The painful reality that residents of a host community to two power generation plants, which supply electricity to other parts of the country to reside in perpetual darkness but is nauseating to people of Sapale and environs. This scenario is not only offensive to the people of Sapele, Sapele Local Government Area, Delta State, but also to other citizens of the country.
With none of the parties, Benin Electricity Distribution Company, BEDC, and aggrieved residents shifting grounds on the contentious issues, the growing mass actions fuelled by lingering power blackout, suggests a major disaster waiting to explode. For the old city with its faded glory resulting from colossal collapse of the once prestigious African Timber and Plywood, AT&P, flour mills and other famous institutions that made Sapele thick,, it has been a case of the proverbial people who live by the river bank, yet wash hands with spittle, since BEDC took over power distribution
As host to the Ogorode Power Generation Plant, a second plant expected to come on stream soon, community leader and retired staff of Chevron Nigeria Limited, CNL, Mr. Ben Tobi (JP), Dean, Sapele Deaconry and Parish Priest at Saint Patrick’s Catholic Church, Rev. Fr. Ekabor Christopher and former chairman of Sapele local government, Chief Felix Anirah, three leading voices of the crusade to reverse BEDC’s epileptic power supply to Sapele, are at a loss over why consumers barely enjoy up to two hours supply daily. Toll on businesses, lives: “You do not see that privilege of being a power generation community translated to the day-to-day lives of the people,” Fr. Ekabor said, adding, “Businesses cannot thrive in such environment. I run a church. In 2016, my diesel consumption was N4.6 million; I have not added PHCN charges. That figure does not also include cost of maintenance on the generator. That goes for a lot other people.” Diesel for power generator: Anirah observed: “The situation was much better before now, with NEPA and later PHCN, it was between six to seven hours, it is so unfortunate.” Hampered by the poor power supply by BEDC, Anirah’s drinks marketing outlet, spends N60, 000 and N70, 000 on diesel for power generator every month. In my home, I spend as much as N120,000, which is approximately N4, 000 per day. And you want me to feel comfortable spending N200, 000 every month on diesel alone? “We are not talking of school fees or feeding and other expenses, we are not even talking of repairs on the generator, but fuel alone . It is totally unacceptable. They are making life unbearable for us,” he added. Tobi fumed, “Even that two hours, they bring the light at very odd, unproductive hours, like 30 minutes or an hour at about 10.00a.m., when most people have gone to work and later an hour or half an hour at midnight, when you have retired to bed and the light will not be useful.”
Besides, in an atmosphere of near total darkness on daily basis, the residents said they were further distressed by perceived crazy bills from BEDC. Tobi asked, “How can someone, who does not use light up to two hours every day be asked to pay between N18, 000 to N22, 000 a month? We are not talking of those using it to run businesses. So, if supply is stable, it means consumers will be made to pay N500, 000 or N1 million.” He asserted: “The Business Manager, BM, told me at a forum that they assess my consumption through my neighbour on estimated billing. How reasonable is such explanation for a consumer like me? I now have solar for almost every appliance, fridge, fan, television, how can you charge me as my neighbour? I am not consuming as the other man,” More pains: “They just give people estimated bills, you do not supply light and you give bills, it is not right. That is what we are suffering”, Anirah added. Another pained consumer, Sir Emmanuel Ejewino, flayed the difficulty in securing prepaid meter. “I am a victim of this prepaid meter. I paid to BEDC since March 2016, but they have not given me. They keep giving me estimated bills of N20, 000 or more. They come to your house and start counting how many air conditioners you have, not bothering if they are functional.Their agents capitalize on the absence of prepaid meters to fleece the people. Warri enjoys prepaid meter, why should Sapele be different? I can tell you that not more than just 50 consumers have prepaid meters in Sapele. Others get crazy estimated bills.” BEDC argument: At every opportunity BEDC has had to tell its story on the Sapele situation, the singsong is that people are not paying bills.
