Mr. Afolabi Adebayo Solebo is the General Manager of the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency (LASCOPA). Prior to his appointment, he started his legal career with the Lagos State Ministry of Justice where he rose through the ranks and was appointed head of various units and departments in the Ministry. Until his appointment as the General Manager of LASCOPA in November, 2020, he was the Registrar of the Lagos State Land Use Charge Assessment Appeal Tribunal.
In this exclusive interview with DNL Legal & Style, Mr. Solebo reveals his plan towards ensuring that the activities of LASCOPA are felt in the grassroot. He also highlighted some of the major achievements of the Agency as well as the challenges.
DNL L&S: May we meet you sir?
Mr. Solebo: My name is Afolabi Adebayo Solebo. I was born on the 7th of June, 1968. I would be 53 this year. I am from Ikorodu, Lagos State. I started my primary education at Omoleye Children School Ikorodu Road, here in Lagos and from there I proceeded to St. Peters College Abeokuta where I had my secondary school. I however finished at Angus Memorial High School Igbobi, Yaba. I also enrolled for my A level at Igbobi College but left after my first year when I gained admission into the Lagos State University to study Christian Religious Studies. It was in my sojourn of studying Christian Religious Studies that I decided I wanted to be a lawyer and had to go back to do JAMB. So, I didn’t complete the CRS studies. I finished my law program in Lagos State University and from there I proceeded to the Nigerian Law School and was called to the bar in 2001.
After my call to bar, I started work as a State Counsel in the Lagos State Ministry of Justice. I started with the Directorate for Citizen’s Right where we had about five Units; the Office of the Public Defender, the Consumer Protection Unit , the Citizen’s Mediation Centre, the Human Right Protection Unit. After about six years, between 2006 and 2010, I was redeployed to the Directorate of Civil Litigation. In 2010, I was appointed the Director of the then People’s Advice Center (now known as the Public Advice Center). Then, I went back again to Civil Litigation and was redeployed to the Directorate of Public Prosecutions. That was where I was from 2012 till last year. In between then, in 2018, I was appointed the Secretary and Head of Legal Unit of the Lagos State Sports Commission. It was from there in January 2020 that I was appointed the Registrar of Land Use Charge Assessment Appeal Tribunal. And I was there until my present appointment on the 6th of November, 2020 as the General Manager of the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency. I am married with three children.
DNL L&S: Did your appointed as the General Manager of the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency come to you as a surprise?
Mr. Solebo: I would say definitely yes. Because just few months before then, precisely January 8 of that same 2020, I was appointed the Registrar of the Land Use Charge Assessment Appeal Tribunal and I was just beginning to settle down. I think there was even a review for the Land Use Charge Law and I was part of the Committee that reviewed the law. I was even in a working relationship with the Commissioner for Finance and we were talking about how to hold some form of Townhall meeting for stakeholders.
I recall I was at Alausa the day I got the information. I got a call that my attention was needed at the office of the Head of Service because I have been appointed a Principal Officer in the State. I said; “which one is principal officer again?”. Low and behold, I got there and the man just said; “Mr. Solebo, we have a letter for you. You have been appointed the General Manager of the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency”. I said, “really, this is a big surprise”. And that was it. So, I was surprised though very elated too. Being appointed a Principal Officer in your State is a great privilege.
DNL L&S: Considering the fact that there is very low ‘consumer right’ awareness, especially at the grassroot, do you think the job of making impact in the agency would be enormous?
Mr. Solebo: Yes. However, much as I was of the opinion that the job was going to be tedious, I think sometimes, God prepares you for somethings ahead of time. If you are a diligent officer that has worked in the Lagos State Directorate of Public Prosecutions, there is no work that would really be daunting. You know what it means to have up to 150 files to handle? There is no way you go to court in a day with less than 10 files. Out of those 10 files, 3 may be for trial, some for argument on bail applications. And you do this Monday to Friday, back to back for almost eleven years like myself? So, when I sat down and reflected on the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency, my mind quickly went back to the Directorate for Citizens Right. LASCOPA used to be a Unit under the Directorate and even at then, because it was a Directorate, all counsel were involved in human right, citizen’s right, consumer rights, mediation, they were all encompassing. Luckily for me, I was at the Directorate then. So, I simply said to myself; “yes, I can do this.”
Again, when I got here and went through the establishing law, I was like, “this is beautiful. This is what I have always wanted to do, fight for the rights of people, letting them know that they have rights. And when any of those rights have been infringed, definitely, we make sure that they get justice – quick redress.” So, to me, though we have not really done much, we have just been five months, but we would make a lot of impact.
