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Eight months after private investors acquired the distribution firms unbundled from the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), customers are still at the receiving end of underhand dealings by maintenance officers , writes Olisemeka Obeche

Tempers flared among electricity consumers in Badore area of Ajah, Eti Osa local government area of Lagos State recently when maintenance officers from Eko Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC) surreptitiously cut off power supply to the area. When confronted by curious onlookers, the team leader had explained that the power cut was a precautionary measure to save residents from potential electrocution as a result of a weakened pole due to collapse soon. To ensure that power was restored to the neighbourhood as soon as possible, residents in the area were unofficially asked to contribute N120,000 to buy a new pole. “I couldn’t control my anger when I learnt that they had cut our light for a pole that is yet to collapse and ordered us to contribute money for a new one,” declared a resident of the area who gave his name simply as Stanley.

He told TheEconomy that though he had contributed for similar power projects in his previous neighbourhood in Palm-groove, Lagos mainland before re-locating to Ajah, he condemned the excuse by the officials. “It’s obvious that they want to force us to provide a facility to maintain or replace, which was the norm in the old regime (of NEPA and PHCN), but the manner they went about it infuriated most customers in the area,” he said.

Although, residents of Badore in Ajah have not taken to the streets to register their displeasure over the new pole levy, as at press time, investigation by TheEconomy shows that similar development is still fuelling discontent and protests in many parts of Lagos and other states in the country. Public protests staged by aggrieved customers, threatening ‘no light, no pay’ had been a regular feature in parts of Lagos since April this year. From Ebutte Meta to Ojota down to Festac and other places, placard-bearing customers have marched to various electricity distribution centres to protest over poor service delivery.

The reason for such public demonstrations is not far-fetched. Many localities have been forced to spend months or even up to one year in total blackout due to their inability to raise hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of naira required to repair or replace damaged poles, cables and transformers. For instance, Mr. Alex Emeka, a clergyman narrated the experience of electricity consumers in his area, Igando, a suburb in Alimosho Local Government Area of Lagos State. “It has been almost a year now since our transformer spoilt and all efforts by people in the area to get the appropriate authority to repair or replace it had failed as they insisted that we should raise money for a new one. Despite that, the bills keep coming on monthly basis with the service charge included,” he said, displaying a handful of accumulated bills.

Mrs. Angela Obicheli also reported that customers in Daleko area of Ejigbo were forced to contribute money recently to get their transformer fixed to avoid prolong power outage, while Mr. Edwin Onyeugba disclosed that residents in his area-Ijegun-Imore in Satelite Town, Lagos have been in total blackout since April 13, this year due to breakdown of electric pole. “We had to buy two concrete poles by ourselves but officials of the electricity company say it would take a longer time to attend to our needs, yet electricity bills are still issued to us on monthly basis, despite our efforts to resolve the problem,” he lamented.

Mr. David Kanu of Oniteri Street, Abaranje, a suburb of Ikotun in Alimosho Local Government Area reported that electricity customers in the area are groaning under lack of regular power supply due to cases of wire cutting and damaged transformer, yet they are still being over-billed. According to him, it was unthinkable that customers who spend so much money on generators and hardly enjoy up to 15 minutes of power supply weekly are subjected to crazy billings.

Maintenance fees fuss

That many electricity customers have endured long-spell of power blackout or irregular supply as a result of problems associated with faulty facilities in their area until they raise money to solve the problem have continued to raise hoopla in many quarters. Although the practice of levying power consumers in areas affected by damaged electric poles, cables and transformers remained an unofficial policy of the defunct PHCN, most customers expected a change in the status quo under the new private regime.

A brief enquiry by Mr. Kayode Ogunsola at a nearby Ikeja Electricity Distribution Company (IKEDC) office on how to fast-track the connection of an electric transformer that has been lying fallow for over three years in Baba-Kwara area of Kudeyibu Estate in Ijegun, a suburb of Ikotun in Alimosho council area of Lagos state last June reveals that the old extortionist culture still subsists. “I was told that if we want the transformer fixed we can apply for it but that has to be backed up with the monetary equivalent of what it would cost to connect it to the grid or else the file will remain dormant,” he recounted.

