President of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Ahmed Lawan, was in his full official element penultimate week when he called out Multichoice Nigeria Limited, the pay television service provider. The root of the Senate President’s umbrage was the latest increase announced by Multichoice of the tariff for its bouquet of services.

Multichoice is a virtual monopoly in pay television services in Nigeria. It is also South African in origin, a fact that is often held up to its face, as if it constitutes a haunting past offence that should moderate any urge to behave badly. Of course, Senator Lawan did not miss the opportunity to remind the company that its root was foreign, so it should behave.

On April 12, 2022, in Abuja, while inaugurating a seven-member committee raised by the Senate for the sole purpose of investigating the circumstances around Multichoice’s tariff hike,the Senate President was clearly displeased with the company for announcing an increase in its tariffs. He cautioned the company not to dare Nigeria by proceeding with the hike on its products while the matter was being interrogated.

The fact that the Senate set up a committee on the matter, headed by deputy chief whip of the upper legislative house, confirms the importance of the matter to the Senate. The committee had actually been established back on March 30, 2022. It was only being inaugurated on April 12, 2022, and that was when the Senate President, through his remarks, gave insight into how important he and his colleagues considered the matter of pay television services and their charges in the country.

In what may be the strongest consumer protection statement of his Senate presidency, Senator Lawan informed Multichoice that, “Our consumers here are people who are innocent and we are prepared to protect them…When the legitimate interests of our people are threatened, we are supposed to ensure that we protect them.”

He further thundered, “It has been the practice of many companies, especially foreign companies, operating in Nigeria to treat the Nigerian consumers of their products in a different way and manner that is not consistent with global best practices”.

He ended his remarks with a fitting definite warning to Multichoice, “No increase. And that is to say, don’t dare our country. No increase in tariffs.”

It was difficult not to be impressed with the Senate President’s performance on this matter. How so marvellous it would have been though, if the senator also directed the same firm warning to the dancing entities in the electricity supply chain, otherwise known as DISCOs and GENCOs. These are providers of services on which lives and economic survival of many citizens hang, not pay television companies really.

On the face of it, the tariff of a pay television service provider does not appear to be an urgent or all-important issue to occupy the focus of the President of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria at this point in time. As priorities go, pay television services and their tariff cannot by any reckoning occupy top position in areas yearning for resolute official attention, considering especially that consumption of such services is not only a matter of choice, but is, to a reasonable extent, an elite taste. That is one aspect of the matter, though.

There is, however, a different dimension to the matter, a no less compelling side of the issue, which obviously informed the Senate President’s high-powered intervention. As a virtual monopoly, Multichoice is the source of relay of good football and sundry arresting foreign entertainment programmes consumed not only by the elite but also by millions of despondent ordinary citizens. These programmes have increasingly become essential services, needed to sustain the sanity of Nigerians and at the same time keep their minds away from the reality of looming collapse of all systems around them.

Religion, football, politics and entertainment, these are the potent elixirs in present Nigeria. Multichoice transmits at least two of these. It is possible that the company and its executives have not come to terms with the reality of the new import of their services, beyond what they initially set out to provide. These are no longer mere entertainment. They have become palliatives to a people traumatized by the failures of government. Multichoice ought to realise, therefore, that, like hospitals, they should charge for their services, but they should never lose sight of the humanitarian dimension of their services. That, is the point the Senate President may have been making.

It is difficult, however, to properly situate Senator Lawan’s anger and some of his remarks. What, for instance, does one make of his comment that “Our consumers here are people who are innocent and we are prepared to protect them”? Or that “When the legitimate interests of our people are threatened, we are supposed to ensure that we protect them”?

Multichoice is operating in Nigeria and it can be said, without apologies, that any and every bad habit and disdain for consumers that the company is identified with, must have been copied from the way the company saw Nigerian consumers being treated by Nigerian public and private companies. Nigerian consumers have become used to whimsical hike in fees and tariffs from electricity supply companies,vehicle licensing agencies,passport issuing institution,private schools and by sundry government licensing agencies.If these do not constitute legitimate interest of the people being threatened and exploited, it is difficult to know what else they are. So what has the senate and the Senate president done? Many times, these astronomical increases in tariffs are surreptitiously imposed with no room for negotiation. The poor stretched citizens simply have to pay. The Multichoices of this world will, of course, be watching and learning. 

Is there any business concern in the country that in all honesty can sustain its services at the moment without raising its cost of service? Entering a defence of any kind for Multichoice is far from what the intension is here. However,t would have been far better if the Senate President had looked around him, did something about the log in the eyes of the administration of Nigerian public institutions and agencies before pointing out the speck in Multichoice’s blurry eyes.

It used to be that public and private businesses relied substantially on their individual devices to provide their own electricity need through generator usage. Now, even that is threatened. With the cost of diesel  at almost N1000 per litre, how long can any business hold out? Unfortunately, the burden is passed on to poor consumers. Did the Senate President say that “Our consumers here are people who are innocent and we are prepared to protect them”

Having said that, Multichoice certainly needs to adjust its billing system. Considering that Nigerians can no longer be sure of power supply, billing consumers on monthly basis smacks of fraud and unfairness.

If a consumer pays for a month’s service but  gets electricity supply for half of the month what happens? It cannot be the consumer’s loss. Every company or institution must be sensitive to its environment of operation. Multichoice cannot be passing over more burden from already scourged Nigerians.

As for the Senate president and his strong warning to Multichoice, it is very instructive that Multichoice took so much notice of him that they simply ignored him. The company has gone ahead with its new tariff, brushing aside the threat of the Senate’s main man. How about that?

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