Ify Umenyi Former DG Consumer Protection Council (CPC)
By HENRY OKONKWO
For eight years, Ify Umenyi has superintended the Consumer Protection Council, CPC, the apex consumer protection agency of the Federal Government, as director-general. From February 2005 when she was appointed till February 2013 when her tenure ended, her passion for the council saw her groom it like a mother grooms her child from infancy to maturity.
Her two terms in charge of the council witnessed a massive transformation of seemingly inept and ill-equipped council into an active agency that has successfully resolved hundreds of thousands of consumer complaints, and routinely undertakes surveillance and enforcement operations.
In this interview, the Uga, Aguata Local Government of Anambra State-born lady fondly called Ify by close associates reveals her brave battle to success, her widowhood experience as well as how she surmounted the challenges she contended with as DG of the CPC.
I am in my 60s. I grew up in Port Harcourt where I had my primary education. I had my secondary education at Archdeacon Crowther Memorial Girls School, Elelenwo. I was there when the civil war broke out in 1967. We all had flee to our respective villages.
After the war, I resumed at St. Catharine’s, Nkwere, Imo State. I did not round off my secondary school education before I travelled to Canada. It was in Canada that embarked on the rest of my educational pursuit.
Rising to head the CPC
When I returned from Canada with my family, we sought to settle here in Nigeria, but it wasn’t easy at all. Our universities were in crisis back then and my kids were fast approaching university age, so we decided to send some of them back to Canada, while I remained in Nigeria with my late husband.
But I later went back to Canada. Since I studied in Canada, it was easy for me to take up a job.
At my second coming to Canada, I did my Masters and got a full time employment in business administration after my MBA.
I was with HSBC Securities (Canada) Inc., when I got an appointment to manage the Teslim Balogun Stadium Investment Limited, TBSIL in Lagos. Later, I was ordered to leave TBSIL and move to Nigeria Export Processing Zones Authority, NEPZA. TBS which used to be under the Ministry of Defence was moved to the Ministry of Commerce. And when that was done, the two chief executives were swapped. So Hajia Bakare, formerly of NEPZA was moved to TBSIL while I joined NEPZA. So it was at NEPZA that I completed my four-year tenure.
I headed both agencies as MD/CEO from March 2000 to August 2004. During my tenure I licensed the Lekki Free Zone partnership between the Federal Government and Lagos State Government.
It was after my tenure in August that I was appointed to head CPC in February 2005.
Our biggest challenge in the CPC was re-positioning the council to be able to protect the consumers. But at that time, many Nigerian consumers did not even know that they have some rights, or that government has the interest to ensure that their rights are protected. Majority were unaware that there is an agency that has been given the mandate to fight and protect their rights. We had a major challenge creating the awareness in the psyche of Nigerians.
And repositioning ourselves before Nigerians and the government was our major challenge, because at a point, it appeared that the government established an agency and forgot it.
But I think another of our problems was equally the way the agency was set up. Usually, when a need is identified, the law is made, the structure developed, funds are budgeted and allocated. But in CPC’s case, the law was promulgated out of necessity. Necessity in the sense that it was at the United Nations that the then President of the United State, the late John F. Kennedy raised the issue of consumer protection. There, member nations agreed on it; so governments were mandated to enact a law to protect consumers in their various countries.
Unfortunately for Nigeria at that time, it was the military that was in power. So, they just promulgated the law in 1992, and kept it aside without putting any structure in place. Maybe because consumer protection is anti-military.
It was in 1999 that it took effect. And in that year, it was the Minister of Commerce at that time, Mr. Mustapha Bello, who saw the law and agreed that there was an urgent need for its implementation. So, he used the resources allotted to his ministry to start the CPC.
I think the unusual and peculiar manner the council was set up actually affected its growth.
So, when I came in, the morale of the staff was low, many of them feared the council could be merged or might not survive. Again, we were handicapped in the aspect of financing. What we saw as the monthly allocation of the CPC was N45,000. With that kind of allocation you could imagine our predicament.
How I braced the odds
We needed to reposition the agency so that its relevance could be felt and seen by the government and the people. So, I had to look for an alternative source for funds. And it made us go into partnership with development partners. And the first partnership we struck was with the Department for International Development, DFID.
They sent their consultants to have a chat with us and assessed our programmes to see whether we fall into the programmes they fund. Fortunately for us they found our programmes worthy of DFID funding.
Like I presented to them, our problems were not just about funds, we also didn’t have office equipment like computers, photocopiers and so on. So, they supplied us with the first set of office that we had.
They further hired consultants from Britain, South Africa and one Nigerian professor of law that focuses on consumer protection, Professor Emeonye, to diligently review our weaknesses and strengths. And one of our major weaknesses then was the urgent need to build the capacity of the staff.
The best advice I ever got that has helped me in relating with people was given to me by my late husband. He said, ‘Don’t go by other people’s opinion, try to form your own opinion about issues and people, but don’t discard advice or be inattentive to opinion; the focal point is to shun forming your opinion based on the opinion of others. You should form your opinion based on other experience.’
My late husband’s advice has really helped me. You see people coming to tell you that Igbos are like this, Yorubas are like that, but it doesn’t matter to me who you are or where you are from. What matters to me is your personality. I have said the same thing to my children, that they should meet people with free mind and then take it from there.
How I lost my husband
I lost my husband, Dr. Francis Umenyi in 1998, 10 years after my father died. He wasn’t ill. It was just too sudden.
On that fateful day, he went to work and had a normal full day, with his normal routine. He watched the news with his friend, Dr. Onuba. At the end of the 9 O’clock news, he saw his friend off. He came back in a hurry to go to the room, but fell. It was a heart attack that ended his life.
