Consumer protection leverages the idea of a marketplace free from scams, fraud, and deceptive practices. To achieve this, consumers need to be empowered and see that there are genuine efforts to protect them. From price gouging to unfair treatment, many are the afflictions of the Nigerian consumer. The Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) harvest consumer complaints from different platforms and conducts investigations in line with sections 18(4), 32 and 33 of its Act. Will consumers get a reprieve? FEMI ADEKOYA writes.
Last year, President Muhammadu Buhari signed the harmonised version of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Bill into law. The law repealed the Consumer Protection Act and transferred all the staff and assets of the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) to the newly- created, Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCP).
The Act prohibits agreements made to restrain competition such as agreements for price-fixing, price rigging, collusive tendering, etc. (with specific exemptions for collective bargaining agreements, employment, among others).
Under the new Act, the FCCP Commission replaces the CPC established by the Act, and also makes provision for the establishment of a Tribunal to handle issues and disputes arising from the operations of the law.
While the move has been lauded by operators, consumers believe more should be done by the FCCPC in getting a reprieve for them from actions of many business entities that provide essential services.
According to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, Nigerians’ trust in government, business, and non-governmental organisations remain on the decline.
Although the FCCPC was able to get the court to back its actions against businesses found to be engaged in unfair pricing, there are concerns about its ability to secure compliance and also extend its influence across other sectors where consumer complaints are very loud.
Why governments need to defend market competition
With consumers struggling for scarce resources to tackle the coronavirus pandemic globally, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) recommended that governments take five key actions to protect competition in the markets during the pandemic.
According to the agency, there is a need for governments to ensure equal conditions between companies for a level playing field that remains relevant even in a crisis period; temporarily allow cooperation arrangements necessary to ensure the supply and distribution of affordable products to all consumers to prevent a shortage of essential products.
To check price gouging in Nigeria, the FCCPC had issued a warning to sellers engaged in price gouging and arbitrary increases in prices of protective and hygiene products.
According to the Chief Executive Officer, FCCPC, Babatunde Irukera, the unusual and inordinate practice of unreasonably increasing the price of these (protective and hygiene) products in an indiscriminate manner, on account of the national public health concern (Coronavirus) violates both moral codes and extant law.
“Abusing citizens’ sensitivity, apprehension, anxiety and vulnerability, especially during emergencies that could adversely affect national security is a violation of the law.
“Specifically, S. 17 (s) of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Act (FCCPA) prohibits obnoxious trade practices or the unscrupulous exploitation of consumers,” he added.
Similarly, the UNCTAD urged for close monitoring of markets of essential products such as disinfectants, masks and gels to ensure their availability, if necessary, through temporary price caps to protect the health of consumers during the pandemic.
“We recommend that governments vigorously enforce competition law against companies that take advantage of the crisis by creating cartels or abusing their market power; adapt competition procedures and deadlines to the extraordinary circumstances created by the pandemic,” it added.
Under normal circumstances competition is needed in markets to keep prices low, but with the COVID-19 crisis wreaking havoc on markets the world over, collaboration has taken precedence.
The pandemic’s sweeping economic impact has left governments balancing between defending competitions, so prices do not become prohibitive, and granting exemptions to competition rules to ensure the survival of entire economic sectors.
“Many authorities are adjusting the enforcement of competition laws to serve the greater public interest during this crisis,” said Teresa Moreira, head of UNCTAD’s competition and consumer policies branch.
Earlier this year, the Commission said it was setting up a public enquiry, on the possible violation(s) of consumer/patient rights, involving a robbery attack victim, Miss Moradeun Balogun, and the management of R-Jolad Hospital, under the FCCPA, and the National Health Act.
Irukera explained that the enquiry, against the management of the Lagos-based Hospital, where the deceased was first taken to, but allegedly refused her treatment, was not a judicial process, but a regulatory enquiry. But, despite the clarifications, not a few believe that, with that singular act, the Commission had sent a warning signal to erring brand custodians and service providers, that it was no longer going to be business, as usual, as far as protecting consumers’ rights and interests in Nigeria was concerned.
Similarly, the Commission commenced legal action against Dr. Anuoluwa Adepoju of MedContour Clinic, over allegations of a failed plastic surgery and other consumer-related offences, having failed to honour the agency’s summons, dated April 15, 2020.
“On April 11, 2020, the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC became aware of complaints and dissatisfaction with respect to certain elective/cosmetic surgical procedures carried out by MedContour services. Essentially, the allegations are that MedContour engages in conduct that is considered otherwise professional, misleading and potentially injurious, including resulting in possible fatalities,” Irukera had said.
Also, on July 9, the agency also announced its intervention in the nation’s Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sector, by maintaining surveillance to prevent expired/unwholesome products from being circulated in the markets.
The Commission, on its official Twitter Handle, had said its Expiring/Expired Products Taskforce teams had continued its sweeps on key nationwide FMCG distributors to ensure COVID-19 interruptions would not result in unsafe products reaching retailers.
While the recent activities of the FCCPC show clearly that consumer protection is beginning to take root in Nigeria, businesses need to understand the workings of the Commission, live up to their obligations under its enabling law, and respect the rights of consumers.
Consumers on their part must acquaint themselves with the provisions of the FCCPA, and take advantage of it in asserting their rights in the market place.
According to UNCTAD, the consensus is emerging around the recognition that consumers have responsibilities to the society at large, even as the government makes an effort to protect them.