On September 19, 2003, following weeks of concerted mobilization, mobile telephone subscribers in the country took the unprecedented step of switching off their phones. With the Great GSM Boycott, as it was dubbed, the subscribers were desperate to convey their frustration with the shoddiness of the services being provided by the mobile telephone networks. The subscribers’ litany of protests included poor reception, dropped calls, one-sided contract terms and arbitrary deduction of call credits. While compliance with the mass switch off was, not unexpectedly, patchy, the boycott had the symbolic effect of bringing attention to the primitive nature of the services that Nigerian mobile telephone subscribers were paying exorbitant money for.
Almost 15 years to the anniversary of that original boycott, little has changed in regard to the quality of telecom services enjoyed (hardly the right word in the circumstance) by Nigerian consumers. On the contrary, and notwithstanding the astronomical spike in teledensity (currently there are nearly 150 million active telecom subscribers in the country compared to just over three million in 2003), which translates into a massive increase in revenue for telecom companies, the average subscriber has never been more unhappy. Nothing captures the average subscriber’s current predicament better than the fact that he or she is forced to log around several telephones linked to different providers (granted, the vanity of the average Nigerian must also be taken into consideration) as insurance against the inevitable moment when, the signal from one provider having unaccountably disappeared, recourse must be sought in another.
The situation is not any different in the banking sector, where consumers are increasingly expressing frustration with a grossly unequal relationship marked by excessive fees and nebulous charges. For instance, in March 2016, civil society groups under the aegis of the Consumer Advocacy Foundation of Nigeria (CAFON) organised a “No Banking Day” protest against what the leader of the group, consumer rights activist Sola Salako, described as “excessive charges, illegal fees, and unfair contracts that only protect the banks.” That largely unheeded call is being echoed in yet another consumer rights campaign under the umbrella of #Reform9jaBanks started on Twitter by Harvey Olufunmilayo, a United Kingdom-based Nigerian medical doctor, shows that the problems are still there. Among the dodgy charges being protested by the #Reform9jaBanks campaign are deductions for ATM card maintenance (including cards that the banks themselves admit have been lost), fees for over-the-counter transactions, and unsanctioned charges for Automated Teller Machine (ATM) withdrawals.
To their credit, both the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) and the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) have responded speedily. For instance, last week, in apparent reaction to consumers’ fury and a National Assembly resolution, they quickly inaugurated a joint regulatory investigation into the quality of services provided in the telecom sector. But it remains to be seen whether the outcome of the joint regulatory inquiry will result in greater protection for Nigerian consumers. The truth of the matter is that for far too long, and in a phenomenon that transcends the banking and telecom sectors, customer service in Nigeria has been an oxymoron.
As a rule, Nigerians serve poorly and are poorly served, and any deviation from this culture of shoddiness always comes as a pleasant shock. The NCC-CPC inquiry is a great start, but the path to excellent customer service and consumer protection is long and tortuous.