Some may call it cheating, while others may see it as smart billing but it is nothing less than fraud. The system of billing some electricity consumers, otherwise known as estimated billing, adopted by the Electricity Distribution Companies (DisCos) in Nigeria, is a clear case of extortion of consumers without metres, whether prepaid or the old order. Ironically, the DisCos are unconcerned and unrepentant, instead they are passing the buck concerning metering to customers. Imagine living in a compound with four three-bedroom flats and while three metred three flats get billed about N2, 500 each, the remaining one is slammed N10, 000 estimated bill, just for one month, by Ikeja Electricity Distribution Company (IKEDC).
Yet, the DisCos are reluctant to provide prepaid meters or at least minimise the incidence of over billing or crazy bills; just promises and no action. And the Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer of Eko Electricity Distribution Company (EKEDC), Adeoye Fadeyibi, tried to justify the action of the DisCos while speaking at a town hall with residents of Ibeju-Lekki, Lagos (its customers), saying the 'crazy bill' was because distribution companies take the reading of electricity consumption of customers who are not metered directly from the transformer.
Fadeyibi even told his customers at the meeting to ensure that people are not stealing electricity from electric poles or connecting heavy appliances, such as welding machines, to the transformer.
He said: "What you call crazy bill is not crazy, according to us in Eko Disco. We have an approved methodology for billing consumers who do not have functional metres. It is what we get from your transformer monthly that is being shared among the consumers.
"So, if your neighbours are tapping power daily or you see welding machines nearby and you think it is our responsibility to hold them, it will reflect in your bills.
"Expose your neighbours who are bypassing meters or anybody that is tapping supply from our electric poles now. This is for the benefit of both parties."
Buck passing, no doubt, and trying to turn customers to vigilantes, to say the least. And you ask yourself why the firms' officials that usually embark on legal and illegal disconnections don't notice these anomalies and what do they do when they notice these illegal connections.
EKEDC's spokesman, Godwin Ihemudia, said the issue of metering customers was ongoing, adding: "Our roll on plans is on course. We would provide meters to customers district by district, compared to other DisCos.
"Very soon, the issue of payment of estimated billing would be a thing of the past."
His IKEDC counterpart, Felix Ofulue, said efforts were being made to put an end to the issue of crazy billings of customers and urged them to exercise patience, stressing that the firm was working to ensure prompt distribution of meters to its customers.
Officials of the DisCos are beginning to sound like broken records to customers who bear the brunt of estimated billing, as DisCos have been repeating the same story lines all too often without action. In short, many customers believe most of them lack capacity and are only trying to shield their inadequacies by this narrative.
These firms' officials, like all Nigerians, enjoy prepaid billing in the telecommunications industry and it is ironic why they are reluctant or incapable of replicating the same system in their operations.
If not for extortion, why would the DisCos refuse to install prepaid meters for their customers, even when they have requested for that? The excuse of high cost of sourcing these metres is fast becoming unacceptable to customers, especially those who are billed based on estimation and who bear the brunt of DisCos' inefficiency.
Now that there has been relative stability in power supply, they want to suffocate customers with estimated bills. In any case, customers with prepaid meters enjoy steadier supply than those using the old meters or not at all.
It is daylight robbery to feed power into a transformer and at the end of the month, remove what is supposedly consumed by (sometimes a few) metered (either prepaid and old meters) and share the rest among those you have refused to meter, whether they consume electricity as much or not.
Take the case of a young couple that travelled to the wife's village for her father's burial for two weeks, leaving no one in the apartment and putting of almost all electricity-consuming appliances for the period, mainly to avoid damages due to power surge and high voltage in their absence, only to be billed N10, 000 for the month, including the two weeks they were out of their residence.
Whose fault is it that a customer is not metered? How can a customer be made to pay for others' sin, inefficiency or inadequacies? Why should corporate organisations pass buck, rather than live up to their responsibilities or own up to their shortcomings?
The news, if true, that most, if not all, customers would soon get prepaid meters, though sounds like another broken record, cannot be more cheering than now. One only hopes that it doesn't become another deception of government and the DisCos to raise and later dash the hope of customers, like in the past.
The public hearing of the Bill sponsored by the Majority Leader in the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, representing Surulere 1 Federal Constituency, to criminalise estimated billing by DisCos, cannot be timelier.
The Bill, which passed for Second Reading on April 17, this year and comes up for public hearing on Tuesday, June 5, aims to criminalise estimated billing by electric distribution companies and provides for compulsory installation of prepaid meters to all power consumers in Nigeria and other related matters and hopes to address issues bordering on the purchase of prepaid meters for connection and reconnection of customers.
It is to amend Section 94, sub-section (2) of the Principal Act by creating a new Sub-section (4), which says: "Any person who performs any act or does anything or refuses, fails and/or neglected to carry out his lawful duties with intention to contravene or frustrate the implementation of Sections 68 and 71 of this Act is said to have committed an offence; and upon conviction shall be liable to 6 (six) months imprisonment or a fine of N1, 000,000, (One million Naira) or to both such fine and imprisonment without prejudice to the right of the Commission to cancel or suspend any licence under this Act."
Electricity consumers are looking forward to proper and commensurate billing that should be acceptable to consumers.
Ijediogor is on the staff of The Guardian.