Babatunde Irukera is the Executive Vice Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. In this interview with ANOZIE EGOLE, he talks about the wins and challenges of the agency
What is the scope of the FCCPC?
The scope of the FCCPC is multi-level, from a subject matter standpoint and then from a regulated entities standpoint. For the subject matter, the scope includes both consumer protection and competition regulation. Essentially, these are about the responsiveness of businesses to ensuring customer satisfaction as an objective standard by providing goods and services that comply with or exceed prevailing standards and expectations, as well as a robust feedback mechanism to ensure sensitivity and responsiveness when dissatisfaction arises by resolving complaints timely and fully.
From a competition regulation standpoint, FCCPC has a mandate to ensure that markets are fair, not distorted, and that barriers to entry, if any, are limited. In all, we regulate markets for the primary benefit of consumers, which also results in the benefit of competitors. Our ultimate desire is for the market to be robustly competitive in a manner that promotes quality, innovation, choices, fair prices and dynamism.
From the regulated entities standpoint, the role of the FCCPC cuts across all of commerce, including certain conducts that occur outside of Nigerian territory but have a significant impact on the Nigerian market.
What are the limitations of the commission?
I suppose key challenges include limited human capacity with only 241 people responsible for a 200 million people’s market. Another is the sheer vastness of Nigeria when FCCPC has only nine offices across the country. In addition, navigating legislative and other bottlenecks and conflicts can significantly throttle the work and encourage industry players to exploit what may sometimes be a lack of clarity or operational preference for a particular regulator over the FCCPC.
Also, Nigerians are still at nascent stages of taking ownership of obligations owed to them by those who sell goods or services. The most vital component of any rights enforcement framework is a discerning and highly discriminated consumer who demands and insists on respect and compliance regarding rights and obligations owed.
What are the challenges facing the FCCPC with regard to carrying out its core mandates?
As explained above, one is the mutual regulator alignment with sector regulators where applicable. Human capital and commensurate remuneration to attract and retain competent professionals comparable to industries being regulated is also an issue. Sometimes, there could be fiscal constraints considering the scope and nature of the work of the FCCPC. There are issues around having a proactive and self-aware populace who demand and insist on their rights always, and an orientation that obligations and failures in commerce. This is important because it is the quickest and most sustainable way to promote and institutionalise compliance and fairness.
How many establishments has the FCCPC sanctioned for misconduct in the past year?
Several, actually. Although I must caution that the number of companies sanctioned is not a KPI or an appraisal/assessment matrix for us. Indeed, we engage and support corrective measures and behavioural modifications far more than we sanction. We regulate commerce, and work to facilitate, not be obstacles. We engage in punitive measures where applicable, but our work in doing that is extremely small compared to our work preventing violations or infringements that lead to sanctions.
What is the monetary value of the sanctions?
Where a monetary penalty applies, there are rules and procedures for addressing that. For instance, there is the Administrative Fines & Penalties Regulations which sets out a complex matrix of consideration in assessing conduct and penalties, including where applicable, mitigation and or aggravation.
We don’t focus on the amount of money in fines or penalties because it is important that the orientation of the agency is focused on mechanisms to correct and deter (which a penalty is sometimes), and it could become a credibility issue to be perceived or portrayed as a revenue generating agency in the rubric of others.
Having said that, in addition to sanctions already imposed, there are ongoing investigations that may result in sanctions too. So, it’s a little imprecise to stipulate a monetary value on a year-to-date basis.
In recent times, the agency shut down online loan platforms. How many of them have so far been shut down by your agency?
We have taken down no fewer than 50 loan apps from Google Play Store.
We have noticed that some of the online loan platforms that were shut down are coming back. Were they shut down permanently? If not, how do you monitor that such platforms do not return?
Many of the platforms are very amorphous in nature. You can shut them down by ordering Google to take them down on Playstore and asking banks to freeze known accounts. However, their familiarity and wide technology options allow them to find other ways to do their business, including availability for download on other platforms or direct website access, and other ways of conducting transactions without the traditional banking infrastructure. This is why some are able to return to business.
Regardless, their businesses have been severely restricted and we continue to gather intel on the perpetually badly behaved and restrict their opportunity to transact by continuing restrictions and prohibitions on other services that support their businesses.
The new Limited and Interim Digital Lending Guidelines released recently by the Joint Taskforce through the commission is an additional and more institutionalised step in setting guardrails to streamline digital lending to be sure it is not abusive or exploitative.
There have been complaints by many Nigerians that some cable television stations do not offer services after being paid by way of subscription. What strategy do you have on the ground to address the challenge?
This complaint has actually drastically reduced over the past two to three years. The commission as part of its regulatory intervention and oversight over PayTV requires their payment systems and interface to be able to immediately switch on or restore service at payment. We also require that where the company has not received money, but the consumer is able to show evidence of payment, service must be restored while the companies and their banks or payment system providers resolve transactional delays among themselves. This seems to have worked. But if there are any complaints, we continue to resolve them. One thing that is clear, though, is that it is no longer a widespread or prevailing problem.
You recently warned operating payment systems to stop providing payment services to online lenders under investigation. How do you monitor that directive?
That is not difficult. Any complaint against any loan app will show that an app is still in operation, and we are able to discover how their transactions and payments occur including the platform provider. The good thing though is that the responses received from payment systems convey a collaborative approach to addressing what we all agree is a problem and exploitation of the most vulnerable in our society.
The Association of Fintechs has been in communication with the commission, in its part to collaborate, but also to express concern or resistance. We welcome the feedback; we are engaging and believe the consensus will get stronger. However, in the event that the association or any of its members adopts an adversarial or non-compliance approach, the law will take its course, and the commission will enforce it to the fullest extent thereunder.
You said you were coming up with interim arrangements with Google not to put an app unless it has been duly registered. Is this being done?
This is part of the Interim regulations previously discussed. In due course, how it is working and its effectiveness will emerge and the process will be modified, if necessary, to strengthen the framework. However, so far, Google has been very supportive, including providing their expert knowledge and experience in advising about what works best in achieving laudable regulatory objectives.
Despite efforts by the commission, Nigerians still complain of getting embarrassing text messages from some of these lending apps. What other strategies do you have to check this?
This is true, and we are working assiduously to eliminate this. You will agree though that progressively starting March 2022 to date, over the period of this past six months, such defamatory messages or unethical repayment or collection practices have diminished substantially. I believe if the Joint Taskforce continues on the path we are, and our mutual regulatory oversight and collaboration deepens, I strongly believe that in the coming months, we will experience an even further reduction in unacceptable practices.
Do you have any open channel through which consumers can relay complaints?
Absolutely. With respect to digital lending, in addition to our standing and traditional channels, we created a dedicated email portal and we are acting on the cases we receive at that portal too.
Generally, we accept complaints by walk-ins, telephone, hard mail, e-mail, but most efficiently, through the complaint resolution mechanism which is available as a portal on our website and as an app that consumers can download with their handheld devices.