SON's Richard Adewumi

More than a decade ago, the global system for mobile (GSM) communication made its debut into Nigeria. Like a river suddenly losing its fetters, the sector has witnessed phenomenal growth in subscriber base but most of the subscribers have lost money, vintage contact details, pictures of loved ones and business associates to fake/substandard phones while the merchants smile all the way to the banks. KOKUMO GOODIE examines why curbing the sale of fake/substandard phones has remained so difficult.

Recently, a thirty-two year old factory worker in Ikeja, Lagos, Sola Ajayi collected his salary, bonus and contribution and headed for Computer Village, Ikeja, Lagos to buy what he thought was a Nokia handset. The handset had all the trappings; dual subscriber identification module (SIM), TV, radio, video, camera and other multimedia features. Because he is determined to celebrate the Yuletide like a ‘big boy’ he paid about N20000 for the set, neatly packed it into its pack, boarded a bus and went to his residence in Ayobo, a Lagos suburb, where his friends were eagerly waiting for him.

When he got home, he unpacked what he said was his ‘utility machine,’ inserted the battery and plugged it so that the battery could charge.

“There is scarcely public power supply in Ayobo, so I used my generator to charge it for four hours. After that, I inserted my Zain SIM. I pressed the power button and it came alive. I was excited,” he recalled.

Tricked into buying Noklas and Motorollas

Barely a week after purchase, the handset went berserk. This prompted him to look at it very closely. He discovered that what was inscribed on it was not Nokia but Nokla. He was disturbed. When he returned to where he bought the handset, the man that sold it to him had relocated from stand where he had met him. He was just one of the many ‘hustlers’ in the market notorious for being haven for the recovery of handsets collected from their owners at gun point.

“I became tired of chasing him around. It was not easy leaving my office, so I gave the handset to my brother who told me recently that he had sold it for N2,000,” he said.

His experience is just one in millions. A lot of people have lost money, precious information, invaluable photos, business and family contacts to the menace of fake/substandard handsets that came with the ‘telecom revolution’.

Unsuspecting passers-by along the ever busy Obefemi Awolowo Way, Ikeja, almost opposite the legendary Awolowo House, are daily lured by unscrupulous elements to part with their money for handsets that never works. In fact, one would be shocked by the reckless display of fake and disused handsets by the boys who always work in groups.

“I bought one fairly used handset, a Motorolla product, for N3000 from them. They cajoled me that it was working and even tested it for me. I used for only two days and it packed up. I have been looking for the guys that sold the set for me but there’s been no luck,” a young man who simply identified himself as Chijoke lamented.

But how do these handsets get into the country to compete with genuine ones?  According to the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), fake and fairly used handsets find their ways into the country through the nation’s airports in very insignificant quantities. SON is charged with ensuring that goods that come into the country conforms to the standards set by it. The agency explained that when these sets come in, they come under the pretext that they were “gifts” to friends and family members. So, men of the Nigeria Customs Service (NCS) allow them to go since they don’t appear to come in quantities that will suggest that they were meant for sale.

Fake phones trickling in

Richard Adewumi, head, Electrical/Electronic Department, SON, said since the body has not seen any container laden with fake handsets, it was impossible to do anything. “That is where we (SON) have problem. You go to the airport, if you see a man carrying a bag, if he opens that bag. 

“You see 20-30 handsets. It comes in and he declares it to the Customs as gifts to his friends. Nobody stops him and you go to the container terminal and you will never see a container carrying handsets. People import these things in piecemeal and so, it is very difficult to control (them) and that is why we are having this problem. Nobody will tell you he has imported 1500 units at a go,” Adewumi lamented.

But the Computer and Allied Products Association of Nigeria, (CAPDAN) says shylock business men wilfully go to Europe and other parts of Asia to import all these offending handsets.

“No Nigerian businessman will go to Europe to buy five handsets and come and sell in the Nigerian market. Such a man is not a sane businessman. So, five handsets cannot come in and the owner will say he has gone to Europe to buy goods. The handsets come in large volumes and they pass through our airports. They are air-freighted into the country. If the Nigerian Customs Service and SON say these things come in negligible quantities, let us leave them to their conscience because they have the capacity to tame the nuisance perpetrating this economic sabotage.

If they however know the areas where they are having problem, they could resort to the Federal Government because these things have a pattern of flooding the country. Law enforcement agencies need to wake up to their responsibilities,” John Oboro, general secretary of CAPDAN said.

Aside from the financial losses, substandard/fake phones are said to constitute hazards to health, safety and environment (HSE). Director General, Consumer Protection Council (CPC), Ify Umenyi, lamented that substandard/fake phones emit radiation levels that are higher than globally accepted level.

“It is quite disheartening that scientific study on the levels of radio frequency emissions from mobile phone handsets indicated that several of the attractive, cheap but fake phones in the market emit levels of radiations far higher than what is globally accepted as safe. It has been revealed that an authentic IMEI number guarantees the quality of the phone and its low radiation emission. Quality products will not only protect the consumers, but also the environment,” she said.

According to her, the influx of these substandard devices is worrisome in spite of measures put in place by the government and its regulatory agencies. She said the CPC, in partnership with Nigerian Copyright Commission (NCC), the Nigeria Police, SON, NCC, the NCS, among other specific sector regulators have been waging war on marketers of fake and substandard products in Nigeria.

While Ghana, a neighbouring West African country, through its regulatory agency, National Communication Authority (NCA), has begun moves to get approval from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to establish a laboratory in the country to test mobile phones as a way of improving standards, Nigeria appears to have resigned itself to fate. 

Regulator of the telecoms sector, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) also appears to be tacitly an accomplice in the perpetration of this criminal act by limiting itself to type-approving handsets. Tony Ojobo, Director of Public Affairs, refused to pick his calls while the short message service (SMS) sent to him elicited no response.

Porous borders

According to sources, the men of the NCS are grossly incapacitated. “There are more than 1500 unapproved routes in Nigeria through which goods come into the country. The borders are too porous,” the source said.

Apart from the porous borders and lackadaisical attitude of law enforcement agents, the introduction of destination inspection by the Federal Government appears not to be having the desired impact. For instance, the scanning machines at the borders are said to be faulty. So even if importers are willing to subject their imports to search, the best that men of the NCS can do is physical examination, which is not only burdensome but also time-consuming.

The physical and psychological trauma that phone users go through is untold. The relevant agencies must therefore work to their laurel, an analyst said.

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