Consumers’ woes in austere times

THE temptation is strong for a triple alumnus of the Obafemi Awolowo University and a former President of its Students’ Union to comment on the running saga and drama of the absurd which cannot be divorced from official complicity at “Africa’s most beautiful campus”. But there will be time, God willing for that, preferably after the institution currently paralysed, is finally allowed to process the salary of all its workers, academic and non-academic for the month of June.

For now, let us consider the worsening plight of the citizenry as a whole, caught in a bind of galloping inflation, (at the last count, it was 16.5 per cent, the highest in a decade) and a veritable decline in the capacity of institutions, public and private to deliver basic and non-basic services. The choice of this topic was dictated by the harrowing experience I had last week when I sought to renew my monthly subscription to Direct Broadcast Satellite Television owned by the South Africa-based Multichoice and for many Nigerians a most valued linkage to the wider world. Having paid the required amount shortly before the subscription lapsed, I had to wait for four days to be reconnected. A day after payment, the service was disconnected and it took countless distress calls and visits to their office for me to enjoy service for which payment had been made.

To be sure, this is a utility run by a private institution but one marvels at how helpless consumers had become at the hands of these service providers. I am aware for example, that sometime last year, the Consumer Protection Council under its helmswoman, Mrs Dupe Atoki, read the Riot Act to a digital satellite television company because of the poor quality of its service. Claiming that her office had been inundated with complaints, Atoki said, “These complaints in effect alleged that the firm’s service does not conform with international best practices and it is specifically designed to exploit Nigerian consumers”. Obviously, Atoki’s tough talk and pledge to take a firm action have not been able to help the situation as my experience and those of several others demonstrate.

In the more basic area of mobile phones, it is obvious that the expansion of services to include over 130 million subscribers has not been matched with increase in the quality of service. Whichever service provider one looks at, the complaints are the same. They range from the frequency of drop calls to disappearance of network, high tariffs and the need for customers to often yell dramatically at the top of their voice to be heard. The threat by regulators to sanction operators and the few instances in which they have been sanctioned have not helped consumers to enjoy upgrade in services. Not even a discussion of the matter at the House of Representatives has succeeded in solving these endemic problems.

I do not mean to suggest that Nigerian consumers are the only ones who have issues with service providers. In the United Kingdom, mobile phone users grumble too about poor treatment from operators who sometimes refuse to release them from contracts signed with them even when they are dissatisfied. The difference is that in many countries outside Nigeria, consumers have viable alternatives to mobile phones and can more readily get their complaints addressed from the ombudsman or from the regular courts. Nigerians do not have such luxuries.

At this point, and before carrying the narrative further, this writer digresses to take a short take. The expression, town and gown, assumed a special significance a fortnight ago when a top notch professional in estate management was honoured by friends and associates for achieving distinction in the academic profession by becoming a Professor in the discipline. Held in Ibadan, the celebration brought together town and gown in honour of Olatoye Ojo, a star professional and founder of an upscale consulting firm, who was named Professor of Estate Management by the Obafemi Awolowo University (backdated to 2013). Not many professionals rise to the top as Ojo who became a Fellow of the Nigerian Institute of Estate Surveyors in 1990 did; fewer still are able to excel in a second career by rising to the top of the academic profession. The moral here is good old hard work as a necessary ingredient of outstanding achievement. At a time when the nation is reeling from the effects of laggard work ethics occasioned by the easy bonanza spending of unharnessed oil boom, it is instructive that there are Nigerians who have risen to eminence in more than one noble profession. Perhaps, it is time we stopped worshipping at false altars by giving honour to the richly undeserving.

To get back to the main discourse, one cannot but mention the woes of electricity consumers such as soaring tariffs in the midst of declining supply, arbitrary and estimated billing system occasioned by failure to supply meters, accidents and even disasters as a result of surges in power supply, low currents, as well as the lengthening and inevitable hours of darkness. Needless to say that the destruction by the Niger Delta Avengers of pipelines in recent times has worsened an already precarious situation causing system failures in several parts of the country. All consumers have for now, is the often repeated pledge of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration to overcome the national jinx by diversifying power sources away from the ever elusive gas supply.

Water, an essential component of life and survival, is in dire shortage in the country with many families depending on the ever present borehole with its damaging effects on the environment. According to Water Aid, a London-based Non-Governmental Organisation, more Nigerians die annually from the lack of potable water and poor sanitation than from the Boko Haram insurgency. In many of our cities, close to three quarters of the population have limited access to pipe borne water. Obviously, there must be a link between the recurrent outbreak of a familiar pattern of diseases such as cholera and tyhpoid and the lack of access to safe drinking water. This of course is a situation that has persisted for several decades, the pity is that there are no signs that it is being addressed with any seriousness.

Another welfare good in diminishing supply is security and safety of lives and property. In other words, the rampaging austerity is compounded by serial consumer woes.

What then is the way out? Regulators of industries which provide social goods must clean up their act or face the music from Buhari, who must do more than ever before to protect Nigerian consumers. To complement this, civil society organisations must rise to their roles of oversight and protector of our fundamental economic rights. That will at least alleviate the suffering of the hour.

  • Olukotun is a professor of political communication.