IS COCA COLA ABOVE THE LAW?
Let me use the opportunity of doing the last column in the last Wednesday of the year 2014 to wish you my readers the best in the coming year of 2015 and to promise you one thing- dedication and resilience in extending my searchlight to all corners to reveal those violations that officials of state and leaders of the private sector seek to hide.
Penultimate week I took out time and space in my column to comment on the developing story concerning the apparent intransigence and blunt refusal of the Nigerian branch of the global brand-Coca Cola to comply with the well considered decision of the consumer protection council headed by the consummate human rights defender Mrs Catherine Dupe Atoki to wade into a deluge of complaints from may Nigerian consumers of the soft drinks made by coca cola which were found to be substandard compared to the kind that are sold to consumers in Western countries.
As adumbrated/enunciated in that segment of my column aforementioned, the Consumer Protection Council specifically was concerned about a number of consumer complaints, which necessitated the decision of the Council to undertook an initial internal deliberation and on 5th September 2013 issued a Notice of Complaint indicating its intention to commence investigation to Coca-Cola Nigeria Limited (Coca-Cola) and Nigerian Bottling Company (NBC).The Council set up an Investigate Panel (Panel) to conduct a substantive and comprehensive investigation of the Complaint and incidental issues. NBC responded to the Council's Notice of Investigation, requesting an opportunity for two of its employees and an employee of Coca-Cola to inspect the cans of Sprite. Subsequently, the Council issued Summons dated 7th October 2013 on Coca-Cola and NBC. The first investigative meeting held on 22nd October 2013 to ascertain the facts and circumstances surrounding the issues.
Before proceeding any further I would like to express my strong disagreement with a certain writer of a back page column in one of the national dailies who dabbled into this particular matter but was sympathetic to this foreign company because of what he calls outrageous financial fines imposed on the defaulting bottling company and this same Nigerian journalist never bothered to think about the unprecedented damage to health and the danger posed to the precious lives of Nigerians by these substandard soft drinks.
Why would Nigerian journalist who has travelled abroad severally and had mingled with civilised minds be concerned about financial fines rather than show solidarity with a government agency that is now set to carry out the mandate of the Nigerian consumers and to task the foreign company with franchisees in Nigeria to comply with global best practices?
Recall that in the well written and comprehensive investigative reports of the CPC on this very matter the agency clearly stated the focus of the probe and also showed that the body was not necessarily concerned about the weight or heaviness of the fines neither is it in the business of raising her revenue profile. Reading through the report turned in by the team of investigators set up by the management of the Nigerian Consumer Protection Council on this very matter of allegation of two half filled and speedily vanishing purported soft drinks bottled by the Coca cola company in Nigeria, a reader with an objective and an open mind would find out that there are several other issues embedded in that report such as the high level of recklessness and the regime of nonchalant attitude by the management of coca cola to public health in the way and manner that they distribute their end products to the Nigerian market through their large network of retailers. The investigators found out that there is no practice direction from the management of coca cola to the distributors and retailers on the strategy for retrieving and withdrawing from the market those products that are strongly suspected to have expired and/or substandard and therefore there is the notorious possibility that there are still a lot of bad coca cola products in wide circulation that are consistently bought and consumed by the Nigerian local consumers who pay little or no heed to the issues of quality and standard. There is the need for further expansion of the scope of investigation by the CPC to further verify the level of spread of such similar bad products across the country and this process which would be cumbersome and capital intensive should and must be supported by the Nigerian people and government even as the new management of the CPC must elicit public support and the government should find a way of raising the funding profile of this agency because the task they are mandated to carry out on behalf of the Nigerian people is such a complex and demanding one that requires all the funding that can be appropriated and released. The National Assembly must look at the ways and means of transforming the CPC to become much more financially independent and viable because a situation whereby the body is encumbered by lack of the needed fund to carry out their vital task of checking and minimizing the circulation of substandard and dangerous products sold to the Nigerian consumers is unconstitutional. Why set up an agency with such a noble role on behalf of the Nigerian people and fail institutionally to sufficiently fund it?
As stated earlier, the focus of the investigation was to determine the source of the apparently defective product; examine, as it affects Nigerian consumers, the operating standards for the production, bottling and marketing of Coca-Cola products in Nigeria; as well as examine the complaints and grievance resolution policy of Coca-Cola and NBC, among other things.
Some aspects of the findings of the consumer protection council which came about after series of painstaking scientific and laboratory research as damaging as they mind boggling.
The investigators who were basically drawn from a broad spectrum of experts discovered that beyond handing out products, there is no policy for the resolution of consumer complaint, especially those involving injuries; there is no written shelf life policy for Coca-Cola products, nor an implementation plan outlining practical steps in the implementation of Coca-Cola/NBC's first-in-first-out (FIFO) rule. It was also revealed that Coca-Cola/NBC have failed in their responsibilities to Nigerian consumers considering the widespread market base they cover.
In contravention of applicable law, Coca-Cola elected to adopt a rather hostile and flagrant approach to the Council and its proceedings. This disregard was both disrespectful and dismal considering Coca-Cola's frontline status in the market and the expected cooperation and attention to its consumer welfare. In the light of relevant provisions of the Consumer Protection Council Act, the Panel has outlined the following recommendations:
That Coca-Cola and NBC should be held jointly and severally responsible for the quality standards of the product.
The subject of the present investigation [some products of Coca cola], did NOT conform to the ordinary standard of care and implied assurance and reasonable expectation that they are of the same average grade, quality and value as similar product sold under similar circumstances. Quite obviously, the consumer, at the time of purchasing the cans of Sprite, did not expect that they would be half filled and that the content would be evaporating gradually but steadily. In addition, the Council has received several similar complaints including the existence of foreign objects in NBC/Coca-Cola's products.
In the light of the above, the finding that the cans of Sprite, the subject of the present investigation, did NOT conform to the ordinary standard of care and implied assurance and reasonable expectation that they are of the same average grade, quality and value as similar product sold under similar circumstances is substantiated.
From the foregoing, it is not in doubt that such products as the two cans of Sprite raise potential health and safety concerns. If not checked, the safety of Nigerian consumers will be seriously threatened.
Coca-Cola's conduct in refusing to appear before the Panel and producing requested document is in contravention of Section 18 of the Consumer Protection Council Act. Whereupon the Office of the Attorney General of the Federation has provided necessary prosecutorial advice and draft charges.
As far we in the genuine civil society community we are delighted that for once a government agency headed by a courageous lady has defied all threats to her personal safety to confront this giant multinational company that treats Nigeria as a dumping ground for unhealthy and substandard soft drinks which have caused unquantifiable health hazards to several lives of Nigerians. Those local partners in crime to this defaulting bottling company who now are throwing punches against the leadership of CPC had better watch it before the collective angst of Nigerians are aroused against them. Let the right thing be done and let Coca cola not be allowed to escape the long arm of the law. The Nigerian courts must by this case demonstrate to us that it is not a respecter of status or wealth. Already the stakeholders in Coca cola are going about bragging that they have what it takes to ridicule any genuine patriotic activities of CPC to call them to order.
Emmanuel Onwubiko, is Head of Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria.