By Okechukwu Keshi Ukegbu
The ruling party, All Progressives Congress (APC) is peopled by a band of double speakers and elements who speak from both sides of the mouth. Buck passing and and blame game are their stock-in- trade. They always find excuses where none exists. And are always eager to justify lackluster performance by blaming the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) they took over from.
The Minister of Power,Babatunde Fashola ressurected these antics recently when he made a bogus claim that some states in the country enjoy 24 hours power supply. No response could better match this claim than that of Shehu Sani who asserted that Fashola’s claims could only fit in into other planets such as Mars and Jupiter other than the planet earth.
The Minister is not new in concocting theories that are not universally accepted. His recent claims have resurrected his ” chicken before the egg or egg before the chicken” theory. The above theory by the minister anticipates Nigerians patronise an adjusted tariff before they could enjoy an improved power supply.
This theory does not only negate the principle of “utility” which bestows on the consumer the right to enjoy the services paid for. In Fashola’s postulations, the customers right to enjoy regular power supply is a strange concept as long as electricity distribution is concerned in Nigeria.
Unfortunately for the minister, his claims and theories were punctured flat by the Director General of the Consumers Protection Council, Babatunde Irukera, who stated without mincing words that”arbitrary billing and group disconnection of electricity consumers without consideration for those paying their bills constitute a gross abuse of consumer rights”.
The CPC boss declared that “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”.
According to Irukera,” consumers’ complaints have not been primarily about supply, but about billing for nonexistent 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 that “connecting balance sheet to an opaque arbitrary metering system is the worst form of abuse, especially for an essential public utility”.
APC and its co-travellers such as Fashola’s cannot deny the fact that the power distribution situation in the country has not gone this bad since the several metamorphoses of organizations 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.
For example, rural communities on the 33 KVA at the outskirts of Aba are disconnected for unreasonable lengthy times with stringent conditions which their fulfilment can only ensure reconnection. Such conditions include what could be considered a death warrant. The communities were expected to sign a pact that they would fulfil the complete payment of the current charge plus 10 percent arrears. The irony of the whole episode is that some of the communities were on the current charge of as high as between N600,000 and in some instances close to N1million. Imagine the factors that would scale up the electricity consumption of a rural community to that outrageous amount.
The multiple metamorphosis and the huge cash investment by the federal government on 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 organizations 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 radical 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 Nigerian 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 privatization program to be carried out by the Bureau of Public Enterprises in Nigeria.
PHCN’s existence came to a halt on September 2013, following the privatization 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 privatization process. Analysts were of the strong view that key public corporations embedded in critical sectors of the economy such as power are not privatized to protect the citizens against exploitation. It is an elementary economics that one of the essences of public corporation is to provide essential services to the public at a subsidized rate. Again, if the underlying motive of privatizing PHCN was to break monopoly, that motive was 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.
On the other hand, the situation had provoked peaceful protests in some major locations in Aba as well some civil society groups threatening “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.
Sometimes ago,Enugu state House of Assembly resolved to send the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company, EEDC, packing from 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 was 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 protest by electricity consumers in Enugu to the state House of Assembly over incessant power outage, outrageous billing, alarming tariff among other forms of alleged exploitative activities by the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company, EEDC.
The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) is empowered by the Electric Power Sector Reform (EPSR) 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 here 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 unmetered 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.
Indeed, Fashola’s claims can only be obtained in strange planets than the earth.