Commentary: Corruption Dogs DISCOs
The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) has just fined the Ikeja Electricity Distribution Company (IKEDC) the sum of N131, 400, 000.00 for “flagrant breaches” of the Credited Advance Payment on Metering Initiative (CAPMI) Order, enabling Act of the Commission and terms and conditions of its licence. To the ordinary Nigerian, CAPMI, NERC and IKEDC may all sound double Dutch. All Nigerians want is electricity, not acronyms.
But the news of the fine is cheery. It prefaces better days ahead for electricity consumers; it supposes that the electricity regulatory body, NERC, may not just be a mere barking dog, it could also bite. The reason for the fine is clear. IKEDC has flouted basic metering rules. It is supposed to provide every consumer with meter and ensure that all billings and bills reflect the readings of the meters which itself is a function of electricity consumer behaviour. The more you consume, the more you pay.
Under the metering rule, all consumers are entitled to functional meters from which bills should be generated. In fact, to give effect to its modernization disposition, NERC has charged the DISCOs (Distribution companies) to ensure that consumers get the pre-paid meter.
CAPMI is an innovative initiative of NERC to assist the electricity distribution companies bridge the metering gap in the Nigerian electricity supply chain. Reports say it was a consequence of a nationwide study conducted by NERC which showed that more than 50 per cent of electricity consumers are not metered but are on estimated billings, a nondescript billing system which has over the years been abused by the electricity provider to fleece consumers. Estimated billing gives room for fraud; it is not scientific, it is grossly immoral as people were made to pay more for less service. The estimation is at the discretion of the marketing officers most of whom openly demand for bribes to ‘help you reduce your bill’. If you tip the officer, chances are you will receive a largely mitigated bill but if you decide to play the upright, be sure your next bill will more than double your previous bills.
The initiative was made even more flexible as it now permits willing electricity customers to pay for meter which should be supplied within 45 days after payment is made. The customer is thereafter refunded his money over a period of time through a rebate or reductions in the fixed charge component of the electricity tariff.
But that is in theory. In practice, the 10 DISCOs that came out from the unbundled PHCN do the very opposite. They are lethargic with making functional meters available for consumers just so they will continue with their fraud-prone estimation billing. It is an organised, well syndicated crime perpetrated by officials of DISCOs from marketing staff to technical staff.
Before the unbundling of PHCN, which by the way was a smart move to break the electricity behemoth into bits to make it run lean and mean, there was a government directive to the old management of PHCN to speed up the issuance and installation of pre-paid meters but that order was observed in the breach by PHCN officials who sensed they were about to be cut off from their no-meter or faulty meter billing system. Now privatised and decentralized into 10 distribution companies and five generating companies, nothing seems to have changed.
The officials of the new companies are still stuck to their old crooked ways of extortion, inefficiency and underhand dealings. A leopard can never change its spots. The name changed but the personnel remained the same; a bunch of sleazy-minded individuals motivated by the wellness of their pockets not by quality of service.
Nigerians have been compelled to pay for electricity poles, cables and in some cases transformers. Communities have been known to tax themselves just to acquire new transformers from PHCN or whatever name they are called now. It is a going and growing scam because at the end of the day, the money goes into private pockets and not to the coffers of the organisation. Ordinarily, the service provider ought to provide transformers and poles and cables at no cost to consumers. This is part of their investment and they are to recoup it by billing consumers for what they consumed every month. Unfortunately, this has never been the case because of the odious corruption entrenched in the operations of PHCN which has now been transferred to the DISCOs.
The Ikeja distribution company is most notorious for this grandiose skimming of consumers in the guise of estimated billing. In the month of July, they circulated crazy bills to consumers. In my small office with a desktop computer and two laptops, two printers among other appliances that make up the ergonomics of an office, we got a bill of N40,000. The explanation of IKEDC officials was that electricity had been regular. They ignored the fact that the meter was not working and that the bill was estimated as were other bills. They said I should get my meter to work; I reminded them that it is their property and I was barred by law not to tamper with it. They supplied it, it is their property therefore they should ensure it is functional. My responsibility is to pay for what I consume, period!
President Muhammadu Buhari as a matter of strategic intervention for the success of his administration should take a closer look at the activities of both the GENCOs (Generating companies) and DISCOs. Irrespective of their new ownership structure, they are critical for the actualization of pervasive distribution of electricity in a sustainable manner that would trigger development in key sectors nationwide. Mr. President may wish to know that aside Lagos and Abuja, the concentric improvement in electricity supply in these two hubs of the nation is not noticeable in other parts. Delta State, a critical entity in the economic survival of the nation has been without electricity; for some parts of the state, it is never expect power again as they have been cut off for over three years and the situation has not changed even with the emergence of DISCOs and GENCOs. Ditto other states nationwide.
Something drastic has to happen. NERC should do more than imposing fines, it should come harder on the little crooks and the big cheats in the electricity chain.
Author: Ken Ugbechie, first published in the Sun newspaper