A new contraption called Association of Nigerian Electricity Distributors (ANED) has been talking, as if we do not know the role the electricity distribution companies, otherwise known as Discos, are supposed to play in the power sector reform programme. The association has been utilising lavish media spaces in its bid to exonerate itself from the darkness that has enveloped the country.
Its defence, so far, has been as simplistic as it is jejune. Its delivery goes thus: “No gas, no electricity. We can only distribute what we are supplied. Electricity distribution companies do not generate or transmit energy. We only distribute power that is sent to the grid. We cannot give what we don’t have.”
That is the escapism the distribution companies have been foisting on the consuming public. By the argument, the Discos have exonerated themselves from the worsening state of electricity supply in the country. They see themselves as conveyors, which can only deliver what they are supplied with.
But the issue at stake, regardless of the reductionist hang of the distribution companies, is not as simple as ANED has packaged it. The story of the energy crisis in the country is not about passing the buck. It is a systemic problem in which every player in the sector has a chunk of the blame to share.
Let’s take a cursory look at how the issue at stake affects the electricity distribution companies. The Discos, as we all know, are products of the power sector privatisation that was initiated during the Olusegun Obasanjo civilian presidency. The privatisation, an attempt to unbundle the behemoth, called the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), threw up smaller behemoths, such as the transmission and distribution companies. It also gave us the organ called the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), an industry regulator, which is supposed to ensure that the different arms of the unbundled NEPA or Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) play according to the rules by focusing on their specific mandates.
Under the new order, the distribution companies, among other things, were mandated to provide meters to all electricity consumers in the country. They were asked not to engage in arbitrary or estimated billing, which their progenitor, the PHCN, was known for. The metering of consumers was supposed to be a condition precedent in the operations of the Discos. It was supposed to be in place before the Discos rolled out.
Unfortunately, this condition was observed in breach. The discos, without complying with their rules of engagement, went to work without metering a good number of electricity consumers in the country. The result is the arbitrary billings that the consumers face. The distribution companies, as things stand today, are explaining that they are not responsible for the near total absence of energy in the country. They are asking us to put the blame where it belongs.
We understand this argument. We know what they are talking about. However, the argument is purely self-serving. It has willfully glossed over the damage or injury the distribution companies are inflicting on electricity consumers. As we noted earlier, the Discos were not supposed to engage in estimated and arbitrary billings. NERC is supposed to ensure compliance here. Regrettably, neither the Discos nor NERC has lived up to its statutory responsibility in this matter. Rather, both appear to have collaborated in the insidious bid to worsen the woes of consumers.
By this February as is still the case today, NERC empowered the Discos to increase electricity tariff by over 100 per cent. The consuming public groaned and moaned over the runaway increase but NERC stood behind the discos. It asked consumers to pay first and complain later. NERC’s position was endorsed by the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola. He asked consumers to pay first. It is only when they do so, he said, that the discos can muster the much needed financial muscle that can guarantee improved power supply. That was Fashola’s admonition. It was his gospel of change in the energy sector.
But as things turned out, the consumer has been left in the wilderness. He is paying the arbitrary and inflated bills, but he is not getting value for his money. There is no energy to compensate for the huge sums that he is forced to part with. Under the new order, blue chip companies, which used to pay an average of N100,000 per month on electricity consumption are paying as much as thrice what they used to pay. Yet they have no electricity to show for their huge expenditure. In the absence of meters, the discos bill these consumers, using the rule of the thumb.
Then, as if this injury from the Discos is not enough, the pump prices of petroleum products, notably diesel, which companies and individuals have had to resort to to power their generators, have shot sky high. The situation has more than increased the cost of doing business in Nigeria. The situation is so bad that the few companies that are still operating are gnashing their teeth. The operating environment has become inclement and utterly unprofitable.
The distribution companies, no doubt, have conveniently glossed over these salient issues. They are not interested in talking about what they have done wrongly. They do not want to acknowledge the fact that they are operating at the expense of the consumers. All the culprits in the mess that is the electricity sector in Nigeria are now blaming pipeline vandals. They blame them for the shortage of gas that impedes electricity generation. This may be so. But no one is talking about the fact that the challenges of pipeline vandalism has always been there with us.
But then, is it really the case that we do not have gas to service the generating companies simply because of the activities of vandals? This is hardly the case. The issue is a lot larger than the distribution companies are making it to appear. Successive administrations in the country have always found the power sector a hard nut to crack. However, the Goodluck Jonathan presidency made a remarkable inroad in finding a way out of the conundrum. By the time Jonathan left office last year, electricity supply in the country was fairly regular. It was not as bad as it used to be. Consumers did not also groan under the heavy burden of arbitrary bills without electricity.
Even though the situation was not that parlous when Muhammadu Buhari took over, he boasted on his Inauguration Day that he would crack the Gordian knot. More than one year into the Buhari presidency, the power situation in the country has moved from bad to worse. Reality has set in. The vows of yesterday have burst like bubble. Everybody is scampering for cover. The only one caught in the lurch is the consumer of electricity. The distribution companies do not have to increase their pains with the puerile alibi that it is feeding them with. Let Buhari get to work and walk Nigeria out of this bind.