DNL L&S: What do you have to say to people that think that the Agency is a toothless bulldog with no prosecutorial power that would strengthen it?
You know, sometimes it is not everybody that reads. I would refer such people to the 2015 Laws of Lagos State. That is where you have the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency Law. Anything we do in Lagos State, we are not toothless and from records, even before I became the GM, this office has been existing and has been doing a wonderful job. I took over and you would be shocked at the kinds of people that have been brought here. These are some people that you may think are untouchable when it comes to certain issues but I can tell you without mincing words that if you are doing anything that is contrary to the laws of Lagos State, you must be ready to face the law. And we can tell you that at the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency, no matter whose ox is gored, we would do our job. We have various Units here. I have officers in the Monitoring and Enforcement Unit; we have the Complaints and Mediation Unit and we have the Scientific Research and Investigation Unit – so that peradventure a product is brought in as substandard and you argue otherwise, this Unit will conduct research on your product. In this Unit, we also check whether products are harzadous, poisonous, not of good standard and all that. And if you are found wanting, definitely we would prosecute you. We have counsel on ground, we have the Court standing behind us and we have the law and the backing of Mr. Governor. So, we are not toothless. The little we have achieved so far, goes a long way to show that we are not toothless. We do the job as it is under the law.
DNL L&S: Within these five months, what has been the Agency’s significant achievements?
Mr. Solebo: We have had many achievements but I would highlight just a few. Immediately I assumed office, the very first case I met on ground was the case of a woman that bought a vehicle from a very popular car dealer for about N2.6m. We invited them here and the woman wanted her money back. If she had used her money to buy fairly used vehicle or what you call Tokunbo, at least she would know what she got into. But not to have bought a brand new vehicle and under one year, it started series of problems that had her taking the car in and out of the manufacturers. At the mediation, the car dealers said they were willing to pay N1.6m to her but we said, no. I insisted and said even if the woman doesn’t want to buy your vehicle anymore, she must have something enough to go out there to buy another vehicle for herself. After much negotiation, they paid 2.1m to the woman. And, when we have cases like this, we ensure that they write a letter of undertaking that such issues would not reoccur. And the woman went away happy.
Another one I met on ground was that of a courier service. They delivered empty packs of an iphone and android, alongside some other gadgets delivered to a woman. When she discovered that the two phones were missing, the courier service was insisting that they delivered what they were given. I brought them here and told courier service, “your company is big, if you want me to help you do publicity, either positive or negative, let me know now. I want those phones within 7 days.” I tell you, they brought the phones worth over N700,000. The woman spoke on camera and was very happy.
There are so many achievements. Is it the man that bought two vehicles from another notable car dealer? The vehicles were worth N21m, at N10.5m each. Both vehicles were having issues. I summoned the car dealers. I said, “let’s talk about this, these vehicles are substandard, we don’t tolerate you bringing substandard products in our State.” Initially they insisted that the cars didn’t have problem, that they don’t know how the person handled the two vehicles and they don’t do refund. I told them, “no sir, we have a law and these vehicles are still under warranty. You will pay this man back.” After much back and forth, I gave them ultimatum. I told them that I will take them to court and I will give them the publicity they want. They came back and paid N20.9m, and the petitioner was very happy and went his way.
We have recovered a generator set worth over N7.8m for a complainant who bought and it wasn’t even up to six months and a brand new generator started developing faults. We got him a refund of N7.6m after tax and bank deductions from the company. So, there are lots of achievement that we have made here. A man borrowed money to buy a printing machine and the printing machine didn’t even work for a week and they came here and were trying to justify the product. I said to them, that there is nothing to justify. “He bought from you, it worked well in your office and the person that came to install was from your company. So, how come when he got to the buyer’s store that it didn’t work?” They said probably the person that came to install removed something and I said that is your own business. They refunded the man his money.
There are many others. And we would achieve more if people really know that they have rights. Because most people don’t even know that they have rights, especially consumer right and anything that comes there way they just take it like that. And we are saying and will continue to say through our regular public enlightenment that, citizens of Lagos have a right and we are ready to help them to protect that right. I say to our Monitoring team, “go out there and bring me bad news, I love bad news. So that we can turn the bad news to good news for people and make them happy.” Lagos State will continue to lead in this aspect. It wouldn’t be in this State that you would be allowed to do any shenanigans and rip people off their hard-earned money all in the name of wanting to make profit without selling good products to them. If your products are not of good standard, then be ready to pack your business and go back to where ever you are coming from.
