ONYEKORMAKA ASABOR writes on the imperative of having consumer protection at the forefront of AfCFTA implementation
If there is any area that should be prioritised in the ongoing implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, it is the protection of consumers that would, from time to time, be buying goods, and subscribing to services made available on the platform of the regional trade agreement.
“There is no way a regional trade agreement at the level of AfCTA would be under implementation without a nagging issue like misleading advertisement not playing out to the detriment of consumers,” said an analyst, Mr Idongesit Mbat.
Against the backdrop of the foregoing, he called for the deepening of efforts to increase consumer awareness on product advertisements, which may be misleading or deceptive. According to him, the campaign may not be elaborate but should comprise a set of video, infographics and sporadic town hall meetings across communities that will seek to inform consumers that they have the right to demand accurate information on a product before purchase as well as demand compensation if the product or service they purchased was not as advertised.
The question now is, which body should be responsible for compensating consumers at this regional level, if the product or services purchased was not as advertised? In the bid to provide answer to the question, 10 major regional trading blocs in the world economy have being identified in this context. They cut across the European Economic Area, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Mercado Comun del Cono Sur or Southern Common Market and the ASEAN Economic Community.
Others are the Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa, the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Indian Ocean Rim Association, the Latin American Integration Association and the Southern African Development Community.
Surprisingly, a common thread that literally runs across their fabrics is a consumer protection unit specifically created to protect consumers on each of the trading blocs. At this juncture, it is expedient to cite efforts towards consumer protection by SADC as it shares the same business environment with AfCTA. To prohibit unfair business practices and to promote competition and cooperation in the region, SADC signed a Declaration on Regional Cooperation in Competition and Consumer Policies in September 2009. The declaration sets out a cooperation framework on competition policy for the SADC Free Trade Area that helps streamline international trade and support economic growth. It is expedient to note that the declaration on regional cooperation in competition and consumer policies provides a cooperation framework in the implementation of member states’ respective laws. The declaration encourages member states to establish a transparent framework that contains appropriate safeguards to protect confidential information of the parties, and appropriate national judicial review.
The SADC secretariat strives to facilitate competition in the member states that have no such institutions, and competition and consumer protection advocacy programmes. To facilitate effective cooperation, the SADC secretariat established a standing Competition and Consumer Policy and Law Committee, a forum that fosters cooperation and dialogue among competition authorities aimed at encouraging convergence of laws, analyses and common understanding.
Taking into account the development needs and existing commitments on competition policy of member states, the Competition and Consumer Policy and Law Committee has due regard to the United Nations Set of Principles and Rules on Competition as a basis for consensus building in international cooperation in competition policy.
In the same vein, the Economic Community of West African that was created by the Treaty of Lagos in Lagos, Nigeria, on May, 28, 1975, just in 2007 – 32 years down the line – adopted a Regional Competition Policy Framework. Its primary purpose is to articulate the purpose and basic principles of competition law and its many benefits to the community Market and the regional integration process.
Abraham Ajidagba said, “The world has gone beyond the encumbrances that were obtainable at the time ECOWAS was created. On no condition should consumers that are already trading on the platform of AfCTA be left for so long before the body that should be addressing their issues would be created.
“Looking closer at consumer protection within the context of AfCFTA, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development had posited that ‘In addition to competition law and policy, which is provided through the AfCFTA under Competition Protocol, that consumer protection cannot be ignored.’ Consumer Protection is a complementary policy to competition policy.”
The policy added that in recent years, consumer protection matters had been gaining prominence in Africa, though at a pace that is slower than competition policy.
“The need to have consumer protection provisions within the AfCFTA protocol cannot be overemphasised. Consumer protection provides information and rights awareness to consumers, enforces rules against unfair and misleading commercial practices, promotes product safety and integrates consumers’ interests across all economic sectors. It aims to balance the existing asymmetry between traders and consumers. In addition, consumers are more aware of their power and rights, through the work of consumer lobby groups who continue to raise consumer issues in many developing countries. Countries like South Africa, Egypt, Zambia, Ethiopia, Kenya, United Republic of Tanzania, Botswana have been enforcing consumer laws at various degrees for some time now,” it noted, stressing that the countries were building on consumer violations redress efforts and that consumer case law was being developed in the continent, based on their experiences shared through the African Consumer Protection Dialogue platform hosted by United States Federal Trade Commission years back.
It noted that one consumer protection area that the AfCFTA needed to examine, still a major challenge, was the practice of sustainable consumption, explaining that environmental issues were on the green economy agenda, SDG 12, on sustainable consumption and production and the sustainable consumption in the United Nations Guidelines for Consumer Protection (Guideline 49-62), placing sustainability in an important position in consumer protection.
Further advocating that African policymakers needed to create a link between consumer polices that promote sustainability and consumers’ responsibility in promoting a clean environment, the policy cited the problem of non-degradable plastic material is a considerable environmental issue in many African countries arising from imported materials from other parts of the world. It said the AfCFTA could draw lessons from the revised United Nations Guidelines on Consumer Protection, which addresses two major emerging issues in consumer protection: e-commerce and financial services. For the sake of clarity, the UNGCP is a valuable set of principles for setting out the main characteristics of effective consumer protection legislation.
African Union member states are formulating and enforcing domestic and regional laws that can adapt the UNGCP to suit their economic, social, and environmental circumstances. The guidelines also give direction for promoting international cross-border enforcement cooperation among agencies and encourages sharing of experiences.
It noted that in the era of digital technology, the AfCFTA will play a great role in enhancing competition in the digital markets and protecting consumers engaging in e,-commerce, and that many people will embrace new digital technology, online shopping, mobile payments and money transfers, and shared economy transactions. It, however, noted that consumer dispute resolution and redress in such transactions were still very blurred. Especially in Africa, governments are not ready to deal with the issue comprehensively, though it is not possible to stop consumers from using online services.
Ostensibly buttressing the foregoing view, an UNCTAD online compilation of consumer protection legislation worldwide statements asserts, “Despite the importance of consumer confidence for business-to-consumer-commerce, many developing and transition economies still lack laws to protect consumers online.” Out of the 125 countries for which data exist, 97 (of which 61 are developing or transition economies) have adopted consumer protection legislation that relates to e-commerce. In terms of regional patterns, the incidence of consumer protection laws is particularly low in Africa.”
The global body strongly recommended that consumer protection is an area that AfCFTA would have to critically examine, noting that consumer protection and competition policies pursue similar objectives, and that it was imperative to have consumer protection at the forefront of the implementation of AfCFTA.
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