Uneasy calm reigns in the country’s ailing electricity sector over orders and counter-orders on mass disconnection of ‘chronic’ debtors, particularly in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).
Already, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) and Abuja Electricity Distribution Company (AEDC) as well as the Association Nigeria Electricity Distributors (ANED) are up in arms against one another over whether to continue with mass disconnection of debtor-consumers or embark on selective disconnection.
The nation’s 11 Distribution Companies (DISCOS) had through their umbrella body, ANED, got the permission of NERC to embark on debt recovery from consumers who refused to pay accumulated electricity bills.
But due to widespread public outcry, when DISCOS embarked on mass disconnection, the commission stopped the exercise that affected both defaulters and non-defaulters.
The notice issued to all distribution companies by NERC drew their attention to a procedure it has developed for disconnection of defaulting customers as contained in the regulation on connection and disconnection for electricity services.
It stated also that the commission has banned mass disconnection of electricity customers and advised any community, village, local government area or estate wrongly disconnected from electricity supply to report to the NERC for necessary action.
But reacting, AEDC’s spokesman, Shekarau Ahmed, said the company never embarked on indiscriminate mass disconnection of customers.
He said the company was aware that some consumers, even within an estate that is not metered, have their personal meters, and could not have been disconnected from the feeder pole just because many others were owing.
“In case of some chronic debtors like the military, AEDC cannot just enter military barracks and commence mass disconnection, because some of the officers though not metered by us, their salaries are being deducted from the source for electricity bills and it will be unjust to embark on any mass disconnection that would affect them.
“For instance, in the case of the mammy markets around the barracks, when we were collecting our bills directly from them, we used to realise at least N12 million to N13 million monthly. But in some cases, the authorities insist on collecting from them with the pretext that they would remit to us, but we see nothing”, he said.
Similarly, ANED has told the NERC that the exercise cannot be withdrawn because the only way they can serve the public better is to recover all debts owed by consumers which amount to billions of naira.
The ANED Executive Director, Sunny Oduntan, told Abuja Metro that NERC has no reason dictating to distribution companies on how they could recover the huge debt owed them by some customers. According to him, they would not disconnect pre-paid customers who have their meters and were not owing, but would not spare chronic debtors.
Admitting that most customers were yet to be metered, Oduntan noted that many DISCOS have fulfilled their meter obligation to their customers to a greater percentage.
He assured that concerted efforts were being made to meter all electricity consumers and ease the challenges of estimated billing arrangement.
However, NERC said its directives to electricity distribution companies not to embark on mass disconnection was misunderstood.
It stated that subsequent attempt by some consumers to ride on that directive to evade settlement of their debts was not proper, adding that the Commission has clarified that persistently defaulting customers could be disconnected.
Acting Chairman of the commission, Dr. Anthony Akah, said the clarification became necessary due to media reports on the NERC’s earlier directives warning electricity distribution companies against mass disconnection of cities, towns and villages including consumers, who had paid their electricity bills or have pre-paid meters.
Akah, while restating the Commission’s position against mass disconnection of consumers, said: “We are unambiguous in our directives that the distribution companies should observe laid down procedures in disconnecting electricity customers. This directive, which is line with our subsisting regulation, does not negate the ongoing disconnection of chronic electricity debtors by electricity distribution companies.
“All electricity customers, including ministries, departments and agencies of government are advised to clear their electricity debts to avoid disconnections.
“What we frown at is a situation whereby a block of flats is disconnected without regard to the right of a customer who is up to date in his/her bill or a whole community is mass disconnected, not minding the rights of non-defaulting customers within that community. This is absolutely unacceptable to the Commission.”
Checks revealed that Sections 6a and b of the Regulations on Connection and Disconnection Procedures for Electricity Services 2007 permit electricity distribution companies to disconnect without notice, where a customer is illegally connected to its network or if such connection is hazardous to the system. But, Section 5 of the same regulation further stipulates that electricity distribution companies should formally notify a customer of intention to disconnect.
He urged consumers to settle their bill, to enable the industry garner funds needed for efficient service delivery.
He also advised service providers to fast- track implementation of metering plan as contained in their service performance agreements to remove opacity in the billing system, stressing that it will reduce rising complaints of alleged overbilling.
Reacting to threats by some consumers to manhandle staff of electricity distribution companies involved in mass disconnection, the NERC has advised then to explore its complaint and redress mechanism rather than resort to jungle justice in settling disputes with officials of DISCOS.
The NERD, however, directed DISCOS to ensure completion of metering of maximum demand customers on Credit Advance Payment for Metering Initiative (CAPMI) scheme or face sanction.
In another directive, it stated: “Any customer who approaches your DISCOS for metering under CAPMI scheme must have their meters within CAPMI stipulated timeline of 45 days. The scheme remains as an option for customers but a compulsory requirement for DISCOS to implement when customer offers to contribute to metering through CAPMI.”
The directive further encouraged the DISCOS to publicise CAPMI and encourage consumers to subscribe to it, so as to close the wide metering gap in the industry. The Commission said it would sanction any defaulting DISCOS beginning from third quarter of the year.
The directive was sequel to the rising complaints from all categories of customers over estimated bills they considered irreconcilable with the available power supply in the networks.
The commission frowned at the failure of DISCOS to meter their maximum demand customers under CAPM, which is one of the NERD’s initiatives permitting willing electricity customers to pay for meter by advancing money to a DISCOS who installs the meter within 45 days. A customer who subscribes to CAPMI is refunded his money with interest through discounted electricity bills over a period of time.
The commission said most of the DISCOS have refused to accept maximum demand customers under CAPMI scheme. Maximum demand customers are fewer than the other categories of consumers.