Something is about to give way if something isn’t urgently done over estimated billing in Lagos State, TUNDE DODONDAWA reports.
RESIDENTS of Lagos State who are yet to be metered by the two major electricity suppliers in the state, Eko Electricity Distribution Company (EKEDC) and Ikeja Electricity Distribution Company (IKEDC) and are being billed monthly on the basis of estimation are spoiling for war, Saturday Tribune’s state-wide investigation has revealed. Although public show of disaffection isn’t new for the residents, who have protested over several problems plaguing the power sector, ranging from prolonged blackout to “crazy” billing as well as erratic supply of electricity and alleged terrorism of customers by DISCOs on-the-field staff, the new mode of protest may be novel.
Residents, especially those who have lost any hope of things getting better, are now contemplating mass rejection of IKEDC and EKEDC services. Those who shared their frustration with Saturday Tribune levelled allegations against officials of the two private firms.
Over 500 businesses shut on Island –SME chair
On Wednesday, EKEDC received unusual visitors. It was a massive protest led by a woman, Mrs Bunmi Ann Ajayi. The protesters’ demand was simple: “we don’t want to do business with you again, EKEDC.” The tide is changing; Lagosians aren’t waiting for electricity providers to disconnect them again, they want to get disconnected.
Owners of Small and Medium Scale enterprises under the aegis of Association of Shop Owners, Sura Complex on Lagos Island, told EKEDC at its Marina office that they wanted out on its services and in on a viable IPP project. They also came to warn EKEDC to back off plots to stop them.
The aggrieved business owners, led by their chairperson, Ann Ajayi, stormed the premises commando-style with buses loaded with protesters.
Apart from the inscriptions on their placards stating their grievances, they told stories of how EKEDC had ruined their businesses. The protest leader accused EKEDC of lacking customer service relations and forcing customers to pay “outrageous” electricity bills.
“We are here because we are on protest to Eko Disco. We are small business people and electricity supply is so crucial to our businesses. In Sura Business Complex, we have over 1,000 shops but if you come to the place now, it is half occupied because people have been leaving as there is no power to do business. It is a multi-purpose business community where you have printers and people in production and service industry. We are people in need of constant power supply.
“We realise that in Eko Disco, there is actually nothing like customer service. The only thing we get from Eko Disco is, “pay your bill if you have outstanding. You have to pay or you are disconnected.” That is the only conversation we have with Eko Disco in terms of explaining to us why we have just two or three hours of power supply a day. Some days, we don’t have power supply at all,” Ajayi said.
She disclosed that members of the association had resolved to sign an undertaking with a company engaged in IPP. “We need an alternate power supply. In fact, we have got a company to do that for us but we realised through a publication that they (Eko Disco) don’t want that; it is like a threat to their business. We are business people, we are not politicians. We are ready to do our jobs but we need regular, constant supply of electricity.”
According to her, the association members had the right to “regular, constant and uninterrupted” power supply, which had been denied them by EKEDC for years. She said they were demanding that they be allowed to sign on a new entity that could supply just that. They urged Eko Disco not to see itself as a monopoly.
“We want to be allowed to move to a new company. They shouldn’t be a clog in the wheel of our progress. We want to move along with the new company. For us, they are like a monopoly,” Ajayi said.
Assistant Financial Secretary of the association, Kayode Okunola, also criticised the electricity firm and re-echoed the willingness of the group to do business with any company that was ready to give it uninterrupted power supply. “We don’t want anybody to use their powers to stop us. We are law-abiding citizens and that is why we are here. We know what to do to deter them (Eko Disco) from coming to our complex but we don’t want to do that. We are not going to do that. We are civil,” Okunola said.
Please, don’t dump us –EKEDC boss begs
While addressing the protesters, Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of EKEDC, Adeoye Fadeyi, said the issues which led to the disconnection of the customers could be resolved through dialogue. He promised that the shopping complex would be immediately reconnected and other issues at stake would be resolved.
“We have found out that you have been disconnected and I have tried to get the specifics of when, how and under what circumstances and what really happened. We are a law-abiding organisation and operate in an industry that is regulated. I thank you for maintaining law and order. You have the right to come here today and protest peacefully and understand exactly what we are doing about your power.
“For us, there are issues that are in court, as you know, the details of which, obviously, I cannot speak about. There is no intent on the part of Eko Electricity, and I speak on behalf of the board and management, to create undue stress or put pressure on you, the customers. There are lots of issues and one of the things we would do right away is to make sure you are reconnected while we deal with the issues on ground,” he said.
