Sola Salako is the President, Consumer Advocacy Foundation of Nigeria (CAFON), a not-for-profit group dedicated to advocacy for consumer rights and protection in Nigeria. In this interview with EMEKA EJERE and OBINNA EZUGWU, she emphasized that Nigerians should not relent in resisting the exploitative tendencies of businesses in private and public sectors. Excerpt:
Consumer advocacy is not common in this part of the world, but you have managed to drive it to the front burner. What motivated you?
I am somebody who hates exploration; I don’t like cheating and I see a lot of things going on around here. My background in marketing… I actually started my career in advertising and marketing… exposed me to a whole lot of ways in which consumers could be taken advantage of. The drive of the marketer or the brand owner is to make as much money as possible, so there are possibilities of bending the rules, of exploiting any opportunity they see.
For instance, if I want to see my product, and that product has a hazard, I probably may not put that hazard on the pack because I know it would discourage people from buying it, except if there are neutral observers or regulators who will make me do it. We realized that a lot of that wasn’t happening in this environment…
Even with the Consumer Protection Council?
At the time when I was in advertising, I didn’t even know that we had the Consumer Protection Council; it was not established as at that time. It was established sometime in the 90s. So, how did I get into this work? I used to write a column in ThisDay Newspaper, just a social commentary column, it was called ‘Handwriting on the Wall.’ I did it every Sunday, and one of those weeks, I was supposed to send in my article. I was trying to buy a phone, land-line, then we had Intercellular, Startcoms, Nitel and all those kinds, they were just the ones there, and we wanted to buy a land-line to use in the office. We called these companies, and you won’t believe the kind of customer service we got.
One actually abused us; one shouted at us and banged the phone. I was like, I’m trying to spend my money here, and I can’t even be given some courtesy. I wrote about my experience in my column the next day, that people work hard to earn this money, and if they are spending it on your product, the least you can do is to be polite. By the end of that day, my e-mail box was full, a lot of Nigerians were saying Sola thank you, see what this brand did to me, Sola thank you, see what they brand did to me.
I said, so a lot of people had been going through this, and nobody was saying anything? They said they didn’t know who to say it to. So, the following week, all the complaints I got, I published them. That was how we began the crusade. Before I knew it, more complaints started coming in, people started seeing my column as an opportunity to speak up. So I used to publish them, but I tried as much as possible to balance it. When they do well, I will praise them, but when they don’t, I will hit them, even the government. Nigerians need to understand that they have consumer rights when it comes to government or public services.
We are used to thinking that nobody can question government. I did a whole lot of pushing the government, not on politics, but on mold of governance; to say, give us service that is equivalent to the amount of revenue that you control. It was after my shouting at the government that ServiCom was inaugurated. I made sure that there was some kind of service contract. People had just gotten used to when they take something to a ministry it would be there for months or years.
But if you go there now, the quality of service has improved a little, it is not the best yet but it is better now. People pay a little attention, and then, there are government agencies you can actually complain to if you are shortchanged in terms of service. We started to raise the awareness for people to understand that they have a right to speak up, it is a democracy. We are not fully there yet, but the journey has started.
What has the buy-in by the Nigerian populace been like?
The thing is the system, in fact, this morning, I said I was going to abandon this thing and do other things. Nigerians know that they need something, but the greatest problem we have with the Nigerian consumer is that he has gotten used to ignoring it, because we grew up in an environment where you complain and complain about something, but nobody changes it, and nothing happens. That has become a way of life, and has been transferred to the consumer environment whereby, if somebody cheats me, I will just shout and then I will go. We have to understand that this is different; it is not a military government.
We have just seen the social media as a means to vent our anger, but it ends there, so we don’t get the kind of buy-in that we would want for something that affects everybody’s live. We once ran a campaign, the ‘No Banking Day’ campaign, where we called people out to protest against excessive charges, it was shocking to me when people told me they heard but they needed to go and do something in the bank. I was like, they don’t take my own money, because they know if they do, I will follow them till I get my money back. But they are taking your money, and if we don’t come together to resist it, this will continue to go on.
Few days ago, Nigerians woke up to several debit alerts. What is going on?
You have not even started shouting because CBN just released a guide to banking charges, which will take effect from May 1st. I have been shouting since that thing came out because there are charges in there that we thought CBN will take out, but instead, they have increased them. For instance, your debit card: Before, they used to charge us N100 per year for debit card maintenance. We were fighting that because we don’t understand what they are maintaining. We have paid for the card, we pay for the service; anytime you use that service, you actually pay N65 if you are withdrawing from another bank, and now, what the banks did was that they have reduced the amount of money you can cash out from their ATM if you are using a different card, they brought it down to about N10,000. So, if I need N50,000, I will have to withdraw five times and Central Bank only allows for three free transactions, so by the time I leave that bank, I would have incurred N130 charge. The CBN is not speaking to that.
Those ATMs have the capacity to dispense as much as they are programmed to dispense, but the banks deliberately programmed it to dispense N10,000. Then, if you go to your bank to say you want to cash N60,000, they will say no, you have to use the ATM so that they can make money. That card, you paid N1000 to get it, every time you lose it, you pay another N1000, they charge you N50 VAT. So what CBN has done is to make that annual maintenance fee a monthly maintenance of N50. That means that instead of paying N100 at the end of the year, we would have paid N600. That is on top of the card that we paid for, a card that we pay for the service, we are now going to pay the bank again for maintaining it, what are they maintaining?
Who is to blame here; the banks or the CBN?