DNL L&S: It would appear that the Agency attends to a certain categories of persons?
Mr. Solebo: Not at all. At the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency, no matter how little your displeasure is, we would assist you to get redress. Like I said, we have so many complaints that come here all the time and we bring the parties together and try to find a way to get justice for the aggrieved person. A man bought television online around march 2020 and after almost a year, we got the seller to exchange the faulty television for a good one. And we just tell people out there that if you go out and buy anything, keep your receipt because it is through the receipt you can actually tell us that you actually bought from this store. It is not as if you are gagging these sellers or anything. It is your right, you have to get value for the money you spent. A whole lot of people struggle to gather money together to get what they want and then you sell substandard good to them? It doesn’t work that way. At least not in Lagos state, I think that era is over for good.
DNL L&S: What about service providers? Does the Agency help where there is complaints over services not rendered well?
Mr. Solebo: Sure. When you talk about service providers, you are referring to something like this electricity issues for instance? I will give example of what we are doing in that aspect. People have asked series of questions about electricity services. Even though electricity is Federal, electricity consumers are in States and also need to be protected. What we do, is to allow people to come here to lodge complaints and we collate them and from time to time invite the heads of the EKDC, IKDC like that. And they look at all the complaints, the ones they can resolve immediately, they do, the ones they cannot resolve immediately, we ask what they would do about it.
We resolve Insurance issues here. I have a case presently involving IGI insurance. For now they said they have issue with their account but I have told them that immediately they release their account, they have to pay all the complainants from this office and they agreed. Is it water corporation? There is a case of an elderly man who came to complain about the water corporation. His money was returned and he was so happy and said he didn’t know that this agency could perform. These are the set of people that think that this agency is a toothless bull dog. No way. we are backed by the law. If you go against the law, you should be ready to face the consequences. It is as simple as that. If you are on the right side of the law, no one will disturb you.
DNL L&S: Within the five months you have spent, can you give an idea of how much the agency has recovered?
Mr. Solebo: For aggrieved consumers complaints, we have been able to recover over N44m and they went away with their money. And for people that have breached the law as regards selling expired and fake products, we have sealed two supermarkets and have had some of them pay fines of over N6m to the coffers of the state.
DNL L&S: Has there been any challenge so far?
Mr. Solebo: Well, I would say one of the major challenges we have had so far is that of harassment of my colleagues. We have people from our Monitoring and Enforcement Department who go out from time to time to monitor and enforce compliance. Sometimes when they go out there, they meet some aggressive people. For instance, they go into a store and discover on display expired products and the owners of the stores get aggressive and sometimes push them out of their shops. We are trying to solve that. We have written letters to security agencies for us to be given at least two or three police officers for the Monitoring and Enforcement Team. When that is done, we would have reduced that aspect of the challenge.
Another thing which, I may not really call a challenge but which we encounter are interference from people. Once they are found to have committed some form of infringement, they start calling people to plead on their behalf and speak to us. People they believe may influence your decision to favour them. But we apply wisdom and try to even use such opportunity to educate such individuals of the dangers of what they are trying to plead for. We tell them that it may be them or their relatives. If you love your neighbour as yourself, you would not do what would harm them. We are particular about expired products not even substandard. You know, substandard products are mainly not consumable but when you talk about expired consumables, those are not only wicked, but criminal because death may occur.
DNL L&S: What are the mediums of reporting and laying complaints at the Agency?
Mr. Solebo: There are ways by which people can lodge complaints. One, you can walk into the office at No. 2 Soji Adepegba Close, off Allen Avenue, Ikeja Lagos. You can bring a petition to this office. We have our website, and email address where people can lodge their complaint, we have social media handles, we have phone numbers. There are several ways to reach us. I gave an example of a man that bought two air conditioners and discovered that one only had 1.5 horsepower written on it, while it was actually 1.00 horsepower. The man came in and said on record that he tried with the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and that someone told him to go to Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency’s website and lodge his complaint. He said it himself on tape that they replied him immediately and said they would be looking into it and the next thing is that he got a date and came here and immediately the other party was invited, he was here waiting and they called to ask for his account to refund his money. This is just to show you that people are actually getting fillers of what we do here and sometimes, rather than come here, they would quickly want to settle. That is between them and the complainant but our is, we cannot invite you and you want to settle behind us. You would come here, so that there would not be a reoccurrence and peradventure there is a reoccurrence, it would be easy for us to take it up. Like I told you, we recently paid a courtesy visit to the Chief Judge of Lagos, Hon. Justice Alogba to asked for support and he promised to support us so. So that when we want to quickly seal a place where we know that all these atrocities are being committed, he would give us his support. Because they know we are doing something important and they really want to support us.
