Authorities have started prosecuting stores and companies allegedly taking advantage of the coronavirus situation to stash critical hygienic products and charge exorbitant prices for them.

In Abuja, where the number of COVID-19 infections has risen to nearly a thousand, four popular outlets purportedly complicit in ‘price gauging’ of cleaning products such as hand sanitisers and face masks were charged on Tuesday.

The superstores are Prince Ebeano Supermarket, H-medix Pharmacy and Stores, FAXX Stores, and Bakan Gizo Pharmacy.

They were brought before Justice N. E Maha of the Federal High Court in the capital city by the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), the agency mandated primarily to protect the rights of Nigerian consumers.

The commission filed a six-count charge against the aforementioned outlets, accusing them of committing offenses breaching a myriad of the FCCPC laws.

In one of the charges, the commission said the mega stores were “engaged in making false, misleading, deceptive representation in relation to the price of sanitizers, hand-wash liquids, and disinfectants of various existing brands at ‘your’ retail outlet and thereby committed an offense contrary to section 125 (1) (a) of the FCCPC Act, 2018”.

The FCCPC particularly accused H-medix, which has chains of outlets across Abuja of “exploiting the national public health emergency of COVID-19 pandemic to engage in price gouging”.

The defendants were to be arraigned Tuesday morning but their lawyer, Abubakar Muhammed, pleaded for the process to be shifted to an adjourned date because a representative of the second defendant did not appear in court.

After a short deliberation between Mr Mohammed, the defense counsel and Babatunde Irukera, the prosecuting counsel and the Chief Executive Officer of the FCCPC, it was resolved that the case be shifted to allow all defendants be present in court.

The case was adjourned till June 25 for arraignment of the defendants.

Cleaning products have been scarce and overpriced due to surging interests since the outbreak of the virus in late February in Nigeria.

Many Nigerians have decried the situation, calling out some popular stores with exorbitant prices.

The Federal Government had warned that suppliers and retailers “using the excuse of coronavirus case in Nigeria to inflate protective apparel will be prosecuted”.

The FCCPC had issued a memo in March warning that the inordinate practice during national public health concern violates both moral codes and extant laws.

But, despite the warning, prices kept increasing as many Nigerians resorted to locally made cleaning products.
Briefing journalists shortly after the court was adjourned, Mr Irukera, the FCCPC boss said the main offence of the outlets being prosecuted is ‘price gouging’, meaning “taking advantage of a situation to increase prices in a manner that is not consistent with ordinary business practices or acceptable parameters of profit and loss margins”.

Price gouging occurs when a seller increases the prices of goods, services or commodities to a level much higher than is considered reasonable or fair. Usually, this event occurs after a demand or supply shock. Common examples include price increases of basic necessities after natural disasters.

Also speaking, counsel to the defendants, Mr Mohammed, said he has been fully briefed on the details of the alleged offences of the outlets with respect to trading.

“The commission, of course, has the power to prosecute and we on our own part have made relevant applications and the court has agreed with us by way of giving us adjournment to prepare for the case,” he said.