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The desperate efforts by Electricity Distribution Companies (DISCOs) across the country to recover debts owed by consumers is not yielding the desired result due to angst over epileptic power supply, writes Olisemeka Obeche

In the afternoon of Friday, July 19, 2014, a three-man team from Ikeja Electricity Distribution Company (IKEDC) stormed Kudeyibu Estate in Ijegun, a suburb of Ikotun in Alimosho Local Government Area of Lagos noted for erratic power supply. Armed with a ladder and tools’ bag, the officials began to disconnect electricity of consumers indebted to the company.

Shortly after the task commenced, angry-looking residents began to emerge from their homes threatening to seize their tools’ bag. Expectedly, most of the affected customers were outraged by what they described as the exploitative tendencies of the Electricity Distribution Companies (DISCOs) which took over from the defunct Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) following the privatization of the power sector. “Why should they (DISCOs) force us to pay for light that we did not use,” queried a middle-aged woman popularly known as Iya Bose. “We spend money buying fuel for our generators just to have light and at the end of the month they bring ‘crazy bills’ and expect us to pay for darkness. No way!,” she declared, brandishing a copy of unpaid electricity bill.

Unable to deal with the antagonism the disconnection had generated in the area, the three-man team quietly left the neighbourhood. Investigation by TheEconomy revealed that several weeks after the incident, the three-man team is yet to show up in the area to continue the exercise. However, some residents in the area have vowed not to pay the bills until there is improvement in power supply.

A resident of the area who identified himself as Femi informed TheEconomy that youth in the area were no longer comfortable with the power situation and so would not accept any mass disconnection due to non-payment of electricity bills. “We have suffered in silence for so long. Our transformer has been lying idle for more than three years, yet they keep rationing light for us only to give us light in the night. Right now, what we want is ‘no light, no bill’,” he declared.

Such encounter has become a regular occurrence as DISCOs intensify efforts to recover huge debt from electricity consumers across the country. TheEconomy investigation revealed that most disconnection teams have experienced similar ordeals in the hands of disenchanted customers. An official of Eko Electricity Distribution Company (EKDC) said that customers’ animosity over epileptic power supply has remained a major stumbling block towards raising the revenue profile of the new electricity distribution firms. “Many customers with huge debts are reluctant to pay on the excuse that they were issued crazy (estimated) bills despite poor power supply. And this is affecting our ability to recoup funds and invest for speedy turnaround in the sector,” said an official who spoke under anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.


Stemming the tide of attacks

When the management of IKEDC announced its decision to shut its injection sub-station in Mafoluku, a Lagos suburb last June, it blamed it on frequent attacks on its workers and equipment. Assistant General Manager, Public Affairs, IKEDC, Pekun Adeyanju explained that the decision to penalize Mafoluku sub-station was part of its determination to stem the tide of rising cases of assault on its staff over poor power supply and the issue of estimated billing. “We note with dismay that whilst it continues to enjoy the support of most customers in its quest for improved power supply, despite considerable shortfall in the power allocation from the grid, certain groups in some communities have persisted in carrying out assaults on IKEDC staff and malicious damage to company’s equipment and installations,” Adeyanju said.

Officials of the IKEDC and the EKDC have been assaulted severally by customers due to irregular power supply and estimated billings. And both firms have vowed to prosecute anybody involved in molesting their officials while performing their lawful duties. “Individuals and groups who persist in acts of vandalism and assaulting IKEDC workers will face the full wrath of the law,” declared the Managing Director/CEO of IKEDC, Mr. Abiodun Ajifowobaje while appealing for support of the law enforcement agencies in Lagos State in its bid to ensure protection from assaults as well as damage to its equipment and installations.

On its part, the management of EKEDC declared that it would not spare any effort to bring any culprit to book in its bid to tackle the frequent assault on its staff. In a statement issued by its Assistant General Manager, Public Affairs, Mr. Godwin Idemudia, the firm also disclosed that it would no longer tolerate unethical conducts, especially against its customers.“The company has developed a new code of conduct to guide its staff in their interaction and relationship with customers and any act of rudeness or impoliteness by staff to customers will attract severe sanctions,” it said.

However, indications that the management of the firms are not merely bluffing has emerged following the conviction of Mr. Suleiman Amusa and his son, Owolabi Amusa by an Ikorodu Magistrate Court for attacking an IKEDC staff with machete. The duo were sentenced to six months imprisonment for the offence by Magistrate P.L. Hopeto, at the Badagry Magistrate Court 2 on July 2, 2014 under the charge number IKD/C/24C/2010.

There are indications that the efforts by the Distribution Companies to stem the tide of electricity theft and attacks on its staffers may have been given a fillip as the federal government plans to initiate an ‘Electricity Anti-Theft Bill’ at the National Assembly. The Director-General of the Bureau for Public Enterprises, Mr Benjamin Dikki, disclosed that the bill will provide the legal framework to empower electricity distribution companies to carry out their functions without molestation.


Tackling emerging challenges

Although efforts to stem the tide of increasing spate of attacks and molestation of electricity workers received a major boost last July following the conviction of two customers over similar offence by a Magistrate Court in Badagary, the major challenge remains how to deal with the alarming rate of electricity theft and customers’ indebtedness.

To most industry experts, with less than 30 percent of electricity consumers using prepaid meters, and the remaining 70 percent on estimated billing, the challenges of customer unrest and attacks on Discos’ officials would remain a regular feature in Nigeria. Mr. Gbenga Adesanya, an energy expert, believes that unless the issue of effective and estimated billing is tackled, the problems of customer resentment would persist. “Some people are not metered but they use electricity while some are metered but tampered with the connections. So, it is a mixed bag of problems that should be looked into before the privatization exercise would begin to bear fruits,” he said.

However, with the electricity distribution companies expected to begin 100 percent remittance of their revenue collections from customers this September, there are growing fears that the current challenges faced by the newly created firms in recovering huge debts and increasing their revenue collection could assume a  desperate dimension. The development which comes as part of transition from Interim Market Rules (IMR) to the Transition Electricity Market (TEM) means that the DISCOs would now pay fully for power they recieve from the generation companies (GENCOs).

Although, most DISCOs have come under customers’ barracking over the issue of service charge and estimated billings, the seeming lack of improvement in power supply across the country remains a major blow to its quest for improved revenue collection. But most DISCOs have blamed their poor performance on the lack of infrastructure and revenue leakages they inherited from the defunct PHCN.

Mr. Neil Croucher, the managing director, Abuja Electricity Distribution Company, (AEDC), is of the view that power generation must improve significantly for the distribution firms to deliver regular electricity to customers.  “Power generation needs to pick up as well. Nigeria has been short of electricity generation, which historically has been a sector lapse and that needs to improve,” he said.

Adeyanju blamed the inadequate supply in parts of Lagos on low power output from the national grid. “The issue of low power supply is as a result of inadequate power from the grid. For instance, IKEDC gets an average of 35 to 40 percent of its maximum demand on daily basis from the grid. But we have remained resolute in our commitment to ensure equitable distribution of this low allocation to all our customers at all times,” he said.


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