Mr. Ogunsola lamented that for over three years, electricity consumers in the area have had to endure unpalatable power supply in form of rationing, which sometimes lasted for a week without supply because the residents have not been able to contribute the fund unofficially required to connect the transformer. “We thought that with this new regime, such conditions would be overlooked, but it is obvious to us that nothing has changed,” he added.

Mr. Stephen Michael, an energy analyst attested to the fact that such desired change of attitude was yet to be imbibed by officials of the DISCOs. “If you wait for the PHCN (DISCOs) to provide new pole when the old one is damaged, you will stay at least a year without power. So, that is why people contribute money to buy such things and later call them to come and fix it. Ideally, they are responsible for it but it will take long time for it to get approved,” he said.

However, investigation by TheEconomy shows that many electricity customers are increasingly questioning the rationale for continued implementation of fixed charges on electricity bills when the electricity distribution companies are not discharging their responsibilities. “It is the responsibility of the electricity company to take care of their facilities and replace them when they get bad, not the customers, after all what is the purpose of the maintenance fee they charge,” Mr. Awe Sola, an aggrieved customer queried.

Also generating ripples is the issuance of estimated bills to customers, a practice that has been generally referred to as ‘crazy bills’.  “This estimated billing is not in the best interest of Nigerians; so, we appeal to the agencies concerned with electricity distribution in Lagos State to discontinue with the system,” Mr. Salaudeen Folarin, Vice-Chairman of the Association of Electricity Consumers of Nigeria (AECN) said.

Mr. Mujeeb Abaja believes that the reason the process of distributing pre-paid metering system has been fraught with bureaucratic bottle-necks is because the officials profit from issuing of estimated bills. Abaja, who led a protest march to IKEDC office at Vetland, Oko last April over the issue of crazy bills insists it has become a money-making avenue for most DISCOs staff.  “Since the company collects monthly service charge from us, we feel that if some meters are faulty, it is the duty of officials assigned to do the reading to call attention of residents affected to such faulty metres. Rather, what they do is to pretend as if they did not notice the fault only for them to bring outrageous bills at the end of every month. What then is the essence of the service charge,” he queried.

Whither the efficiency?

One of the reasons provided by the Nigeria Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) for the approval of the latest Multi Year Tariff Order (MYTO) regime was that the new tariff template was designed to enable the new power firms, especially the distribution companies (DISCOs) to attain greater efficiency in service delivery.

Dr. Sam Amadi, NERC Chairman, had explained last May that the commission was intent on tackling the major complaint from consumers concerning fixed charges they were being paid in the context of unstable supply of power. “It looks as punitive and many DISCOs could focus on collecting fixed charge without bothering to service consumers better and receive more energy charge. So, we have shifted the incentive,” he said.

Dr. Amadi said that customers should expect better services because the commission would step up monitoring of DISCOs’ performance. “We will activate performance-based regulation to move the DISCOs to higher level of customer service. We will also mandate better communication with consumers. We want to build strong citizen engagement with the power reform. NERC itself will improve its communication with all stakeholders,” he added.

However, more than a month after the new tariff regime kicked-off, there is yet to be any significant improvement in customer service delivery at most of the DISCO offices visited. Although, posters featuring advertisements of better customer service relationship dotted their surroundings, customers who throng the various offices to get their power supply or bill issues sorted out more often left dissatisfied. “Each time I come to pay my bills here, there is always one issue or the other that would delay us. If not that the system server is down, forcing many people to wait on the queue, it would be another flimsy excuse. I wonder when PHCN (IKEDC) would improve,” complained a customer at Ikotun office who gave her name simply as Comfort.

Another customer, Mr. Samsudeen Balogun, also shared his bitter experience in the hands of officials of the new power firms. “I had slight problem with my prepaid meter card and what ordinarily should take not up to one hour to resolve took me several days and trips to their office, including going to Alausa, Ikeja where I was referred back to the same business district office. And the worst is that customers would be waiting and they will be less concerned,” he lamented.

However, an official of IKEDC who spoke under anonymity to TheEconomy beam he was not authorized to speak to press described the developments as part of teething problems that still confront the new regime. “We are aware of some of these challenges but conscious efforts are being made to address them. And we are optimistic that in no distant time, all these things will be a thing of the past,” he assured.

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