Posted by News Express | 15 May 2018 | 3,046 times
It was a sigh of relief for electricity consumers recently, as the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) disclosed that “arbitrary billing and group disconnection of electricity consumers without consideration for those paying their bills constitute a gross abuse of consumer rights.” Though this is coming late from CPC, it is better it came than not.
According to reports, “The Consumer Protection Council has appraised the interaction between the nation’s Electricity Distribution Companies (DISCOs) and their consumers, declaring that arbitrary billing and group disconnection of electricity consumers without consideration for those paying their bills constitute a gross abuse of consumer rights.”
The Director-General of the Council, Babatunde Irukera, was quoted as saying: “There is no excuse for how consumers are treated. The key complaints that we receive are arbitrary, unsupported and unreasonable billing; people not being treated with dignity, the complaint resolution process is either lacking or unclear, and there’s really no respect for people.”
“Consumers’ complaints have not been primarily about supply, but about billing for non-existent supply.” Stressing that “as a matter of fact, a vast majority of supply complaints are attributed to the fact that you are asking them to pay for something that was not supplied, and the other significant reason is group disconnection.”
Indeed, the power distribution situation has degenerated to a deplorable level and corroborates Irukera’s position that “DISCOs have gotten to a point where no one takes their bills seriously anymore, because they are considered outrageous.”
True to Irureka's words, “what DISCOs are doing is connecting their balance sheets to receivables from consumers, but consumers are connecting what they owe to what they receive.” Irukera, while charging the distribution companies to stop the arbitrary billing system, asserted: “Connecting balance sheet to an opaque arbitrary metering system is the worst form of abuse, especially for an essential public utility.”
It is incontrovertible that the power distribution situation in the country has not gone this bad since the several metamorphoses of organisations and bodies governing the use and distribution of electricity in Nigeria. Right from the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) ordinance No. 15, which came into force in 1950 with the mandate to integrate electricity power development and make it effective.
Recently, over 20 rural communities on the 33 KVA at the outskirts of Aba were disconnected for over one week. Some conditions were stipulated which upon their fulfillment they would be re-connected. Such conditions include what is considered a death warrant. The communities were expected to sign a pact that they would fulfill the complete payment of the current charge plus 10 per cent arrears. The irony of the episode is that some of the communities are on the current charge of as high as between N600,000 and in some instances close to N1million. Imagine what factors that would scale up the electricity consumption of a rural community to that outrageous amount. The arrears of one of the communities currently stand at over N8 million, courtesy of the arbitrary billing system with the baptismal name “crazy bill.” If such community had consented to this death warrant, it means that assuming the current charge is N700,000, the community will part with N1.5million - the current charge plus 10 per cent of the arrears. Thank God, that community did not assent to that death warrant.
Other conditions were not fair, either. They include the compulsory application for a bulk prepaid metre and striking a deal with Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC) on how many days power will be supplied in a month, and at a specific cost. Say N340,000 for 20 days or N300,000 for 15 days. The puzzle that defies resolution here is: Are prices of goods and services negotiated before they are supplied? That means that EEDC has been playing some pranks with these communities for some years now, as with the proposed arrangement, power would be made available if an accord is struck with the consumers. Unfortunately, before now, there has been what is called “load-shedding arrangement”, where a community is denied power for some days in order to scale down the monthly bill.
I don’t know what other consumers located across the country are suffering in the hands of other DISCOs, but if their experience is similar to what consumers suffer in the hands of EEDC, then hell is a better place for Nigerian electricity consumers.
Despite the multiple metamorphosis and the huge cash investment by the Federal Government in this sector, the stories of NEPA, PHCN, and what have you, have been that of woes and incessant cries of disappointment from their numerous consumers. The awful situation elevated incessant power outages to the status of norm instead of an aberration. The disappointing situations clothed the organisations with numerous and derogatory metaphors such as “Never Expect Power Always” (NEPA),”No Electrical Power at All; Please Light Candle” (NEPA plc), and “Please Hold a Candle Now” (PHCN), among others.
Perennial power outages, unstable services by these bodies regulating the use of energy in the country informed the action by the Nigerian government which gave birth to the Electric Power Sector Reform Act of 2005. This Act called for the unbundling of the national power utility company into a series of 18 successor companies: six generation companies, 12 distribution companies covering all 36 states, and a national power transmission company. Further stipulation made by the act include that ownership of these companies be granted to the Bureau of Public Enterprises. The unbundling paved the way for an ambitious privatisation programme to be carried out by the Bureau of Public Enterprises.
PHCN’s existence came to a halt on September 2013, following the privatisation programme of Goodluck Jonathan’s administration. Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) was formed as an independent regulatory agency and was guaranteed by the Electric Power Sector Reform Act of 2005, to monitor and regulate the Nigerian electricity industry; issuing licences to market participants; and ensuring compliance with market rules and operating guidelines.
The 2013 divestiture of the Federal Government from PHCN, divided it into separate companies called local electric distribution companies or Local Distribution Companies (LDC) with each company responsible for handling electricity distribution in each state or region. The present structure consists of 11 distribution companies, six generating companies, and one transmission company.
