Director-General, Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), Mallam Farouk Salim, in this interview with ABDULWAHAB ISA, speaks on war against sub-standards and fake products and efforts to sustain it
You took over administration of SON pledging to tackle head on incidences of fake and sub- standard products. Two years down the line, would you say SON is winning the war against fake products?
When you’re dealing with war, there is the issue of winning and losing. It comes in the long run; it’s not something to be achieved in one year. We are making progress. We have situations where we have tackled sub-standard products, both imported and locally made goods.
We have prosecuted some individuals. Some of the cases are still pending in court as we speak. I like to say both the market and country are aware that our organisation is very serious about the issue of sub-standard goods. We are doing something about it. We are determined and serious about it. However, it can’t be solved in a day. It’s an on-going process and a task that will be addressed.
What are your plans to get laboratory centres built across other parts of the country like you have done in some states?
We are trying to extend it to other states. We are trying to build some labs, to make sure these labs are available. We have money constraints, availability of infrastructure and availability of the equipment. We are doing a gradual but very good directional programme.
We know in a couple of years we will have labs in strategic areas of the country with the capacity to test items without taking them to Lagos or other places. This is a process that will be achieved in the long run. It’s not something that can be done within a short time. We don’t have the money. It’s an on-going project and we are working on it.
What manner of synergy exists between SON and NAFDAC or other related agencies of government?
We are not doing s i m i l a r jobs. We have certain areas that overlap l i k e f o o d a n d drugs. Don’ t forget SON covers everything, except that in the food and drugs industry, we still have to set the standards together with stakeholders. This includes NAFDAC, it includes industry, it includes stakeholders.
In other areas between us and NAFDAC, we have a committee that are working on things, trying to iron out areas we have things in common. That process is still on-going. We are making progress, but we haven’t finished. As you pointed out, we do have a few areas that are covered by NAFDAC. They are very few because our mandate is much more different.
SON was amongst agencies carrying out inspection at the seaport years back. It was stopped along with other agencies during the port decongestion process. Some of the agencies are back to seaport. Why is SON not at seaport?
We are still outside the ports. Almost a year and half now we have been working, trying to convince the authorities that our absence in the port does more damage to the country than good. This country or any other country should not be built on ease of import. Import is g o o d ,
but ease of export is better for us. If a product, for example, is going to be exported to Zamfara, it should be exported before the product expires or gets rotten. We are interested in the ease of doing business.
In fact, we were rated number one in the country by PEBEC on ease of doing business. So, we have done studies to show the prevalence of sub-standard goods in the market and to prove to the authorities that our absence at the port only makes things worse, it doesn’t make things better.
We have made provisions that this time around, if we are in the port, any individual that has a question to answer SON doesn’t have to be inside the port. He can bring it outside the port. When Customs finish doing their work, they will only have to bring it outside for us to check the standards. It can be in our warehouse, which is very close to port, for a day or two for the gods to be tested. If the product is sub-standard, we follow the procedure.
If it’s up to standard, we let the person go. We have done our investigation to assure the authority that ease of doing business will not be hampered by our presence at the port. We have written to government and we are waiting for government’s decision, whether they think it’s the right time for us to go back or whether they think it’s status quo.
That decision is out of my hand. It’s not within my control. I have done all the things I can control – all the measures that we can do to make sure problems don’t exist. We have moved 95 to 100 per cent of employees from the port facility to minimise gridlock. As an organisation we have done everything to make sure this action is done and we have done the right thing. We are waiting for the result.
In line with the vision and mission of SON, you signed an MoU with some governors to help small and medium enterprises (SMEs) excel in their businesses and become globally competitive. To what extent has it (MOU) helped in making products of MSMEs competitive?
The MoU we signed with SMEDAN won’t be restricted only to SMEDAN, we are extending it to the state government, including the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment. This is because small scale industries need guidance, they need us to help them standardise their products. We should be able to help them set standards. We are in a better position to help them on how to label their products; how to package and we will certify their products.
We have different stages of certification. We are very cognisant of the fact that some SMEs can’t afford the amount required for verification to get proper certification. We help them to be in a position where their products will be accepted; to be in a position in the future to go through various registration processes.
