By Cosmas Omegoh
Recently, the Minister of Works, Power and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, met with power sector players in Enugu. At the meeting, he expressed anger that various electricity distribution companies – Discos – had been treating their customers unfairly. He recalled how power companies cut supply to their consumers at will, a development that happens often without any reason or notice. Fashola also expressed disgust at the recent outrage expressed by Nigerians over the recent hike in electricity tariff, blaming what happened on the operators.
Speaking at the Ugwuaji Transmission Station in Enugu, Mr. Fashola demanded that the power companies should find a way of carrying their customers along. “If you are not getting enough power from the transmission companies, you must tell your customers so. Take the issue of review of tariff for instance. It was arrived at after consultations. Why don’t you step out and explain the issues to your customers? All of us must explain to our different customers where we operate.”
The minister’s remarks had further fuelled the simmering anger over the Discos’ alleged penchant for snubbing their customers. From Warri to Wurno, from Oyo to Uyo, electricity consumers are irate over the estimated billing regime. They are angry over the astronomical increases in tariff and the failure of the electricity companies in telling them what they need to know about the power they consume.
In many communities across the country, consumers endure months without electricity. While the period lasts, no electricity worker shows up to explain why the consumers have to be denied access to power. Tempers often flare up when such workers only come to yank them off the grid for failure to pay their bills.
Older customers recall how the erstwhile Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN), as bad as it seemed, treated consumers with so much respect. Apart from being efficient, they say the workers were apt to notify their customers each time power had to be cut. But now, nothing of such exists. Company-customer relation has been jettisoned. Power distribution companies seem to consider it a mere waste of resources to explain things to their consumers.
In neighbouring West African countries, for instance, electricity consumers are well respected. Mr. Gabriel Dike, who was in Kumasi recently, stated: “While in Kumasi, I heard a public service announcement on radio that power supply to the part of the city I was would be disrupted between 9 am and 4 pm the next day to make way for repairs at a nearby power plant. And about 5 pm on the said day, power supply was restored to the area.”
This was the regime many consumers of electricity used to know in those days of yore, recalled Alhaji Babajide Ishola, a landlord in Surulere. “As youths growing up on Lagos Island, we hardly experienced any form of power disruption by the then ECN. In fact, we took constant supply of power for granted.
“Anytime we wanted to go outdoors, we simply picked up our clothes and ironed them. We never did our ironing in advance for fear that power might be cut in the next hour just like we do nowadays. It was unthinkable!
“Even when ECN wanted to carry out major repairs, they usually announced it on Radio Nigeria. And once they were done, they restored supply to us and life moved on.
“But towards the end of the 1970s, things gradually began to change. One cannot truly explain how it all began. But gradually, power cut became incessant. Notifications were stopped; perhaps NEPA became tired of such announcement and considered it not worth doing anymore.”
Similarly, Mr. Humphrey Omizegba acknowledged that a long time ago, ECN used to announced intentions to disrupt electricity supply for specified reasons. “Way back in 1970s, when I was living in Idi Araba area of Lagos, ECN in those days and later NEPA used to announce the disruption of electricity supply a day or two before doing so.
“Consumers used to be told what caused every problem. It might take a day or two to fix, but what we knew was that power used to be restored as they promised.
“But now, we no longer hear such announcements. We only read about problems on the pages of newspapers – that Egbin or Kainji power plant has failed. And we hear about this a week or two after it has happened.
“Right now, my area of Idi Araba has not had power in the past one month. Yet, no one knows why. Even when the so-called supply is restored, within 30 minutes it goes off again. Yet, every month, they force us to pay outrageous estimated bills.
“For now, we are used to the fact that nobody tells us what to expect next. Even when they announce that, your radio and television sets are off because we do not have power supply. So how would we hear the news?”
“It is unfortunate that consumers are denied information about the power they consume; that is taking us for granted. The Discos feel that consumer rights don’t need to be enforced. Most times what they tell us are lies formulated to favour them.”
He said it was most annoying that the bills were being handed out by the Discos, not minding how much power poor households were consuming. “Not long ago, I was given an estimated bill of N15,000. So I raced to complain about it and I was serious about it. Days later, some officials of Eko Disco Plc, Isolo Unit, visited my house to see if I was using a stone crusher. They discovered to their surprise that I was using next to nothing to warrant such huge bill. They apologised to me but insisted that I must first pay the bill before anything else could be done and I did. Next month, the bill dropped to N1,500. But two months later it went up to N6,000. When I called Eko Disco headquarter to lodge my complaint, a lady who answered my call showered me with insults.
“We believe that Mr. Fashola himself has sold out; we have seen consistent increases in tariff approved by him and not consistent increases in service delivery. We don’t have prepaid metres; the current metres we have are not being read, yet we receive estimated bills simply because the Discos profit more from the regime.
“This is not good enough for a country fighting corruption. If there is no power, people are not going to work. Everything will be stagnant; corruption will fester. Let this federal government forget about corruption and fix electricity and watch things fall in place,” he fumed.
In the same vein, a man, Kingsley Nsa, regretted that Fashola was not the right man for the job the he was doing at the moment. “He is only a lawyer who does not understand the intricacies of power supply.
“President Muhammadu Buhari should have put a square peg in a square hole and a round peg in a round hole. That is how it ought to be. Now we have a lawyer as minister of power. How do we think that core engineers will work with him? This is the first failure of this government in the areas of power supply.
“Power is a cardinal requirement of Nigerians. With power, small and medium scale enterprises will thrive; growth will be stimulated.
“I’m under Eko Disco; in the past three weeks I have not had power supply. Yet they bring bills to me. They don’t even consider the fact that I haven’t had power supply in the past three weeks.
“In my early days in Lagos, we used to watch various soap operas like Papa Ajasco on television. Then there was hardly any power failure. Even when such failure occurred, within 30 minutes, they restored supply.
“Power was so constant that sometimes, we recorded various programmes we loved on television even when we were not at home to watch it live. That was how I recorded a series of the popular soap opera ‘The Rich Also Cry’ even when I was not at home. Can anyone contemplate that now?”
However, in a released titled “Please bear with us,” the management of Eko Electricity Distribution Plc enumerated some points it said the consumers should note about the power challenge in its own area of jurisdiction. It said: “Incessant acts of vandalism on gas pipelines and transmission lines have forced national generation to drop. The drop in national generation level and reduction in EKEDP’s load allocation has resulted in power rationing with our operational territory.
“The reduction in load allocation from the national grid is not limited to Eko Disco alone; it is a national problem and we are doing everything possible to ensure fair and equitable distribution of available power to all our customers.”
The company added that the situation was being serious addressed, noting that efforts on alternative/off grid power source would soon start yielding fruits.