A few days ago I received a phone call from one of my neighbours, Mrs Ekator. She sounded quite agitated. In view of the lockdown, she had rushed to the market and bought a 50kg bag of rice at the exorbitant price of twenty-six thousand naira. She had felt that despite the price, it was a wise investment, and would see her family through the uncharted waters of the lockdown without strain. Unfortunately, on weighing the bag at home, she discovered it was only 46kg and not the avowed 50kg! She wanted to know what could be done in the circumstances, and if she could claim damages or compensation under the law for short weight. I explained the legal provisions for the protection of the consuming public in such circumstances. Today we will discuss the matter with a view to making more people aware of the law and avenues for possible redress.
The Weights and Measures Act, Laws of the Federation of Nigeria, 2004(the Act) is a consumer protection enactment specifically dealing with issues of shortfall in weight or measures of goods sold. It provides that the metre shall be the unit of measurement of length while the kilogramme is the unit of measurement of weight. All other units of measurement are fractions or multiples of these. Thus, along with the rest of the world, the metric system of measurement is the legal standard in Nigeria. Owing to our colonial heritage, we used to apply the imperial system. However, that was phased out over time and is no longer in use in Nigeria. Under the Weight and Measures Act, it is an offence to use any other unit of measurement or weight outside the metric system. Also the use of short weight or measures is a criminal offence, and liability is strict. This means that once short weight or short measure is proved in a trade transaction, a criminal offence is committed. In a departure from our normal justice system, it is not for the buyer to prove that the seller is guilty. Rather, it is the job of the seller to prove that he is innocent. Section 25 of the Act deals specifically with short weight and provides that once the allegation is proved, an offence is committed by the seller. It is no defence that he was not aware of the short measure or the defective scales. The only possible defence lies in section 34 of the Act, which provides that where the short weight is as a result of evaporation or drainage, there will be no liability. However, the seller has to prove to the satisfaction of the court that he took all reasonable care and precautions to avoid weight loss. In such a case, too, the loss will be minimal, certainly not 5kg as was the case in the story under consideration.
To give teeth to the law, the Act provides for the appointment of superintendents, deputy superintendents, and inspectors of weights and measures. These officials are found in the Weights and Measures Offices and they have the mandate to inspect weights and measures used for trade to ensure compliance with the national standards. The Primary Standards are tested periodically against the International Standards warehoused in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sevres, France. From these Primary Standards in the country, secondary and tertiary standards, known as the Nigerian Trade Standards, are verified in five-year periods. The superintendents and inspectors are expected to test trading standards used by traders to ensure compliance after which such measures will be stamped as proof of verification and compliance to existing standards. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that this is being done. In fact, in our markets, popular measures include the ‘mudu’, paint tin, cigarette cup, giant tomato tin, etc. These are not units or fractions of the kilogramme, and are actually an infraction of the Act, which makes it an offence to use non verified measures or unapproved units of measure. The offence is further compounded by the fact that these measures are ‘unjust’. i.e. they are not actually what they claim to be! Some times, the mudu has its bottom removed and another false bottom put in to reduce quantity; same applies to the cigarette cup, tomato cup and milk cup. Traders tamper with their scales so that they become weighted. Thus, the unwary buyer buying 3kg often times is actually buying 2.3 or 2.4kg as a result of weighted scales. So the offence is not just selling with the wrong unit of measure, but also using unstamped/unverified units or weighted scales. Unfortunately, these commendable provisions are hardly in use. The inspectors lack the funding and, one also suspects, the training and sufficient manpower to undertake the requisite inspections, and thus bring fraudulent traders to book. Though the various state capitals have Weights and Measures Offices, there is no provision for the trading standards in the markets or even towns or cities outside the capital. It is not even certain that the standards are available in every state capital! Prosecution can be undertaken under the Act, subject to the overriding powers of the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) by, or on behalf of the Superintendent of Weights and Measures, or the Inspector General of Police (IGP). This makes any effort at prosecution under the Act unduly cumbersome. One is of the view that the AGF and the IGP are too busy to be bothered with short measure sales in our markets! The better position worthy of emulation is what obtains in the United Kingdom. Trading Standards are handled by District and County Councils. Then, the inspection officers conduct spot checks on shops, markets and other trading centres to verify compliance of measures used to trading standards. Thus, even packets of tea or sachets of milk or flour must conform to a minimum net weight which is stated on its body. The same applies to bread and other flour products. The result is that standards for measurement as well as inspectors are readily available everywhere. This alone is a major deterrent to would –be malefactors.
A situation where the trading standards are not readily available, neither are there inspectors to conduct regular checks, is very detrimental to the consumer and exposes him to all sorts of fraudulent activities by sellers/dealers, despite the provisions of the law. It is very important that the Weights and Measures Office under the Ministry of Trade wakes up to its responsibilities in this regard and makes the correct standards available in our local government areas and markets all over the country. Also important are trained inspectors to carry out checks and verification exercises in markets and stores nationwide.
The greatest sanction under the Act is a 12-month prison sentence for breach of its provisions. However, there is provision for the aggrieved consumer to seek civil remedies for the sale of short measure or weight under the Act. More welcome are the provisions under Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Act empowering the consumer to return such goods and get a full refund of his purchase price under section 122. He also has the right to reject the goods under the Act for not corresponding to the description, since a 50kg bag of rice is certainly not the same as a 46kg bag of rice! In such circumstances, there is a breach of the law which could result in termination of the contract, with a refund of any money paid, as well as any other sanction that the Consumer Protection Commission wishes to attach to the errant trader.
In conclusion, it must be emphasized that without trading standards provided by government against which weights and measures in use in the markets or shopping malls can be tested, it is almost impossible to adequately address the problem. The problem extends beyond our markets to other aspects of our lives. Our petrol vending stations sometimes have fuel pumps that deliver short measures. Consumers complain about this, but without trained inspectors, nothing much can be done to change the situation for the better. One hopes that the Commission, which has overriding powers under the Act over other relevant consumer protection agencies and enactments in the Country, will take up the cudgels on behalf of consumers, and use its further reaching powers to protect consumers more effectively from short weights and measures.
Okwu, a legal practitioner with extensive career spanning several decades, is particularly concerned about consumer education and protection, and currently teaches at Baze University, Abuja.