• Monday, July 22, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Electricity companies dupe Nigerians in darkness with ‘cooked’ bills

prepaid-meters1

Assuming you are a masochist and your choice of entertainment is to listen to disgruntled customers gripe about their heart-rending tales, then head to the office of one of the power distribution companies as premium content is available without charge.

The story of Mr Raji Adetayo, resident of Ajuwon area, a surburb of Ogun state but is managed by the Ikeja distribution company is the stuff of nightmares. On August 28 2015 a prepaid meter with serial number 54150119383 was installed in his house while IKEDC officials carted away his previous analogue meter and his rest of mind.

Two months later, Mr Adetayo isn’t certain if the meter is reading his own bill or reading anything at all. He has enjoyed power supply after a recharge of N10,000 for all of 45 minutes and somehow he has managed to rake up a debt of N23,000 for power IKEDC imagined he consumed. I met Mr Adetayo for the first time on the January 21 at the Head office of IKEDC, in the customer care department, a place the tragedy that is our power supply forges strange bonds.

But if you think his experience is pathetic, it is only because you’ve not heard the tales of a resident in Festac (who wants to be unnamed in fear on-going negotiations might be hampered), his own case is the sort you hear and lose the nerve to narrate your own tales.

As the owner of a bungalow and duplex on two plots of land, he let out the duplex to someone else. He does not share meter with the occupants of the duplex nor does he share electrical connections. However, when the occupant of the duplex moved out, his jaw was on the floor when the Eko Distribution company slammed him with a vicious bill of N400,000! Through voodoo logic, they came to the conclusion that proximity equals guilt by association.

In another strange case, Christopher Okon, (not real names), a resident of Ebge, a suburb in Lagos, narrates a sordid story of how the ‘touts’ selling payment cards right in the company’s office almost denied he paid his bills at all despite presenting a bundle of his bills reflecting payment.

“In the end they told me the money I paid was credited wrongly but I have to ‘bring something’ so that it can be rectified.

The tales of the agony that Nigerian electricity consumers go through will melt the coldest of hearts. In recent weeks, power supply has been dismal in several parts of the country crippling businesses and reducing the quality of life of Nigerians. The people who come with the notion that Nigerians are among the happiest people on earth clearly have not received a meter from the Discos or sat through Ajah traffic.

While the rest of the country marinate in darkness, the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) and the power distribution companies (DISCOs) are bickering over who should take the fall. TCN claims that the Discos are rejecting their electricity quota, the Discos claim they are not being supplied what they need. The Gencos on the other hand has a patented excuse in the perennial shortage of gas. And According to the World Bank, oil companies in Nigeria flare 70% of the gas they produce when exploring for crude oil.

It is indeed a complex mix with the potential to drive a man insane.

In August last year, the Consumer Protection Council (CPC) through a circular invited the discos to a meeting. They claimed that they have been inundated with complaints commonly referred to as crazy billing by which electricity Distribution Companies (DISCOs) allegedly determine consumption level of consumers of electricity and bill them upon a cruel exercise of judgment.

Five months later, the problems have only worsened. You see when Nigerian business owners have sessions with the country’s regulatory agencies or the National Assembly, the atmosphere is always too convivial something you will find at a pepper soup joint. In a pepper soup joint, we don’t ask questions that will not aid digestion or encourage pepper to go the wrong way. It is not good manners. At such sessions, all that is required is to show up and don’t forget to address them as Sir and Ma.

Most of them, you see, can find the relevant section of their Act that regulates your industry even if their lives depended on it. So when they come out laughing and slapping each other on the back after a closed-door session, just be assured you have been screwed over, again.

The term crazy billing is our own creative way of deodorising treachery. The process is simple. You look at a building and through the tested method of a toss of dice, you pick a number and inflict it on the occupants of the house as bill. In saner places, this would be fraud but if you live in a country where the National Security Adviser can call up the CBN and several billions walk out of the country’s treasury, it doesn’t seem so much of a big deal.

Only Chubuzor Okoroafor may not agree with you. Hear him “Just last week, I had gone as usual to pay by bill which is usually estimated at N5000 whether there is light or not but I got there and was duly informed that I had an outstanding of N10,000. Up till now, not even the station manager has been able to explain to me how the bill suddenly jumped to N10,000 in a period power supply was so poor.”

Chibuzor lives in Port Harcourt and power is distributed to him by the Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company, Garden City East.

Solomon Jibunor would think Chibuzor has no serious case. This is because in an apartment he moved into recently in Wuse, Abuja between January and April, he had been given a bill of N1,200,000. Solomon does not operate a factory.

The common thread that runs through these individuals issues is that the distribution companies in Abuja, Lagos, Port Harcourt and other cities in Nigeria have taken it upon themselves to exercise their discretion when it comes to billing.

In major cities in Nigeria, the distribution companies have creative excuses to give in place of meters when you request for one. Usually, they collect your name and details and place you on a list. Then they send you home to wait till the end of the month – only they won’t tell you which month. A certain Jimoh at the Ikeja power distribution company’s office has been on a waiting list since 2014.

Routinely, when the officials of NERC gets bored with twiddling their fingers, they pretend to get busy and inflict on the consumers another round of price hike. In Nigeria, it’s easy to be accused of doing nothing, how best is it to lay a claim to action that hiking the price of non-existent service and have your name splashed all over the newspaper.

BDSUNDAY investigation at the Discos revealed a troubling aspect of this problem – as it the problem is not troubling enough. Either the company officials do not know or are clever pretenders as feign ignorance of the shenanigans of their marketers. There are complaints of illegal charges and deductions from some customers observed.

Prepaid meters that were meant to ease matters have become complications of their own. 15 complaints observed within two hours were basically about the prepaid meters. The customer departments of these distribution companies logs in complaints without giving customers plans on resolution. Customers are put on hold for up to 30 minutes while they play ludicrous music and burn their airtime. It is almost ironic that these are care lines when half the time the officials are twiddling their fingers while your airtime burns.

An official of Ikeja Distribution Company who does not want to be named as she is not authorised to speak to the press only hinted that they were working to resolve complaints. Efforts to speak with those authorise to speak at the discos in Lagos have not borne fruit as several requests to speak both in person and through telephone calls have not been honoured. It is a pathetic system that has private companies who answer to no one and are a law unto themselves.

In Lagos, photocopies of settled bills are routinely plastered on walls to prevent officials of power distribution companies from disconnecting power supply. If the systems are automated the nuisance this generates will be removed.

Clearly privatisation of the assets of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria has not in any solved the problems inherent in power distribution in Nigeria. These issues will not be resolved unless difficult decisions are taken by the administrators. Chief among them is serious investment in renewable energy and decentralising power supply by changing the rules governing the national grid to allow for majority participation in power generation and distribution.

 

ISAAC ANYAOGU