At its recent customer service ‘public forum’ in Warri, Delta state head of BEDC, Ernest Edgar, parroted the same account. “First,” Edgar noted, “let us understand that you may be a host community, but the power coming to you is not necessarily from the host community. We pick power from the national control centre. To be precise, power supply in Sapele comes from the transmission in Benin. Another challenge is the poor paying culture. Nowhere in the world do people enjoy services and do not pay. BEDC is willing to sit constructively with our customers. Let us structure what you owe and get your commitment to pay. Based on that, we see what we can give to you.” Expressed in figures, Sapele’s poor paying culture by Edgar’s recurring claim amounts to a monthly revenue hovering between N30 and N35m. Edgar, who listed other setbacks fuelling the poor BEDC service delivery to include vandalism of transformers and cables theft, further explained that the company only receives nine percent of the national grid to feed four states – Delta, Edo, Ekiti and Ondo, which it distributes power to. “The level of vandalism and violence in Delta state is on the increase. This year alone, three people have been jailed,” he added. In a statement, Corporate Affairs Officer, BEDC, Mrs. Esther Okolie, claimed: “Towards the implementation of the resolutions reached at the various meetings, most of Sapele today enjoys more than six hours supply daily with some areas having 22 hours notwithstanding the poor generation nationwide that is hovering between 3000 to 4000MW and also the fact that BEDC is expected to equally serve all Deltans, not just power generation host communities.” She contended: “National Grid Supply is for all Nigerians not just for power generation host community, given the level of power generation, if all power host community should agitate for 24 hours power, the rest of Nigerians will be in total blackout. We have fully rehabilitated all our faulty feeders and normal supply restored. Also, we wish to reaffirm that customers on 11kv are enjoying over six hours, while those on 33 kv network enjoy 22 hours supply.” Okolie said the Delta State government; Commissioner of Police and the Orodje of Okpe had intervened in the matter to restore peace, adding that BEDC was prepared to handle the matter peacefully with the people of Sapele.
For Sapele consumers, Edgar’s defence amount to begging the question of BEDC’s failure to provide light to the people, who strongly fault its claims. Media professional and publisher of The Advocate, a Delta provincial paper, Mr. Onitsha Shedrack, disclaimed Edgar’s figures. “Our investigation from insider sources is that BEDC generates as much as N100 million monthly from Sapele. An accounts officer told us in confidence when the press visited their Sapele office.” Ekabor countered the claim of non-payment, saying: “I have my NEPA file to show you proof that 18 months I have been in Sapele and in the 18 months I have paid for BEDC power supply. They cannot give the unilateral claim that consumers are not paying.” In the same vein, Anirah screamed, “I have paid up to date, what moral justification do they have to switch me off if XYZ did not pay their bills? The impression that Sapele residents do not pay bills is not correct. Assuming, without conceding to that claim that they do not get more than N30- N35million, should they not supply those who pay that much, is it justifiable to deny the man who has paid you legitimately? Those excuses are totally unacceptable.”
Ekabor told NDV, “When BEDC was not really forthcoming, we had to protest to draw public attention about our frustrations, we wrote several letters to the governor and minister without meaningful response.” Our findings showed that they had carried out series of protests, one of them, led by the Catholic Priest, Ekabor, who attested that the public demonstrations actually drew BEDC’s attention, following which a forum was created for parties to meet. “We had meetings with BEDC and discovered the light problem was triple-dimensioned. First, BEDC uses marketing agents, not staff, to collect bills on earn-as-you-remit arrangement. “What is common among these agents is to come to a consumer having for instance a N3000 bill, they say give me N1000, he collects the N1000 and tears the bill. Left to the majority of ignorant consumers, they have cleared that bill and the variance written off because they saw a BEDC representative at their doorsteps to collect and offer discount. The money goes to private pocket of the agent, not reflected in company revenue. Instead of holding their workers responsible for the sabotage within, they say we have not paid and using that to punish even those who pay,” he said. National grid arithmetic: “The second issue is national grid. Output is not enough to carry the people, but they fail to educate people that you need 10 per cent to power Sapele, but get only two per cent. Because there is no information, the common man does not understand the arithmetic of national grid, so they sing their own song, that right in their backyard, there is generation going on and there is light in Abuja and other places, so why should they not get same to light their homes?
Tobi, however, does not share Ekabor’s theory of insufficient output from the national grid, saying: “BEDC is not picking up the entire transmitted load made available to it by the Transmission Company of Nigeria, TCN. It was reported in the media that BEDC is one of the companies that does not pick up its entire load and Sapele is one of the areas where it under distributes the most.” “They say they do not have the money to buy, that they are not making up to 20 per cent of revenue on supply distribution to Sapele and we have reasons not to buy that excuse,” he said. Tobi’s revelation was corroborated by the TCN at another truce forum by the Speaker of the Delta House of Assembly, Hon. Monday Igbuya, who is from Sapele. A TCN official at that stakeholders’ meeting, said: “Sapele needs about 40 MW, but BEDC is picking only 5MW, leading to all year round blackout.” Tackling payment apathy: “The third issue,” Ekabor observed, “is payment apathy on the part of consumers. We have given our word to BEDC that we will sensitize the people from the pulpit. I can call every pastor, through the Christian Association of Nigeria, CAN, and the churches. We can take a Sunday and educate the congregations to pay their bills promptly, but before we can do that, people must see a ray of light, and then take the town-crier to go round too. We will get results.” Aggravated anger While the generality of the people are kept in the dark, BEDC ensures that a tiny population, including big business concerns and individuals with the means, are hooked up on a near 24-hour supply in same town on a dedicated 33KVA line. Edgar confirmed: “To a level of certainty, there are some people within the state today that are enjoying 23-24 hours of power. It is the way the network is designed. Some people are on priority lines. We are in business but see ourselves as more of an economic enabler.” Acquiring and sustaining the charges for a 33KVA is no mean privilege. Ekabor revealed: “I was given the papers by some BEDC officials when I was posted here newly, for N11 million plus charges to hook my church to this line. I told them my interest is not just to get the church enjoy steady supply. We want light for everybody. If I had wanted to join the bandwagon, I could have gotten the line for my church, but I want to struggle with the people to get average hours of good supply we can manage.”