Some key arguments reigned supreme at the height of the privatisation process. Analysts were of the strong view that key public corporations embedded in critical sectors of the economy, such as power, are not privatised to protect the citizens against exploitation. It is elementary economics that one of the essences of public corporation is to provide essential services to the public at a subsidised rate. Again, if the underlying motive of privatising PHCN was to break monopoly, that motive was as good as useless. For example, in Aba where the multi-billion Geometric Power Project could have provided a better and strong alternative, the project was highly sabotaged in a manner which strongly is not devoid of politics.
If Geometric was allowed to come on stream before now, residents of Aba, the latest Small and Medium Enterprises-hub, would have been rescued from the terrible claws of the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company, which holds sway in the entire South-east.
The activities of EEDC in Aba are both despicable and exploitative. It is highly inimical to commercial and artisanship spirit of the town. The attitude of the field workers of the establishment – who are arguably permanent staff – is irritating. They are impunity epitomised: disconnecting consumers at will, even when there are clear evidences of payment of bills; failure to; issue disconnection notices; indiscriminate re-connection charges without issuance of receipts as evidence of payment. These field workers are lords unto themselves and you dare not question their authority.
The billing system is nothing to write home about. They implement what is called “estimated or crazing billing system.” The irony is that consumers may go for months without electricity but are duty-bound to pay bills. It is a common knowledge that the payment for products is to derive utility, which is the satisfaction derived from consuming a product. For EEDC, “utility” is a “strange concept”.
The rural communities are not spared in this madness. They are under what is called “the bulk billing system” which runs upwards of N600,000.00 per month. Pundits are yet to come to terms with why rural communities – where it’s crystal clear that energy consumption is very lowbecause there are no industrial activities or gadgets that should scale up energy consumption - should be awarded such outrageous bills. More worrisome is the fact that these rural communities are peopled by predominantly peasant farmers whose means of livelihood are too inadequate to sustain them. The situation has forced communities and individuals to drag EEDC to court. But this option is as well frustrating, because of the delay associated with our judicial system. Some communities that do not consider legal actions as viable options have resorted to self- help, by physically manhandling EEDC staff.
On the other hand, the situation has provoked peaceful protests in some major locations in Aba, just as some civil society groups recently threatened “hell and brimstone” on EEDC, in form of court actions. Some individuals are agitating for the Enugu State model to be replicated in the other parts of the South-East.
Sometime ago, Enugu State House of Assembly resolved to send the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company out of the state. The quit notice was informed by various allegations by electricity consumers in the state that resulted to protests to the state legislature. The motion for EEDC to leave the state was moved by Hon. Chinedu Nwamba, representing Nsukka East state constituency on behalf of 22 others. It alleged numerous unwarranted activities of EEDC in the provision of electricity services to the people of the state, which he said had reached an alarming and unbearable stage.
The motion was preceded by scores of protests by electricity consumers in Enugu to the State House of Assembly, over incessant power outage, outrageous billing, and alarming tariff, among other forms of alleged exploitative activities by the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company.
The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) is empowered by the Electric Power Sector Reform Act, 2005, to ensure an efficiently managed electricity supply industry that meets the yearnings of Nigerians for stable, adequate and safe electricity supply. The Act mandates the Commission to ensure that electricity operators recover costs on prudent investment and provide quality service to customers.
It is pertinent to note that electricity consumers are privileged to the following rights:
All new electricity connections must be done strictly based on metering before connection. That is, no new customer should be connected by a DISCO without a meter first being installed at the premises; all customers have a right to electricity supply in a safe and reliable manner; all customers have a right to a properly installed and functional meter; all customers have a right to properly informed and educated on the electricity service; all customers have a right to transparent electricity billing; all un-metered customers should be issued with electricity bills strictly based on NERC’s estimated billing methodology; it is the customer’s right to be notified in writing ahead of disconnection of electricity service by the DISCO serving the customer in line with NERC’s guidelines; all customers have a right to refund when over-billed; all customers have a right to file complaints and to the prompt investigation of complaints; all complaints on electricity supply and other billing issues are to be sent to the nearest business unit of the DISCO serving the customer; if a complaint is not satisfactorily addressed, customers have a right to escalate the issue to the NERC Forum Office within the coverage area of the DISCO; customers have the right to appeal the decision of the NERC Forum Office by writing a petition to the Commission; it is the customer’s right to contest any electricity bill; any un-metered customer who is disputing his or her estimated bill has the right not to pay the disputed bill, but pay only the last undisputed bill as the contested bill go through the dispute resolution process of NERC; it is not the responsibility of electricity customer or community to buy, replace or repair electricity transformers, poles and related equipment used in the supply of electricity.
On this note, CPC is enjoined to up their ante and save consumers from fangs of the DISCOs, especially EEDC. EEDC is, indeed, a clog in the wheel of progress of Aba as an SME hub of the nation.
•Okechukwu Keshi Ukegbu, a public policy analyst, writes from Aba, via email@example.com
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