private transport companies are also guilty of mistreating their passengers. In most cases when passengers board their vehicles and the vehicles develop a fault on the trip, most of the transport companies abandon their passengers to their fate.

In most cases, they do not refund their fares, and neither do the companies provide them alternative vehicles to take them to their various destinations.

The same applies to most media houses, which owe their workers several months of salaries and no institution seeks justice for such employees, while the few workers who know their rights and seek litigation to fight their case at the Industrial Court end up waiting endlessly to get justice, yet many others just resign to fate and seek divine intervention.

Students who are offered admissions in the nation’s public universities pay their tuition fees and other levies, but several weeks or months later, members of the academic or non-academic staff of such institutions embark on indefinite strikes to demand improved welfare and university system from the Federal Government.

They end up spending several months at home without being compensated and are forced to spend additional years in their schools for no fault of theirs without any form of remedy from either government or even their institutions.

Also, insurance companies all over the world promptly pay claims to their policyholders in the event of any eventuality. The reverse is the case in Nigeria, despite the efforts of the National Insurance Commission (NAICOM), most local insurance firms still renege on their obligations.

Only recently, the country experienced scarcity of Premium Motor Spirit (PMS) popularly known as petrol caused by the importation of compromised products into the country due to the Russia and Ukraine war. To date, the Federal Government has not paid any compensation to the Nigerians whose vehicles were damaged, nor did it sanction the identified firms and the government agency that imported toxic fuel into the country.

Sadly, too, retirees, who served the country for years now have nothing to fall back on, as some corrupt government officials have looted their pensions. Some of the civil servants, including paramilitary and the military, now roam the streets daily, as they have nothing to show for the years they served their fatherland, while the corrupt government officials smile to the banks.

After the pension reforms carried out under former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigerians thought the challenges of civil servants and military pensions had been permanently resolved, only to realise that several government agencies, paramilitary and military authorities were deducting pension contributions from their employees, but failed to remit the deductions to the Pension Fund Administrators (PFAs).

Attempts were made in the past to address consumer rights issues with the establishment of the Consumers Protection Council (CPC), which was mandated to tackle some of the complaints enumerated above, but it was changed to the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC).

The FCCPC was given wider functions and powers to perform the tasks assigned to it in the 1999 Constitution (as amended) in view of complaints by Nigerians about the lack of institutions to fight their cause. To that extent, some journalists engaged the Executive Vice Chairman of the FCCPC, Dr Babatunde Irukera recently on why the agency appeared helpless in the face of exploitation of Nigerians.

Irukera explained that the agency has no powers to regulate consumer prices because it is not a price regulator and that Nigeria operates a free market economy.

He argued that the laws establishing the commission made limited provisions on price regulation which, if even it allows the Federal Government to get involved in price regulation, it would require the commission to conduct research and recommend a limited time of controlling prices in specific sectors to the president.

“Even when the president accepts and adopts the recommendation it will only be for a limited time. Other than that, we don’t regulate prices,” he added.

While stating that provisions of the FCCPC Act prohibit exploitative or unjust contract terms and prices, they do not give the commission authority to say that prices are too steep, adding: “Does that give us the authority to just say this thing is too high or this price is too high? No, it doesn’t.

“Such considerations are based on objective standards. What is unjust and manifestly so is based on objective standards, not arbitrary. And it’s not just a number. That something costs N100,000 doesn’t make it unreasonable or unjust. Our regulatory approach must be methodical, transparent and clear.”

Irukera mentioned how the commission prevented the exploitation of consumers at a supermarket selling hand sanitisers during the COVID-19 period, adding: “We investigated a popular supermarket and what they had done, a hand sanitiser that was sold for N490 in the morning was increased to N1,400 at noon and by 5:00 p.m it had risen to N3,400.

“We looked at their inventory and it was showing that they had 45 pieces left, but we couldn’t find them on the shelf or in their store. They had hidden them for the next day when the prices would have further increased. It wasn’t difficult to determine that the owners of the supermarket were exploitative, unjust and unreasonable, because there was no rational explanation for that progressive price increase.”

From the above explanation, it will be safe to say that Nigerians lack protection from exploitation and service delivery failure. While the lawmakers who decided to change the CPC to FCCPC might have meant well, it could be easily concluded that Nigerians are left at the mercy of producers, marketers and service providers.

It is also clear that with the continued exploitation of Nigerians, the FCCPC Act remains a toothless bulldog. Could the realisation of the brand’s owners, sellers and service providers that there are no laws and institutions to check their activities be responsible for the indiscriminate price increases in the country?

The question most Nigerians are asking is who will save them from shylocks and service providers? How long can Nigerians endure before they say enough is enough? Only time will tell.

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