This is very important because with the AfCFTA Act we signed – the free trade Act – the issue is, if we don’t spend on standardising our local products, it can’t compete with products coming from Burkina Faso or from Rwanda. What we are doing will not only make the product compete with other countries in Africa, they will be more appealing. How you package your product is very essential.
To enable SON prosecute those involved in sub-standard goods in Nigeria, you promised last year to approach the National Assembly to request for review of areas of SON ACT that deal with penalties. Have you taken that step?
We are currently focusing on low hanging fruits, attacking sub-standards goods; trying to prosecute individuals. The issue of legislation takes a longer time. We have tasked our legal department to look into the Act completely and pick out areas that we can improve on in the course of amendment.
It’s not something you want to go to the National Assembly today to amend a penalty and two months after you go back and amend another issue. We are looking at it holistically. We are trying to get a complete rejuvenated Act to the National Assembly, hopefully before the end of this year, it will be done.
Is SON considering the option of having a tribunal that will prosecute perpetrators of fake and sub standards goods?
I like to resist the temptation to have extra bureaucracy. Unfortunately, we have so many bureaucratic parastatals, tribunals here and there. You will just be dividing little resources available to the judiciary.
Basically, we are satisfied with the current court system in place, though multiple judgments, series of adjournments doesn’t help our matters. I don’t see how an extra tribunal is going to make the issue better. Currently, we are not thinking about a tribunal. I don’t know how successful the FCCPC tribunal is; I haven’t seen anything in the news that the tribunal has convicted somebody. The judicial system we are working in I think is the best so far.
How does SON handle seizures? Do you destroy outrightly or ask the person to pay a penalty?
It depends on products; it depends on procedures. There are products which the only reason they are sub- standard could be either the labels, which are not clear, expiration or obey before use mark hasn’t been stated; or the language is a foreign language. In such situations, these products can be corrected.
We don’t like situations where our customers lose money on flimsy excuses. When products can be salvaged, we work with the individual to fix the problem; we verify it; certify it and give it back to them. There are also products that can’t be salvaged. If you have used tyres for example, having used tyres is illegal. We don’t import used tyres in this country.
Those kinds of items that are already contraband or sub-standard definitely will be destroyed. There are processes of destroying products. The other issue is there are instances, for example, somebody imports a cable and when it’s tested, the cable doesn’t have enough copper.
There is no way you can fix that product. Such product, together with contraband, we will have to ask permission of the importer. If the importer knows they are wrong, we have evidence they are wrong and willing to let the product go, we can destroy it. We can take the products from them and fine them, give them a fine, they pay the fine to the Federal Government.
They are required to put it in writing that they are forfeiting the product for destruction. There are situations where some individuals know their products are sub-standard, they know they can’t salvage it and refuse to let us destroy it, but we have the possession.
They refuse to give us permission to destroy it. In such a scenario, we have to go to court. There are different levels of court procedures. In the case of used trye, for example, we don’t just go to court and say, this is are used tyres, give us permission to destroy them and court will say go ahead and destroy.
There are instances where we had to go through a case and get the person convicted. We have to wait for the conviction to happen, then the court will give us permission to destroy whatever adulteration we are seeking permission to destroy. There are several procedures in the process.
We will follow them according to the law. We don’t want a situation where somebody’s product is confiscated and destroyed and he goes to court and wins and becomes a burden on government to pay back those things.
Could you recount your experience with regard to faking SON’s standards quality mark (NIS)?
Have you encountered such an experience since you came on board? Yes, we have experience to recount. We have a case right now where we took an individual to court because he faked our logo, he faked our mark. That’s a serious offence, he will be fined. I forget what the fine is, but he will probably be jailed too for doing that. It’s forgery and fraud, all put together. This is a crime that risks conviction and subsequent jail.
What are the legacies you wish to be remembered for?
When it comes to legacy, I will leave it for posterity to judge. One important thing for any executive is this: He comes to a place and leaves it better than he met it. We are working to make sure this place is better than I met it.
Right now, it’s just a year and half, I think the trajectory is going up. Hopefully, when we are done, this place will be totally better off than we met it.