Peter Uzoho in this report, examines the harrowing experience of electricity consumers in the country
When in 2013, the distribution companies (DisCos) took over the responsibility of electricity distribution in the country, many Nigerians thought that the end to years of darkness had set in.
To Nigerian masses, the days of incessant power outage and administrative callousness had come to an end. They believed that with the electricity distribution finally in the hands of private entities, there would be a turnaround in electricity supply in the country.
Unfortunately, five years down the line, those thoughts and imaginations have not come to pass.
Nigerians have now come to the realisation that their suffering with respect to electricity had only taken a new dimension.
From Lagos to Ibadan, Abuja to Kaduna, Kano to Maiduguri, Port Harcourt to Enugu, Benin to Asaba, and many other parts of the country, complaints of lack of electricity, outrageous bills, extortion, unjust load shedding, group disconnection, insensitivity and rudeness of the discos abound.
Such unwholesome practices and non-performance were again brought to the fore last week, during a town hall meeting convened by the Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC) in collaboration with the McArthur Foundation.
The forum attended by the Ikeja Electricity Distribution Company (IKEDC), customers under its network, consumer rights groups and some other regulators, was aimed providing a platform for dialogue and constructive engagement amongst all stakeholders and to proffer workable solutions to the challenges in the sector.
As if waiting for such platform and opportunity to pour out their long accumulated frustrations and grievances, the customers descended on the Ikeja disco, accusing it of incompetence, issuance of crazy bills, insincerity, daylight robbery, hoarding of meters, insensitivity and rudeness.
According to the customers, the disco has subjected them to paying crazy bills, a term that represents outrageous electricity bills, which has gained popularity among customers. They said such bills are not a true reflection of the energy they consume.
A customer who resides at Ojodu, Mr. Lawal Babatunde, said the transformer serving his street, Odozie Road and 10 other streets, was removed by an official of Ikeja Electric on January 6, 2019, and that since then, they had not had light. He said after several months of staying without electricity, a bill of N26 million was brought to them as debts incurred.
"How could we have incurred such debt within the six months of staying without light? Residents who owed up to December 2018 before January 2019 when the transformer was taken away have paid their outstanding bill of one million naira and there is no other money owed the disco," Babatunde said.
Another customer, Dr. Tunde Aina of Ikorodu, said for over five years, Ikeja Electric has been giving over 300 houses in his area the same crazy estimated bill, saying even the meetings they had with the FCCPC and the disco could not resolve the issue.
"My community has sent me to go and seek redress on behalf of us as every effort we made in the past to resolve this issue has failed. Each time we go to their office, they insult and bully us. How can residents of one room use the same energy as those living in flats and bigger houses?," Aina asked.
Worried by the insensitivity and rude approach to customers by all the discos in general, the National President of the Landlords/Tenants Association of Nigeria, Prince Rilwan Akiolu, described as unfortunate the sudden transformation of discos into demi-gods.
Akiolu, attributed the development to the failure of the regulators to discharge their statutory duties by penalising them, alleging that it was so because the discos give them bribe for them to look the other way.
"They have no regard for consumers or the rule of law. They disconnect consumers without due process, etcetera. Until the regulators live up to their responsibilities, the challenges in the power sector will continue," he said.
Hoarding of meters
Another customer of the disco, Mr. Princewill Ekwujuru, alleged that the disco was hoarding meters that were supposed to be given to them. He said the firm decided to be hoarding the meters so that they would continue give crazy bills to customers.
"I have been paying N10, 000 every month to Ikeja Electric as I already told you. By my calculation, I discovered that I am spending N300, 000 annually to refuel my generator at N1, 000 every day, together with exorbitant payment to Ikeja Disco. Yet, they refused to give us prepaid meter in our area. We know they are hoarding it so that we continue paying their crazy bills," Ekwujuru said.
However, to calm the rising tension in the hall resulting from barrage of complaints by the customers, the Chief Executive Officer of FCCPC, Mr. Babatunde Irukera, who acted as the chairman of the forum, acknowledged that issues raised by the customers, which they suffer in the hands of discos were unwarranted and illegal.
According to him, the billing system which is now considered as outrageous for most of the consumers/crazy bills was uncalled for, adding that there was no basis for a disco to resort to group disconnection simply because some customers in an area did not pay.
Irukera, noted that while load shedding system was not totally wrong, the disco must find a way to distribute power fairly to all people in the community.
He decried the extortion of customers by discos' officials in the name of buying transformer, pole or whatever facility, stressing that provision of equipment through contributions by consumers should not be.
He said: "There must be responsibility and dignity that will enhance trust from customers. There must be fairness and justice on the part of disco officials.
"Besides, it is absurd for discos to assume that they are doing consumers favor because it is the other way round. For instance, I don't see anything bad in bill estimation but it is bad if it is 'crazy' as consumers often say.
"Also, there is no justification for discos to disconnect electricity of those that do not owe because of those that are indebted. It is also illegal for technical staff of discos to mount pressure on community to buy transformer when they have it in their offices. This is one area the management should look into very well.
The FCCPC chief also stressed the need for consumers to avoid taking laws into their hands through indulging in illegal connection, harassing discos' officials when they come to do their jobs and also be on the watch out for those wanting to indulge in such activities.
According to him, there is need for consumers to be awake to their responsibility, such as making undisputed payment of the bill to get solutions to pressing issues.
He added that there was the need for increased sensitisation and cooperation with the Discos, in order to help address illegal electricity connections in the community.
Erukera further noted that there was need to address the issue of violence, with communities restraining from acts of violence against the operators of electricity that are allocated to their areas.
Reacting to the customers' complaints, the Managing Director of Ikeja Electric, Mr. Anthony Youdeowei, expressed his satisfaction with the meeting, saying his firm was ready to collaborate with the FCCPC to serve the customers better.
"We have witnessed several hostilities from the customers and we have witnessed cases when we had to resolve such cases at the police station. You can't believe that most of the electricity consumers who are complaining about meter, when we go and install such meters, we also have challenges with them as customers," Youdeowei explained.