Electric firms are extortionists –DG, CPC
The pain of the electricity consumers in Lagos and elsewhere over estimated and crazy billing is shared by the Federal Government through the agency that is responsible for fighting on the side of consumers, the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) under the supervision of the Federal Ministry of Trade and Investment. Its main function is to teach consumers their rights and help in enforcing such rights when infringed upon.
The Director General of the CPC, Mr Babatunde Irukera, in an interview with Saturday Tribune, described estimated billing as a rip-off and mass disconnection of consumers, the vilest violation of their rights.
“The Consumer Protection Council has championed what has become an intense national rejection of inappropriate conduct in the electricity sector. First, the CPC has met with key executives in some of the DISCOs and repeatedly reiterated that arbitrary billing is extortionist and group disconnection is the vilest violation of the rights of people who are otherwise compliant.
“Further, CPC holds periodic town hall meetings to bring consumers and their providers together for two purposes. The first is for the resolution of pending and outstanding complaints as well as receiving feedback from customers, and the second is to hold DISCOs accountable to consumers by reiterating that arbitrarily and empirically-unsupported billing must stop and the sensitivity and responsiveness of Disco operatives must change. We had these meetings in different parts of Abuja and Edo State. We intend to hold more across the country.
“Further, the CPC has created an electricity consumers’ rights educational material which provides information about consumer rights and guidance on how to enforce these rights.
“In addition, the CPC has been a focal contributor to multiple legislative investigations and hearings with respect to electricity consumers’ rights and potential introduction of legislation to address abuses in that sector. Our advocacy and robust aggressiveness in ensuring that DISCOs are more responsive and sensitive are, in part, reasons for what is becoming a more intense clamour for reform,” Irukera said.
Discos’ ‘fraudulent’ dance?
Saturday Tribune’s findings showed that despite CPC’s efforts, succour may not come anytime soon for the residents and the most traumatised by the crises in the sector may have to seek alternative power supply.
Incidentally, a large number of’ electricity users in the state are on estimated billing system, leaving more than half of the consumers at the mercy of the electricity firms’ staff who throw crazy bills at them on a monthly basis without commensurate service delivery.
In an attempt to end the estimated billing saga, the Federal Government had established the credit apply initiative – CAPMI – to enable consumers make payment for meters that should, by law, be delivered within 45 days of payment. Findings revealed that most consumers made payments without any meter to show for them after 45 days. Following large-scale complaints over non-receipt of meters, government suspended the scheme.
‘Crazy billing killing our businesses’
From Lagos Island to Lagos Mainland, Abule Egba, Badagry, Iyana Ipaja, Iyana Iba, Oworoshoki, Bariga, Epe and Ikorodu, the experience is the same as both private and industrial users of electricity have continued to lament the impact of crazy billing on their businesses.
While some Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) have had to close shop over the huge debt burden arising from crazy bills, others have resorted to alternative sources of power generation in a bid to avoid the controversial billing.
For example in Ilupeju with a large presence of Indians, electricity officials have been accused of misconduct.
A typical example is a two-storey building located at 10, Ajegunle Street, Ilupeju, where the electricity bill is said to go up every month despite not harbouring any factory or commercial activities. The average bill is between N30,000 and N40,000 monthly per flat. Despite irregular power supply, residents of the area said the billing had never reflected any reduction at the end of month.
“For the past two months, power has only been restored between 11.00 p.m. and 5.00 a.m., yet, it doesn’t reflect in the amount to be paid,” said Mr Chidi Ejike. He added that “electricity officials have the habit of bringing their ladders to the neighbourhood every weekend threatening to disconnect buildings for one reason or another when what they really want is weekend money.” Hotels and beer parlours are said to be the major targets. Ejike lamented that every attempt to get pre-paid meters had only been met with excuses and the issue of crazy billing had remained a repeating decimal within the neighbourhood.
In another instance, residents of Adebayo Oyelana Street in Iyana Ejigbo, a suburb of Lagos, have waited on the Ikeja Disco to fulfil its obligation of allocating pre-paid meters to consumers in the area but the officials said meters would only be available in September.
According to the secretary of the tenants forum, Mr Titus Chimaroke, the entire six blocks of about 45 flats use one meter attached to the transformer.