Both of them, and I tell you why. Right now in Nigeria, we are running a very strange regulatory system in our financial sector. The CBN regulates the banks; that’s what we are told, but there is something called bankers’ committee, which the CBN chairs, but you will find out that every time any action is taken in the CBN, it is the bankers’ committee that would announce it. So CBN is in collusion with the heads of banks to regulate themselves. How is that realistic? CBN has abdicated its regulatory functions to the bankers’ committee.
So, before CBN can say this is what we want to do, it has to get the buy-in of the bankers’ committee. But whose interest is the bankers’ committee protecting? Your interest as a consumer or the banks whose MDs make up the committee? So, I blame both the CBN and the banks. Right now, the CBN is not doing regulation; it would sit at a meeting every month with the bankers’ committee to agree. So how does CBN want the banks to regulate themselves, and to do so in a fair manner? This is part of the reasons why this is not acceptable to us, the CBN needs to take back its sole responsibility as the regulator, separate from whatever it does with the banks. When CBN gives a directive, you remember the cashless policy where there are penalties when you withdraw excess cash, that penalty, which is up to two percent of the balance by the CBN directive, will be shared between the CBN and the banks. Therefore, the CBN is leading this drive to exploit the Nigerian people.
Part of what you do is to educate Nigerians about their rights. Do you have programmes in this regard?
We have a lot, but we would love to have more. However, we are limited by funding. As I speak to you now, I have been doing this since 2003, and in fourteen years, the only donation I have ever received is N50,000 last year from one lady who felt, oh you are doing this ‘no banking day’ by yourself, how are you finding it? So, I don’t get funding, there is no funding in Nigeria for what we do, you know we are an NGO. Other NGOs, the Human Rights people, maybe they have all kinds of funding, but for economic rights, there are no funding at all. So, we fund ourself. We have fantastic ideas on how to educate Nigerians more, but we don’t have the means to do so. Thank God for social media, it has provided us a platform that is free from which we can reach out to people. But we need to still reach more Nigerians, and we don’t have the funding. We even set up a crowd funding platform on social media. Nigerians don’t understand that to get these kind of things done, we need to support those that do it. Nobody has even looked in that direction, except maybe my family.
Talking about the ‘no banking day’, were you satisfied with the response?
I will tell you that what we did was to get the attention of the sector. Before we even had the ‘no banking day’, CBN had released about three statements to say “we are doing all we can, don’t boycott the banks”. That means they got our attention. The banks also got our attention, they won’t tell you, but on that day, their report showed that there was a dip, maybe not very significant, but there was a dip because quite a number of people didn’t go or delayed their transaction that day just to show that they were angry.
We could have done more with that if we had funding. We didn’t have funding, but we were able to achieve that. Then when these new banking charges came out, some of the things we fought against were reduced. For instance, this online transaction charge has been reduced from N100 to N50, but they now went and increased other charges.
But some people would wonder, if you say no banking, who do you hurt more; the Nigerian who need to use the bank or the banks?
The banks, let me tell you, every day you go to a bank, you are making money for that bank. Because for every one of those transactions, there are charges, so if you deny them that income for one day, it would affect their projections and their bottom line. We were going to do it again this year, but the economy was in such a bad shape, and I know that if we did it, more people would have gotten involved in it. But we didn’t want to keep the economy on that level, that’s why we stepped it down to listen to what the CBN has to do, because they assured us that they were bringing out new banking tariff that would take care of what we protested against.
Unfortunately, we are going back to the trenches now because what we protested against, instead of eliminating some, they actually increased them; they got worse. If you don’t do your transaction today, you can do it tomorrow, except it is an emergency. That’s why we said for just one day, let there be a dip in their income so that they will realize that if we don’t come to do these transactions, they don’t make that money. That way, they will treat us in a way that we expect to be treated.
Are there some fruitful interventions to the credit of CAFON that you can remember?
We tried very hard not to do individual resolutions as it were. We started with that, but we found out that when we do those individual resolutions, because we don’t have the structure, the legal framework, the policy enforcement to carry through on your complains; we rarely ever are able to help you sort it. So, what we have done for many years is that we have been working with institutions to build that structure. We did some work with Lagos state, the state now has a consumer protection law which we contributed to. We have also done some work with the CPC, a lot.
I remember that there was this situation, about five years ago when we made Guaranty Trust Bank to change the clause, when you go to get your card, which says that once you have taken your pin, you were responsible for any unauthorized transaction in your account. We said no, what if the unauthorized transaction was due to the bank’s negligence? Because we had a lot of people who had their ATM cards who didn’t do anything wrong, but it was through the negligence of banks that people were able to get to their account.
Why should I be responsible for something that I was not liable for? They said that they were not going to change that, so we wrote them to say if you are not going to change that clause to include the protection of customers to say, if it is proven that such negligence was from the bank, the bank would be liable, we will sue you. And in few days, they wrote us back to say they were looking at it. Eventually, they corrected it. If you go to the bank today, the form you get has the clause, ‘except it is by the bank’s negligence,’ it wasn’t there before. Let me tell you, once people complain to me and I write to them, they quickly resolve the issue because they know we can create a lot of bad publicity for them, which they don’t want.
What we are working mostly with is getting mass awareness because we found out that if more people understand, they would be able to stand up for their rights. One of the things we take credit for was that through CAFON, we ignited other media platforms to do more of consumer protection. Today, practically every newspaper has a consumer page. It didn’t happen before, I used to invite brand writers and educate them on how they can use their platforms to raise awareness on consumer issues.
We really made a lot of difference. Now, because the media is gradually becoming a good tool, the brands are careful because they don’t like bad publicity. Thank God for social network, that has also become a tool that we have been using to put pressure on brands.