Force Majeure?

Force Majeure

Last month, we had two major developments that will shape the power sector for good or for ill in the next couple of weeks. The first was the decision of the Federal Government to reinstate the regulation that allows power consumers to purchase meters from approved vendors, and the second, the declaration by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) allowing eligible customers to purchase power directly from the generating companies (GenCos).

The scheme allowing customers to purchase meters was initiated by NERC in 2013 but was halted by it in November last year. For me, the government has no business reversing itself on this issue because it does not seem the electricity distribution companies (DisCos) want to deploy meters. The country’s economic downturn has only presented them an excuse. Before the recession set in, how many meters did they deploy? Were they not giving excuses when asked to patronize local meter makers? Anyway, the only condition I will support the decision is if the government can ensure that this latest directive on meters will not be exploited by the DisCos to slow down on what should be their primary obligation of providing meters for electricity consumers.

Their present estimated billing cannot continue. I am a serial victim of it like millions of other Nigerians. I used to cite my personal experience on this so-called ‘crazy bill’ right from the days of the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) to the defunct Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN). And now the DisCos.

As usual, I have to use another personal example to illustrate my frustration with the current billing system, a thing which justifies my belief that the place to start getting it right in the power sector is in metering customers. This is the position of The Punch, as expressed in its editorial of November 22 titled “Let the consumers have meters please”.  This paper too has expressed similar sentiment several times.  There won’t be any incentive to provide consumers with meters for as long as the DisCos can force people to pay bills that no one, not even those who issued them, can rationally defend.

This time around, I will use my father’s flat somewhere at Mafoluku area of Oshodi as an example. About two weeks ago, we had to go and clear about N71,000 debt said to have accumulated on his electricity bill, obviously over time, and the Ikeja Electric personnel have been bothering them alongside my dad’s tenants having issues with their bills/meters. Anyway, we decided to clear the backlog about two weeks ago in the hope that henceforth, they will only be paying current bills. But what we saw was that the very first bill that Ikeja Electric would bring after we had cleared the bill was the highest so far, about N16,000 for the flat and the shop sharing meter with it. I was told their highest bill before was about N14,000. So, how come the bill suddenly rose from the N14,000 to N16,000 in the very month that we decided to clear the arrears and start on a clean slate, despite the fact that they claim they did not have electricity sometimes for three days when other houses on the same street have? They say those people are on the ‘blue line’ and they are in red (or something). I immediately understood what could be happening given my own experience: the bills are being prepared from the transformers and people on one line of the transformer may have light perpetually and others on another line may not. Yet, they will be billed equally.

We were warned against clearing the debt and that if we do, the next bill would be higher. People in this type of boat are not likely to keep paying everything that the DisCo brings as a bill, especially when they know it does not reflect their power consumption. This was the way many estimated bills accumulated to the billions that the DisCos are claiming today as debts. I had my reason for clearing the so-called debt and I can see I was proved right with the new estimate that we were given. We would now follow the laid-down process to get the right things done.

This is a flat that Ikeja Electric officials had visited several times to take an inventory of the electrical gadgets there.  It was on the basis of the visits that they were bringing the previously (even questionable) monthly bill. The shop in question only has to be charged commercial rate because it is a shop and not necessarily because it has any special gadget or appliance that consumes much electricity. As for the flat, there are no new electrical gadgets to warrant the rise in billing; just a moderate pensioner’s apartment. This is the reason many of us are opposed to the idea of raising tariff under the present arbitrary billing system because these rip-offs can only escalate when tariffs are increased without meters. It would look like another face of taxation without representation.

I do not know how the DisCo would convince me otherwise on this because I had cited examples on this same page whereby we never had electricity supply in my area at Pleasure, Agege, Lagos, at a particular occasion for 24 consecutive days and our bill never reflected that, as we were slammed the usual amount. When some representatives of the Association of Nigerian Electricity Distributors (ANED) visited our office about two weeks ago, I told them this experience and their explanation even justified why Nigerians must be metered whatever the situation. The official who answered my question at the forum said that must have happened apparently because the marketer did not inform those in charge of billing about the problem! So, whose fault is that? Again, why are such bills always tilted in favor of the DISCOs and not the customers?

It is interesting that the DisCos threatened to declare force majeure when the government said that eligible customers can buy power directly from the GenCos. Force majeure is a situation of unforeseeable circumstances that prevent someone from fulfilling a contract. I do not know the basis for that threat, granted that they (DisCos) have not been able to move the nation a notch higher four years after taking over from PHCN. Do they expect the government to fold its arms and be supporting them in feeding the electorate with excuses? If they want to declare force majeure over this progressive decision, what do they expect Nigerians that they are billing arbitrarily, almost to the point of extortion, to declare? Let them tell the world in which other country electricity consumers are billed from their transformers. It is surprising that things that are taken for granted in other places are made a fetish of here in Nigeria. In the remotest parts of Ghana, there are prepaid meters. The DisCos can say the electricity consumers are not as many as in Nigeria. But so is the revenue the electricity firms in that country gets, compared with Nigeria. One can only have a headache the size of his head.

We have about 2,000 MW of power that the DisCos cannot absorb and which can be of immense use to the eligible customers. So, do the DisCos want the government to leave the system as it is until the power sector grinds to a halt? The impression one gets now is that of DisCos that are biting more than they can chew. So, what is wrong in the government saying no, bite only what you can chew and leave some other organisations to bite the rest, which, to me, is what the decision on eligible customers is all about?

I crave your indulgence to end this piece with a quote from the said editorial: “We reject the DisCos’ and government’s repeated accusations that Nigerians don’t want to pay for power: … DisCos gripe constantly about wanting “realistic” tariff. Any new tariff increase, however, should be preceded by 100 percent metering of customers.”

This has always been my position and it has always been this paper’s position. I only had to cite another paper’s editorial today to show that there is no medium that would think otherwise in this country unless that medium is just arriving from Mars or Jupiter.

Source: IWIN

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