Most residents of the building moved into the apartments four years ago and met some outstanding bills. The bills accumulated because even when unoccupied, marketers from Oke-Afa undertaking office in Oshodi Business District continued to bring bills to the vacant flats.
The tenants in each block then decided to pay more than the monthly usage to defray all outstanding payment which they didn’t incur. “We continued to pay bills ranging from N2,500 to N5,000 until April when IKEDC struck with an estimated bill of N16,000 per block. They explained that power supply had increased since April and that if we continued paying the old bill, we would be underpaying for the quantity of electricity we consumed,” Chimaroke explained.
According to him, in the block where he lives, the occupants has paid all the outstanding bills and as such, the May bill came down to N2,907.45 but the marketers seized the bill and demanded that occupants of block 2 in the estate come and see them.
Chimaroke said: “When I got to their office, the head of the marketers (name withheld) wrote N14,000 at the back of the bill. She gave me a Zenith Bank account number which she said was a ‘Loss of Revenue Account’ for IKEDC. We were asked to pay the N14,000 into that account and bring the teller to their accounts department. As for the original money in the receipt, they said we should pay in their office as usual.
“She explained that our June bill would carry the N16,000 estimated bill like that of the other blocks. We told them that we could only pay what was written on the bill because we could not be punished with exorbitant bills for paying up and clearing our outstanding bills.
“So, we did not pay the N14,000, but when the transformer developed fault last week, the field officers came and threatened to disconnect our block for refusing to pay the extra N14,000.”
At present, he explained that the occupants of other blocks who still have outstanding are finding it difficult to collect the bills as they have to spend days listening to explanations as to how a monthly bill of below N5,000 increased to N16,000 overnight.
When asked the way out, Chimaroke disclosed that some tenants of the 45 flats were actually considering alternative source of energy like solar “but we realised that it is too expensive and not designed for people of our income bracket. So, we are constrained to stay with Ikeja Disco for now.”
Gbenga Adeyemo, a civil servant, said: “The crazy billing challenge may be insurmountable because the problem has been there since the days of the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA). It continued during the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) era and now it is continuing under the privatisation regime.
“I don’t think it can ever work because, based on my findings, some people are benefiting from the failed system in the power sector. The essence of privatisation is to give consumers the opportunity to choose consumption patterns, to choose energy providers and get some protection from the regulators against extortion. But all these are not present, so, the entire power sector privatisation has failed.”
Too many things wrong –Consumer Foundation
Founder, Consumer Advocacy Foundation of Nigeria, Sola Salako-Ajulo, stated that the power sector situation had become so complex that there was no single answer to the challenges therein. “What everyone wants is to get a meter and begin to pay for what they consume,” she opined.
“The discos don’t have money to buy meters and banks are not willing to lend them money because their business is not viable. The Discos are saying people are stealing energy and not paying for it.
“Introduction of Meter Asset Providers (MAP), which is yet to take off, has its challenge ab initio. They said indigenous meter manufacturers should provide meters for customers but who owns the meters? The law says no customer should pay for power asset because it automatically belongs to the Discos. The Discos should provide infrastructure that takes power to your house. But people are paying for poles, meters, transformers, etc. MAP says customers will pay for the meters over 10 years. And without prepaid meters, estimated billing will continue. That is a policy somersault.
“We need to change the whole process. Instead of attaching a meter to a property, customer’s account should be separated from the meter so that an individual will have an account with them and can be attached to any meter whenever or wherever the customer lives. Such account can be linked to the BVN and each customer can be monitored regarding energy consumption.
“For instance, if I move to a new apartment, I will approach the Disco in that area and they will link my account to the meter that is in that house so that I will be responsible for energy consumption on that meter for as long as I live there. If I move out, I go to them and ask them to disconnect me from that meter because I don’t stay there again.
“Customers don’t care about the meter but the services it provides. Therefore, if the meter providers can provide the prepaid meters and consumers are asked to pay maintenance charges of, say, N100 monthly, everyone be willing to pay for such charges because it will prevent estimated billing.
“Since everything we have tried is not resolving the crazy billing problem, we need to introduce something new.”
Should ‘deal’ be cancelled?
Asked whether the entire privatisation exercise be annulled since it appears not to be taking the nation anywhere, she said no. “Although power sector privatisation is a mess, until the fundamental structural challenges are addressed, no success can be achieved. It will only take us back. We should be looking at how to get to the next point.