DNL L&S: Does the Agency have good working relationships with other Federal Agencies with similar job portfolio or is there a conflict?
Mr. Solebo: Not conflict at all. Because we know that it is supposed to be a collaboration. When you know that you are partners in progress, then, there would be no reason for friction at all. On Tuesday, 30th March, Mr. Governor inaugurated the Lagos State Consumer Protection Board. On that board we have representatives from the Lagos State Ministry of Justice, we have the Lagos State Ministry of Health, we have the Standard Organization of Nigeria, we have the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, we have the Lagos State Chamber of Commerce and Industry and we have other stakeholders that we are working together. So, the Federal Agencies are there, they are doing their job , but it still boils down to the fact that this is our own jurisdiction and there is no conflict. I even have the intention of meeting with Mr. Babatunde Irukera who is the CEO of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. There shouldn’t be any conflict. We are all working together to achieve the same goal. There shouldn’t be any conflict.
DNL L&S: How serious are you taking the issue of Sensitization to get the Agency down to the grassroot?
Mr. Solebo: Well, the major plan on ground now is that we intend to establish offices in all the Local Government and LCDA in the State so that we bring the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency closer to the people. But for the pandemic, we ought to have gone far with sensitization but we still do it in bits. We are doing some public enlightenment and ensuring that people do not gather because of the pandemic and we are also having radio and television jingles. We intend to do more. There are some powerful Stations that people from all works of life listen to, we want people to really be informed. It is only when you are informed, when you have been given consumer education that you know that oh I have a right, lets give it a try and go to the Consumer Protection Agency and I tell you, when they come here they will get justice.
DNL L&S: How long are you here for?
Mr. Solebo: I am not the one that will decide. I am here at the pleasure of the Governor.
DNL L&S: Having left the legal practice, is there anything you are missing from your circle?
Mr. Solebo: It is still the legal circle if you ask me. I love criminal prosecution. I love the courtroom, especially when I am doing my thing and marshalling the points of law and calling witnesses during trial. The process of drilling witnesses and disarming and puncturing their testimonies. I am missing all of that but still, this is law. It is only that this time around, you are not putting people in prison. But you are doing even something more, helping people that their consumer right has been breached to get justice.
DNL L&S: Is it Mandatory to have the General Manager of the Agency from the Ministry of Justice?
Mr. Solebo: Well, I think I am the second General Manager of the Lagos State Consumer Protection Agency and my predecessor was also a lawyer from the Ministry of Justice. So probably they want someone that has legal knowledge and background and that is experienced in the field, so that you would be able to know what you are going there to do. It is a great responsibility. By his grace we would do our bit so that people will know that at least when you go to LASCOPA you would be able to get redress.
DNL L&S: What would you want people to remember you for as the GM of LASCOPA when you are gone?
Mr. Solebo: I want people to know that there was this man that came here and changed the face of LASCOPA. When he was the General Manager, so many cases were resolved and we all got justice. Justice is the key word. I would like to be remembered as the one who helped many people to get justice as regards their consumer rights.
DNL L&S: Any word for Consumers?
Mr. Solebo: I want to advise people out there that when you go out to buy anything, check the manufacturer and expiry date because there must be something on what you are buying for you to know that you can buy it. Knowing the expiry date of a product would help you avoid consuming things that may have adverse effect on you. Also make sure that you get the receipt of whatever you buy, that is how to show you bought from a particular place and make sure that all products you buy have product information. That was part of the reasons we sealed up one supermarket. There consumables had no product information, no manufacture and expiry date, nothing. To me it is deceitful and wicked because not everybody is educated. Not everybody can read and write. Keeping your receipt will make it easy for you to trace the culprit and help us get justice for you. Also remember, if you come to us, we would help you get justice.
Finally, also note that all our services are free. Even when matters cannot be resolved through mediation, conciliation or ADR, we would proceed to court, and a complainant need not pay anything because we have lawyers here that will quickly proceed with the case in court. So, we offer free legal service.
DNL L&S: Are you related to my Lord, Hon. Justice Solebo of the Lagos High Court?
Mr. Solebo: That’s my sister. Don’t we look alike? People often just identify us with the looks.
DNL L&SL: How do you relax
Mr. Solebo: I love football. I read and I love to sleep.
DNL L&S: Thank you for your time sir.