An angry Tobi flared up, “BEDC is actually telling the people that light is not for the poor, I am made to understand that some 33KVA beneficiaries pay up to a million naira monthly, out of reach of the common man. Annoyingly, key figures, particularly political office holders from Sapele, who should intervene to remedy the sufferings of the people are on this dedicated lines and, therefore, passive over the matter. “No one can play God; it is either BEDC disconnects everybody on that line or hook everybody to it. Hotel owners, private residents connect to the 33KVA and we are saying no to that. It is very sad if somebody I share boundary with has constant light and I cannot have same. I can afford to be on that 33KVA, but is it fair if am living in affluence and my immediate neighbours are living in deprivation? If they do not address it, we will be forced to do what they do not expect of us,” Chief Anirah intoned. Orodje’s unpopular truce committee: Arising from the inability of BEDC and residents to resolve the lingering issues at the onset, the Orodje of Okpe Kingdom, His Royal Majesty, Maj. Gen. Felix Mujakperuo (retd), Orhue II, constituted a Peace Committee headed by Elder Tom Anirah. The committee seemed dead on arrival from the no confidence vote it suffered from inauguration and the unproductiveness of its meetings. Even Chief Felix Anirah, whose elder brother, Elder Tom Anirah, the Orodje picked to chair the committee, has no kind words to express his dissent. He declared: “BEDC is negotiating with some unreasonable persons within the community to issue a communique as the position of Sapele residents. I warned such persons that the consequences will be bad for them. As major stakeholders, we are not part of that committee constituted by any other person. We live in a free society with right to determine our fate. “From what we know, the committee is already compromised; it will incur the wrath of the larger community if they dare do that. They never protested at any time, those who have been agitating have talked with BEDC, made our position very clear, but they now decided to get a group to sign a communique predictably affirming that BEDC is doing its best. We are not part and parcel of it and we are going to resist it.” Even Tobi, who is a member of the Orodje truce committee, does not share significant confidence in its dealings so far. “We met about three times, no headway at all. BEDC is still insisting they need all the debt owed by Sapele, as if that is the only precondition to give us light. It is either they move away from Sapele or comply with the generality of the people.“ Anirah picked up from him, saying: “Government did not privatize the power sector to punish consumers, if they are not willing to improve light, we will be forced to ask them to leave. We do not mind if we have to remain in total darkness.” Common sense: Fr. Ekabor cautioned, “BEDC should know the value of good public relations, it reduces crisis. I do not think they have it at the moment. We have pledged to help them fine tune. That way, we catch fake agents or workers sabotaging its revenue collection. Once that is nipped in the bud, customers will conform. Once this is not done, faithful consumers will keep being punished for the actions of defaulters and BEDC will be losing. There are other cities in this Delta, like Eku, Igun which get light up to 12 hours or more every day. Why Sapele must be treated differently, is it because there is nobody to speak for us,” the oracle of God asked. One last chance: With aggrieved parties bypassing the Orodje’s ordered negotiation, issues are gravitating to boiling-point, as after an earlier match to the Ogorode Power Plant, thousands of residents, joined by civil society groups, momentarily took over the Amukpe-Eku Roundabout, disrupting traffic on the busy Benin-Sapele Express, last Friday, over the electricity saga.
In the demonstration that followed Wednesday, March 2, protesters, who vowed “no retreat, no surrender”, have served a notice to shut down the Sapele Power Station and the National Independent Power Plant, NIPP, in a matter of days. Fr. Ekabor, at the forefront of the protest, said, “We will give BEDC the last chance with just one last protest coming up in a few days, then we shall proceed to switch off the step-down power station and the NIPP. Everybody, including federal government, Nigerians will feel the effect.” BEDC/Residents accord broken: He said: “It is a sin on the part of BEDC not to give us electricity when we generate power. The company has even disobeyed the resolution reached at a stakeholders’ meeting brokered on Tuesday by the Delta State government, chaired by the Commissioner of Police in which BEDC was told to supply eight hours of electricity daily to the people.”