The urgency for Gov’t to mainstream Consumer Protection Law

By: Timothy Chemonges

Amidst the skyrocketing fuel prices in Uganda at the start of 2022, consumers both direct and indirect, have continued to pay the price for the lack of consumer protection laws.

While the Government has come out to reassure the public that its managing the situation, there seems to be no clear plan of how the consumers will eventually be protected. To this extent, it is only fair to ask the Government whose interest she is serving! The answer to this question should be able to allow the citizens to manage their expectations.

The need for substantive consumer protection legislation cannot be overemphasised especially in the advent of COVID19 and its effects on the public and the economy at large.

What we probably need to emphasize is that consumer protection laws will ensure that buyers of goods and services are protected from coercion, deception, and other influences that are difficult to evade or guard against.

Whereas the government has tried to put in place laws and institutions to help protect the consumer like the Uganda National Bureau Standard Act Cap 32, the Weight and Measures Act Cap 103, the National Drugs Authority Act Cap 206, the Foods and Drugs Act Cap 278, the Contract Act among others and institutions like the Uganda National Bureau of Standard, the National Drugs Authority, the Uganda Consumer Protection Association, the Uganda Communication Commission, there has been very little tangible results.

Whereas it’s true that capitalist economies require three pillars to function seamlessly, markets, regulation, and protection, there is need for government to intervene in the mainstream of consumer protection to address disparities found in the consumer-supplier relationship, which include bargaining power, knowledge and resources.

At the start of 2022, the country has been undergoing a fuel crisis following a build-up of fuel transporters at the major border points of Malaba and Busia in the east of the country. The situation has resulted in skyrocketing fuel prices with some retailers in the city selling only the premium content, which costs 5,200 Uganda shillings ($1.5: £1.0) per litre at some outlets while at the upcountry stations the prices have gone up to UGX 10,000 ($2.85:2.51). How is the consumer protected from exploitation in this case?

On 5th March 2021, Kenya banned the importation of maize from Uganda and Tanzania, noting there had been an acute increase in chronic aflatoxin-related illnesses, some of which had resulted in death. This is in addition to the earlier suspension on January 14th 2021 by Kenya of all chicken, meat and egg imports on the pretext that it needed to support its “producers to recover from disruptions in their livestock enterprises occasioned by Covid-19.

The World Health Organization estimates that aflatoxin exposure is responsible for more than 30% of Liver cancers diagnosed in Africa. According to the Ugandan National Drug Authority (NDA), 10% of the drugs prescribed in the country are substandard or counterfeit versions of real medicine.

Research from the WHO found that one in ten medical products in developing countries is substandard or falsified – 42% of which are from the WHO African region and, therefore, urged governments to take action to protect vulnerable communities most affected by the practice.

Although the Uganda National Bureau of Standards, Directorate of Crime Intelligence, the Uganda National Drug Authority among other agencies have tried to crack down on dealers of counterfeit and substandard goods and services in the market, there has been limited results realised since the market is still flooded with the same goods and services.

Consumer literacy regarding identifying goods and services which are of quality and those of poor quality and how they can enforce their rights is still a big challenge. Although the majority of the consumers would indeed prefer fake and counterfeit products and services because of the cost and accessibility, consumer literacy will go a long way to address this challenge.

There is, therefore, the need for the government to mainstream consumer protection laws to uplift the rights of the consumers and also sensitize consumers of their rights. There is also the need to address the question of corruption among the enforcement agencies and the other agencies responsible for the entry of goods in the country like the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA). This move will help to build trust and confidence of consumers and help consumers to understand their obligations.