BY JUBRIL NAIYEJU
It is a safe bet that most Nigerians would want prices of goods and services fixed for years and forever, even. An exception would be members of the moneyed class, who cannot be bothered whether or not prices stay the same and actually view paying eye-watering sums for products and services as a reflection of their status. The other exception will be providers of goods/services, who would suffer multiple convulsions on account of rising production/purchase, operational and other less classifiable costs imposed by local economic dynamics.
Truth, however, is that prices cannot stay the same for a variety of reasons. Even assuming, without conceding, that prices can be fixed, the agency responsible for that task can only be validly perceived as having performed its task if it successfully freezes prices of all products and services. There can and should be no exception. That is not what I have seen with what the Consumer Protection Council (CPC), which poses as the defender of consumers in the country, is doing of late. The CPC or its Director-General, Babatunde Irukera, is obviously persuaded that it has powers to instruct a private business when to adjust prices for its services. It is equally persuaded that if consumers have grown used to a product or service and they suddenly encounter price adjustments, they should not seek cheaper alternatives. Rather, it appears to want the consumers, who incidentally include providers of goods and services for which price adjustments are as natural as breathing, to join its plainly illegal attempt to legislate prices in a free market economy.
I concede that the CPC is getting plenty of applause and seems thrilled by such, following a Federal High Court injunction restraining MultiChoice from implementing its new prices, which took effect on 1 August. The suit was filed by the CPC, which claimed MultiChoice reneged on a proposed consent order not to adjust prices for two years because it is under investigation over a series of subscriber complaints. These, according to the Council, include “failure to receive signal after subscription paid, subscription disconnection before the expiration of billing cycle with no credit applied for paid time lost, arbitrary charges, block on some channels subscribed, poor signal quality with excessive and uncompensated downtime during both inclement and clear weather conditions”.
The salad of alleged transgressions also contains “failure to adopt a Pay-As-You-Go billing system”, which the CPC is convinced amounts to “disparities and disparate treatment in cost and treatment of consumers in other countries, where MultiChoice operates”.
When it was pointed out that it lacks the powers to direct a private business how much it could charge for its services, the agency responded with the hollow claim that it “respects the fidelity in the operation of free market forces in arriving at prices of goods and services”, adding that it has gone against MultiChoice over issues that “are better articulated in the context of a Competition or Anti-trust legislation and regime, which Nigeria does not have”.
It is hard to argue against the fact that the CPC is one-eyed in its assessment of the situation and its apparent goal is to determine prices, perhaps in favour an existing or potential competitor. Why do I think so? MultiChoice, I remember, increased prices in April 2015, the first time in two years. The same month, StarTimes, I vividly recall, increased its tariff by between 20 percent and 35 percent. Price of its Basic bouquet moved by N200 to N1, 200, while that of its Classic bouquet moved from N2, 000 to N2, 400.
Five months later, it announced another tariff increase via text and email messages to subscribers. The second hike, which took effect on 1 October 2015, affected subscribers on its Unique Bouquet and raised the price to N4, 800 from N3, 600.
StarTimes explained that the upward review was as a result of the introduction of additional sporting content, notably the German Bundesliga and Italian Serie A. It recently lost broadcast rights to the latter to MultiChoice’s SuperSport. StarTimes called on subscribers to make bulk subscription payments to have some respite from the new rates it was introducing. The company, in an apparent bid to mute subscriber discontent, did not display information on the price hikes on its website. For reasons that eluded me at the time, the CPC, of which Irukera was counsel, remained in snooze mode. It could not rouse itself to speak against two price hikes within five months. It also did not think the monthly billing system operated by StarTimes should dissolve into the mythical Pay-As-You-Go model to redress the “disparate treatment in cost and treatment of consumers in other countries where MultiChoice operates”. Up to now, StarTimes does not operate as “Pay-As-You-Go” billing system. What it has is pay-per-day, pay-per-week and pay-per-month billing models, none of which is the a la carte model the CPC is so desperate to see instituted.
That same year StarTimes raised tariff twice, the previously impotent CPC, plied with a cocktail of aphrodisiacs supplied by the National Assembly, was on heat as it launched an investigation into MultiChoice operations. That investigation took in a raid of MultiChoice offices in Lagos, an exercise led by Emmanuel Ataguba, identified as the Council’s Director of Legal Services. The investigation was concluded in 2016, after which the Council and MultiChoice jointly addressed a press conference in Lagos at which the then CPC Director-General, Mrs. Dupe Atoki, commended MultiChoice’s level of compliance with the demands of the CPC.
One year later, with Mrs. Atoki out of office and replaced by Irukera, the Council began the current round of investigation, citing the same subscriber complaints. I am aware that StarTimes’ operations have provoked the same complaints. The company’s Facebook page is infested with subscriber gripes. A subscriber, Abayomi Owa, on 11 October 2017, wrote: “I can hardly watch any of my favorite channels again due to ‘no network or no service’. Pls, improve your service. What happen to AMC Movie on Basic boutique?”
Another subscriber, Moseri Benjamin, on 23 February 2018, wrote: “I recharged my StartTimes decoder with 1300 naira and it lasted only 10 days. What is the problem? In spite of all this, I can’t even find a single channel that shows wrestling. Pls, add a channel that shows wrestling or I throw away my StartTimes decoder. Smart card No: 01831548999.”
Also on 9 August 2018, a subscriber, Gloria Okafor wrote: “I was on Basic bouquet, but I have just paid N2, 600 this night for Classic bouquet. Yet I find myself on Nova bouquet. Kindly update my package to classic bouquet monthly. Thank you.”
How has StarTimes avoided CPC’s gun-sights? I hazard three guesses. One, the CPC considers these complaints as songs of praise. Two, StarTimes and providers of other services (electricity distribution companies, telecommunications and data service providers et al) have a license to do as they wish-providing squalid services and billing as they like. Three, MultiChoice is the child of a lesser god.
Brewing companies and distilleries, big and small, increase prices of their products when they think it is necessary. The CPC never goes to court to challenge them. A couple of years ago, UAC Foods, for valid business reasons, decided that Gala, at N50, had to undergo a drastic weight loss. It provided an option, a much bulkier one at N70. The CPC, I suspect, knew it was a business decision. I have a good number of dissolute friends, who use hotels by the hour (AKA short rest) and they tell me that they have to go in with their own condoms, which cost as low as N100, or risk buying the same brand from the hotel at N500.
I invite the CPC to look into this exploitative conduct. I bet there are more Nigerians who use condoms than Pay TV. A 2017 report published by The Punch quoted the NGO, Society for Family Health, as saying Nigerians use 400 million condoms annually, a figure it said could be higher because there are still many involved in unprotected sex. A quarter of this figure is likely made up of people who have been exploited by hotels and deserve recompense. It may sound base, but it is the truth. Why is it only MultiChoice that gets the CPC’s goat? Why are other service providers left to do what they like? Consumers of other services, notably banking- Commission on Turnover (COT) and call centre charges, cinemas-power cuts- and transport -vehicle breakdowns- suffer inconveniences and they do not attract the CPC’s attention. Why? I await answers.
Naiyeju writes from Lokoja