Until recently, the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) was largely unknown to many. But today, the Director General of the Commission, Babatunde Irukera, in this interview, says the agency has achieved a lot and looks forward to ensuring robust enforcement and wider consumer education in 2020.
Mr Irukera spoke to PREMIUM TIMES in an interview.
PT: The impact of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) seems to be appreciated more by Nigerians. What has changed?
IRUKERA: A lot! But lets start by saying that 2019 was a very active year. Despite the fact that the resource base of the commission has not increased, we knew that must never be the excuse for failure or non-performance. The commission has continued to do what it has to do in the circumstances to resolve consumers’ complaints.
On my assumption, the commission was receiving about 700 to 1,000 complaints per annum. At that time, the most intense aggravation with the commission was responsiveness and resolution of complaints. But today, the commission is receiving approximately 1,000 complaints in a week. The dynamics have changed.
Today, the commission is receiving complaints from multiple channels, including Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, telephone lines, complaints resolution portal online, emails. But, the criticism about our responsiveness and ability to resolve complaints has gone down significantly.
While we count that a great success, we do not see it as an incredible accomplishment. What we hope to leave behind is not a help desk, a multi-company customer service technical support desk. A consumer ombudsman may be where consumers of goods and services may take their complaints to meet the people they are complaining about, but it should be a part of the role of a consumer regulator.
If we are doing better and people are seeing us as more reliable for doing 1,000 complaints per week to 2,000, can your capacity to do that be sustained as regulator?
For increasing your capacity to resolve complaints, there will be some other parts of the commission’s mandate that will suffer.
The unit that has the highest number of operatives in the commission today is Complaints Resolution. What we want to see is for the operatives and the resources we deploy in resolving complaints go down to the barest minimum, not because there are no complaints, but because service providers and companies get better at resolving consumer complaints.
The commission’s most important role in complaints resolution must be to get service providers or producers to more actively and timely resolve complaints, because the commercial contract is between them and their customers and not with the federal government.
When prices of goods are introduced, they have factored into it the cost of satisfying the consumers. So, it’s an obligation that they have to ensure they have robust mechanisms for a feedback, including dissatisfaction. The commission is not supposed to be ‘policemen’ in respect of resolving complaints, rather monitor the industry.
When companies have to resolve complaints themselves, they deploy more resources and get a lot more feedback about what is going wrong; they carry the headache of unresolved complaints. That is what will make them better and truly reduce complaints at a real and dramatic level.
PT: What’s the update on the DSTV issue about upward price adjustment?
IRUKERA: The Commission went to court to restrain the DSTV from going ahead with the price adjustment. But, the judicial process is not within our control. The court ordered in favour of the Commission’s request to stop DSTV from going ahead. DSTV did not comply. So, that judicial process to hold them accountable to the court is still on.
But, aside from that, an outcome of what the dispute was about was that we now have a regulator and operator in the dispute. It modifies the behavior of the operator. Save for some very sensitive issues that they felt very strongly about from a legal interpretation standpoint of view, the commission proceeded with all the other things we wanted to do by entering an order.
What people saw in court seemed to be a dispute with respect to their price. But, that was not what it was at all. There were a bunch of consumer violations, and we said they have must fix all of them, and while they were fixing that, they will not materially change the term of their subscription agreement with the subscribers.
But, before the consent order was signed, DSTV decided to move the price and the material term of the subscription agreement. And so the consent order was never signed. As far as the commission was concerned, DSTV exercised bad faith.
So, what we did was to say the commission will go ahead and enter the final orders on all other things, except the question of pricing, which they felt strongly about, that only a court can interpret whether the commission was right or wrong about the terms of consumer agreement.
From the commission’s internal monitoring assessment, complaints in respect of DSTV have reduced significantly.
Exactly what we thought was the problem is playing out. What we said was that people’s aggravation about DSTV service was linked to the quality of its service. Agreed, it is possible for a service to cost too much, no matter how good it is. But, one is not going to be able to know whether the cost or charge is the fairest without giving the best at that cost. Do the best you can at that cost and see how the market behaves. Then, let’s see if there is additional intervention required.
All that the commission sought to do was not to reduce DSTV price but, to address the subscribers’ complaints that the quality of DSTV service was poor. Half of the people that said the DSTV cost was too high might not feel that way anymore when they get value through good quality service.
So, the service failure complaints by DSTV subscribers have reduced dramatically. Before now, we used to receive about 500 complaints from DSTV subscribers. Now, we have about two or three every other week. People still think it costs a lot, but the complaints about how much it cost have also reduced. This is how a sound regulatory system should work.
After the operator eliminates what it can, let’s see what is left of the problem and how to move forward with that. So, the commission feels it has achieved something, even though the judicial part of the dispute remains unresolved.
Again, prior to the commission’s intervention, DSTV’s change in cost of service was almost routinely annual. It’s been over a year since the dispute started, no price has changed yet. One is not saying they will not change their price. As regulators, that’s not our role. But, certainly that confrontation, and how it can play out in the future has now become a consideration in their business decisions.
That regulatory intervention is working. Whether the desired outcome was achieved or not, the commission has seen some of the effects of the intervention.
PT: What about the issue with MTN?
IRUKERA: The commission has no issue with MTN, apart from the telecom industry issue we have about consumers’ complaints about unsolicited messages. We are working closely with the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to get that resolved.
It took a while for the two regulators to agree on the regulatory framework for inquiry. Just about when we were coming to that agreement, a new law came, requiring us to sign a memorandum of understanding with other regulators about work sharing.