Handling the loss
Honestly, it is very difficult to describe the loss of one’s’ husband, or to describe to you what the feeling was like. It is like living in a house that has no roof. It is like when the landlord comes and yanks the roof off from your house. Without a husband, you don’t know what tomorrow would bring, you are faced with the challenge of rearing the children alone.
But in that situation, if you are lucky to have family and friends that can put you through looking up to God when you are alone, it will help to get through the sad times. I thank God for family support. My husband died at a time he was in Nigeria, while I was in Canada with the children. At one point, I was here in Nigeria at another point I was in Canada.
It was not easy for me; it was just by God’s grace and then staying in an environment (Canada), where there is a lot of support. There, children enjoy grants to go through school once the child is brilliant. So, seeing my children through school was a bit easy for me. I suppose if I was in Nigeria, it would have been tough, I would have been dependent on family and that could have been problematic.
Best decision in life
One of the best decisions I have made in life is investing in my family; because with that you are at peace. And if you have not invested in your children, you have not invested in ensuring peace in your home. Definitely, you cannot work well.
So, I would say my best decision is loving my home and putting in time and resources in my family. That is the peace I’m enjoying now.
My worst judgment was made out of naivety. I was allotted a plot of land at the back of Congress Hall; I didn’t know anything when it was given to me. So, when I went there I saw that the land was at the top of the rock. I didn’t know what to do.
I was told I could level it. So, when I now inquired on the cost of levelling it and breaking down the rock, and was given a quotations of N18 million i panicked. So, for me, it was a no go area. I did not realize that I could have just held on to that land because of its choice location. Instead, I panicked because I was so naïve; I needed land just for a place to build my own home.
So, I went on to make an official request rejecting the land and asking for a flat one. That move is what has been the cause of my problem today. The land on the rock was allotted to somebody else, a plot of 2538 sq meters. And the one I now got in exchange was 1116 sq meters, less than half of what I was given initially.
But in life, most things people regret are those they do in good faith. So, my worse decision is giving up the first plot of land. I would have held onto it.
But after everything I conclude that God knows best.
How I relax
I love dancing. I dance at every opportunity I have. I enjoy dancing to the oldies, I dance to Flavour and I dance to Kukere.
Also, I love reading, watching television and then being in the company of good friends. When I am with good friends, it makes me relax. Again, I have friends that love dancing. Sometimes when we visit each other we just dance.
My role models
I admire brilliant people and courageous women. I admire Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, she is a very brilliant and courageous woman. For her to have even left the World Bank to remain in this country shows real love, passion to do her best in a needy environment.
Another person I admire is my friend. I like her bravery, focus and ability to getting things done,-her name is Ms Evelyn Oputu, the MD of Bank of Industry. She has done so well and has taken the BOI to high heights. The bank is self sustaining and has made so much money for the bank.
Women in a male dominated environment
I think it has to do with personality and character. In our environment, a woman that wants to excel must have focus, and know exactly what she wants. In carrying out her assignment, she must determine what she wants to make out of the task, whether to just pass through without leaving a legacy. It all boils down to the passion that one has for whatever duty before you. You can never succeed if you are not passionate about anything or responsibility that you have in your hands, be it personal or government. You have to be focused and passionate. Those are the characteristics that could get anyone to excel.
Why some women are lucky
Most men believe women are lucky and I agree with that. Thank God for this administrations that has made it part of its policy to appoint women into government, thus bringing out the best in us.
Let me tell you, when a man is on a job, he goes about it with much baggage than the job itself, but when a woman has a responsibility, she only has her job and home to grapple with.
And God has made women natural managers of homes so it is not that burdensome anymore, especially when you start from the beginning to build a structure for the home. That it is very important.
I’m not saying women are better managers; what I’m saying is that women experience less baggage when they are on a job.
Have you ever been intimidated because you are a woman or a widow?
Honestly, it is one of the things I have always thanked God for. I have never encountered intimidation at any level. Even at my work, I have worked under male and female ministers and got along well with all of them. I had a good working relationship, they guided me and I subjected myself to them.
Life after the CPC
My days at the CPC were very busy. I used the first four years in building and the other part of my tenure in implementing. So, it was so busy that even until my last day, we had programmes set out and some of the programmes I needed to see materialize so that it could make sense to somebody else. So, my management and I were so determined to get most of the programmes we had initiated and planned implemented before the end of our tenure.
I was so tied up in the CPC that I didn’t have the time to think and set up things that I would get into at the end of my tenure at the CPC. So, at the moment that’s what I am working on.
But in the few days to the end of my tenure, a lot of our international partners encouraged me not to leave consumer advocacy. So, I got some trustees together, those that are truly consumer activists and passionate about consumer protection.
I’m passionate about customer services as well; when I was in the CPC, I was passionate about customer service and consumer relations.
They are related in a way, but customer service is for businesses; they are the frontline officers. And many of them are yet to realize their importance to their businesses because they don’t understand their importance to their companies and the gains of treating their customers well, because without the patronage of the consumers, the business would be nowhere. So, customer service is two dimensional- it satisfies the business and satisfies the consumers.
As a Christian, you ought not to fear. Are you going to fear the unknown, when God knows it and He is walking with you? I’m not afraid of anything except heights. I have faith in God but I would not be tempted to go and stand at the balcony of a high rise building. Again, I don’t like being in a tight room or in an enclosure.
Advice to women/widows
For us widows, we have no other choice but to hold on firm to God and believe in Him. Anything outside that makes things more difficult and complicated.