“Cancelling privatisation will require new bidding process, new evaluation of assets and however, they will still face the challenges of energy theft, energy loss, illiquidity and so on. It is the same thing. People are benefiting from the system and they don’t want a change,” she said.
On energy theft, she argued that Nigeria does not punish bad behaviour. “That is a major problem. When we don’t punish someone for such an offence, someone will also do the same thing. Most Nigerians don’t understand the concept of energy theft because no one has explained to them. People do not know that one of the reasons they are paying crazy bill is because someone else is using power and not paying for it and by month end, that person’s bill will be spread over your own. But if Nigerians realise this, they will be the one that will be looking for such neighbours that are stealing energy. However, without prosecution, the action will continue.
“It has been discovered that most big men don’t pay bills, they by-pass meters, including military and police officers. But if we can prosecute some of them, embarrass them by charging them to court, others would sit up,” she stated.
Why ‘crazy’ bills will persist –IKEDC
Chief Executive Officer, Ikeja Electric, Anthony Youdeowei, recently gave an appraisal of the current state of anomie in the sector, arguing that with the present economic situation and its effect on foreign exchange, the estimated bills would linger for some time.
He said the company had metered 90 per cent of its transformers in the zone, which would make the estimation to be based only on the energy consumed from the transformer.
Youdeowei said the company had reduced considerably, the charges on consumers placed on estimation as more were connected to the company’s database.
“Recently, the estimated billing of consumers is coming down because more consumers are now under the company’s database. At present, we are able to enumerate about 700,000 under our database, and I’m sure we are still going to improve on it. Nobody is perfect; consumers who have problems with their bills should report to our customer care office,” he said.
He disclosed that metering of consumers under the zone was not an easy task in view of increase in the foreign exchange, adding that the rules of the game had changed because of the challenges they were facing now.
“The single phase meter we were buying for N40,000 is now more than N100,000 and the money is not coming from consumers. Presently, we have metered all trading points and most of the companies in the zone.”
Youdeowei said the company was facing financial challenges because the present tariff was not cost-reflective, stressing that Ikeja Electric was buying energy at N305 and selling to consumers within its zone at N199 per kilowatt.
“It is a tough business environment and we cannot dictate the price because we are being regulated by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC).”
No meters for now –EKEDC
Eko Disco was also forthright enough that the much-sought meters weren’t available.
Spokesperson for the company, Mr Godwin Idemudia, stated that the company was working tirelessly to provide prepaid meters for its numerous customers and end estimated billing.
“We are addressing the issue. We are also working in accordance with the policy directive of the Federal Government to ensure our customers are metered,” Idemudia said.
He said the main challenge was that prepaid meters were not available for now but the company would make them available to its customers immediately they are stocked.
“Meters are not available. Meter Asset Providers (MAP) policy will take effect by next year. The Federal Government has started on a brighter note by publishing qualified indigenous meter manufacturers and we have also placed our adverts to engage interested meter manufacturers for the programme in our network. However, we need to collect our bills for energy consumed and we want to ensure a win-win situation between our customers and the company,” he said.
Estimated billing is illegal, Fashola insists
Discos’ supervisor and Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, recently warned electricity distribution companies to improve their services or stop operating.
Fashola, at a press briefing, said the firms were aware of the challenges in the power sector before buying into it and must deliver or quit.
The minister said the Federal Government would no longer tolerate the issues of estimated billing and mass disconnection of consumers.
“The Discos bought these assets with their eyes wide open and they must compete to deliver or exit. In the face of this picture where we have power to sell with more to come, the number of complaints coming to government for meter which Discos should supply and for estimated billings and mass disconnection where not everybody is owing cannot continue. Government must act and will do so.”
The minister said investment of the generating companies was threatened because the capacity of electricity being generated was under-utilised, adding that small business owners who needed very little power were not getting enough because the Discos could not make the power available to them.
Nigeria’s epileptic power supply seems to have defied all solutions suggested by world experts. Professor Barth Nnaji was brought from the United States in 2010 to proffer solution but no American wonder was performed. Manitoba Hydro was brought in from Canada in 2012. No Canadian magic was also felt. In fact, transmission network worsened and Manitoba was sent packing.
The power sector was subsequently privatised in 2013 to usher in new idea, fresh investment and freedom from government bureaucracy. It is obvious that that dream has not materialised and the future doesn’t seem to hold much promise.
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