So, NCC suggested that we resolve the memorandum of understanding, which will include the framework for addressing the issues. That has proceeded. But, in the interim, the NCC has gone ahead to direct the industry against unsolicited subscriptions by telecom operators.
Again, without the final outcome, the commission’s regulatory intervention is yielding some results. People have expectations on how things must go. The only time people question why things did not go that way is when it does not happen the way they expected.
There are still a long way to travel. As long as people are selling things and people are buying and using things, there will always be new complaints to resolve.
PT: What’s the situation with the Patients’ Bill of Right?
IRUKERA: This was created for the industry, and not for the Commission’s regulation. What the Patients’ Bill of Right was meant to do was to energise the respect for the ethical, professional responsibilities that existed in the healthcare value chain and for patients to know their rights.
The commission is doing a lot, but what will make it work is the ownership that the industry will make of it. The one area where everybody is a consumer is healthcare.
Prior to when the Bill came into being in July 2018, there was no complaint received against any medical facility for violation any patient’s right. But, between then and now, there has been at least 20 reports. That in itself is stimulating a whole demand for the protection of patients’ rights.
Again, for over eight years before the Bill, not one doctor in Nigeria has been subjected to discipline by the professional regulatory authority. But, since the Bill came, four doctors have been prosecuted for professional misconduct.
PT: How many people has the FCCPC prosecuted in court?
IRUKERA: The structure of the regulatory work at the commission is not for people to be taken to the court. Unless a part of the law enforcement agencies, like the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), ICPC or Nigeria Police, the commission will not have a record of taking many people to court, because we are (not) prosecutors. We only do regulatory work and take regulatory decisions. When people have done wrong, we analyse them administratively.
The vast majority of the court cases are with those who disagree with the powers of the commission to take decisions.
However, under the new law, the powers the commission had to report things to the Ministry of Justice for them to decide whether to prosecute or not are now for the commission to go to court itself. So, apart from EFCC or other law enforcement agencies, the commission is in court the most.
For instance, we took the unprecedented decision of taking an operator to court. That is why the DSTV matter is in court. The commission is one of the few that are bold to seek judicial interpretation of their decisions. Hopefully, it will become a tradition to go to court.
What each of these cases does is to send a clear message that there is a regulator who has both the desire and the will to hold people accountable by enforcing compliance to the fullest extent of the law, including criminal prosecution. Conduct in commerce should rarely end up in criminal court. So, we are not likely to be fairly judged by how much cases we have been initiating or prosecuting.
PT: Is the Commission thinking about a special court to handle consumer complaints cases?
IRUKERA: The Federal Consumers and Competition Protection Commission Act actually establishes the Competitions and Consumers Protection Tribunal established by law.
But, like I said, everything in in a transition process. The tribunal will have a panel of judges that will take decisions on consumer protection issues. At the initial stage, there will be contentions and questions about judicial clarifications and jurisdictions between Federal High Court and the tribunal. Just as we have the Investments and Securities Tribunal, over a period of time, that will be clarified.
PT: What’s the impact of the FCCPC Act on the commission and Nigeria?
IRUKERA: The commission was already in transition about how our work is done before the law. About the impact in the country, we must understand that whether it is in the police force, civil service, or market, the serious problems we have in terms of violations of the law, theft, armed robbery, herdsmen killing, cattle rustling, kidnapping, hijacking, police brutality, bribery, etc, are not always by ghosts but by some people who violate the law.
So, just having legislation alone modifies the behaviour of the people. Because the commission was in transition before the law came, the industry itself recognises that the new law gives the commission a new impetus to regulate, bark and bite, if need be. Their perception of the commission to exercise its powers in the law to regulate and enforce has also modified behavior.
There is Ride Early Company (like Uber, Taxify) in Lagos that required its drivers to take insurance from a particular insurance company. The commission wrote to them and stopped that. That opened the window to other insurance companies.
The kind of connivance that has been existing in transport companies in fixing transport fares during festive seasons is no more, because they know there is a law against such practices and a regulator who is ready to enforce it and send people to jail for violations. They know there is a regulator who knows what it is doing and is ready to enforce the rule.
The impact is tremendous. We are doing mergers and acquisitions already. When we see two big companies wanting to come together, we will say it’s not going to happen, because for that to happen, they ‘squeeze’ the small ones. For them to come together, we will say they must do A, B, C, D, or they can’t come together at all.
Things are happening, but on a framework that is protecting the market and eliminating combinations that will distort the market and providing choices, innovation, fair pricing and quality to consumers.
PT: What legacy would you be leaving behind at the commission?
IRUKERA: We want to succeed in leaving a legacy of better performance of companies resolving consumer complaints themselves than the regulator.
This is more important now that the responsibilities of the commission have been expanded. The commission cannot take its eyes off the ball. The commission must focus on how the market is operating far more than what goes on with an individual.
At the commission, we are about 240. So, if they are to be dealing with individual issues of about 200 million consumers in the country, no matter how well we master or how much time we put at it, the commission will always remain buried below the ground, even with the best technology.
PT: Going forward, what should we expect?
IRUKERA: In 2020, the commission is embarking on a voyage to improve the mechanisms for enforcing consumer rights in Nigeria. Some of the stops on this cruise will be some of the things the commission has mastered to do, including the resolution of complaints, as well as places we have not gone yet.
The structure of society makes the work of the commission very challenging. In 2020, the commission should focus on two things, namely robust enforcement and wider consumer education. If we can accomplish these better than we have done before, we would say we have done something for this nation.
Our approach to better enforcement is holding companies accountable in how they respond to consumers, and devising mechanisms that put the companies on their toes to prevent what can create dissatisfaction. We seek to perfect the process.