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Double wahala for electricity customers: bad service, unresolved complaints

The power surge that day was unusual, the wires shrieked and bright sparks lit up the night sky in Yaba, a Lagos suburb. Darkness blanketed the horizon, from the sky a half-moon spied above and all was quiet.

It will take another three months for people in that part of Lagos to see power supply again. Even then, it came at the cost of prolonged anguish and needless acrimony.

However bad it sounds, this is one of the fortunate communities. Many customers have been compelled to buy their own transformers after years of futile attempts to get their distribution company (DisCo) to resolve the problem.

So, when the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) released on its Twitter handle a detailed dispute complaint resolution process mapping, dozens of customers have described it as a charade. The process of resolving customer complaints in Nigeria’s troubled power sector would have been hilarious if it were not so pathetic.

“I appealed at two Ikeja-NERC Forum Rulings to NERC on February 14, 2019, and no response from NERC after two years. NERC is fraudulently in alliance with DisCos against consumers,” said Chinedu Bosah, a customer on Twitter.

Read Also: Negative perceptions of electricity tariff increase have to be fixed

NERC invites discontent customers to complain to their DisCos and if it is not resolved, escalate it to the forum offices – a quasi-court where the regulator adjudicates. But customers say cases are not addressed fairly or timeously. Many are ignored altogether.

In Bosah’s case, he included copies of the letters in his interaction with the Ikeja DisCo and NERC in his Twitter post, and what stood out was an allegation that it took Ikeja Electric over five months to respond to his complaints.

The problem with NERC’s process mapping for complaints resolution is that it presupposes that the DisCos are a tad interested in dealing fairly with their customers.

It also assumes falsely that NERC has a functional system to track complaints that were unsatisfactorily resolved, or is even willing to do so, and that the regulator has any intent to sanction recalcitrant DisCos.

According to the 2019 annual report of the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, the bulk of complaints received were from the power sector.

“Some of the recurring consumer complaints handled by the Commission in the electricity sector were wrong, estimated billing, non-provision of prepaid meters, unlawful disconnection, harassment by DisCos, no provision of infrastructure (electric poles, transformers, and accessories) and poor customer service,” the Commission said.

Nigeria sold off national power assets to private investors in 2013, but the investors seem to have kept the entitled mentality of their civil service predecessors.

NERC has published on its website rights and obligations of customers but there is no confidence in its ability to enforce the right of customers.

The regulator is seen to be keener in fighting boardroom wars than working for the Nigerian people. Last year, it ordered the removal of the Board of Directors of Ibadan DisCo, and an Ibadan Federal High Court promptly nullified the decision, ruling that it contravened the Electric Sector Power Reform Act (ESPRA). The pain points for customers – metering, reckless over billing by DisCos, poor service, and unwillingness to repair broken distribution assets, rarely rank high in the regulator’s priority, customers say.

NERC introduced a service-based tariff system in November 2020, compelling customers to pay a higher tariff rate based on the hours of power supply daily.

Yet, no DisCo in Nigeria is meeting its obligation to supply the contracted hours, none has been sanctioned but customers have been compelled to pay the increased tariff rate.

“We average 6-8hrs of light/day and we are billed as customers on tariff class C. We pay between 37k to 46k/month for light we don’t get to use,” said Adewole Olusegun, a customer under Ikeja Electric.

According to Ikeja Electric, with the revised tariff regime, Non-MD customers in Band C customers with a minimum of 12 hours daily will be charged N37.95/Kwh, while Band C customers with a minimum of 12 hours daily will be charged N37.95/Kwh.

The level of discontent arising from poor service delivery by DisCos and the regulator’s ineffectual arbitration process are sullying what little reform gains the sector has recorded.

In October last year, the Federal Government announced that it was issuing 1 million free meters to customers under the National Mass Metering Programme (NMMP) to resolve the estimated billing complaints, as of February this year only a paltry 30,000 meters have been installed.

“We have reached 39 percent disbursement on the NMMP (420,152 meters). From the tracking that we are doing, the total installations so far are below 30,000 meters (~7 percent installation to disbursement ratio),” said Ahmad Zakari, special adviser to the president on power, in a confidential mail to DisCo owners seen by BusinessDay.

“This ratio paints the programme in a bad light and is putting the entire programme at risk. Therefore, we need clarity from the DisCos and their respective MAPs on how we can recover and get back on track,” Zakari said.

But publicly, government officials lie about progress with reforms in the power sector while in reality, it is motion without movement, just rocking a chair without changing its position – all fluff, starved of substance, according to a customer.

This is why complaints are not reducing significantly in a sector supposedly undergoing reforms. During the second quarter of 2020, the 11 DisCos received 203,116 complaints, indicating 0.68 percent fewer complaints than those received during the first quarter of 2020, the regulator said in a report.

However, some customers have reneged on their obligation to pay bills promptly, some bypass meters and steal power while others vandalise DisCos’ assets. They justify these actions on a regulator that seems incapable of protecting them.

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