In what appeared to be a drama, residents of Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, have protested against the 24-hour supply of electricity to their communities. For them, constant electricity supply has increased the amount they pay for electricity, led to ‘outrageous billings’ and invariably ridiculous, as they called for a reversal to the 12-hour electricity supply they previously enjoyed.
The issue of electricity supply is a big deal in our country. There is hardly anything that can be done without power. Not only is everything boring when there is power failure, business activities are almost at a standstill when there is no access to electricity supply. The burden of the people is worsened not only because there is erratic power supply but because they are made to pay for what they did not use. This is simply exploitation.
It is for these reasons that the House of Representatives of the National Assembly is seeking to criminalise estimated billing system of the Electricity Distribution Companies (DISCOs). The legislation is meant to alleviate the burden on electricity consumers in a country where the plight of power end-users is hardly taken seriously or considered necessary by regulatory authorities. It is not only electricity supply that the average Nigerian is shortchanged. Mention it; recharge voucher purchase, domestic gas and even basic essentials of life that we all get in the open market, is prohibitive. It is one form of exploitation or another.
In practical terms, the bill seeks to amend the Electricity Power Sector Reforms Act 2004 in order to outlaw estimated billing by giving penalties for DISCOs that fail to supply prepaid meters to their consumers within 30 days of applying to be connected to power. No doubt, a lot of complaints against estimated billing have been raised by electricity consumers across the country with the result that virtually all electricity consumers are faced with outrageous bills for electricity that they did not consume. The culture of arbitrary charge and estimated billing, which amounts to corrupt practice, which had been condoned and tolerated for too long in our public life, should no longer have a place.
Many citizens are frustrated that despite the sale of national assets to private businesses, electricity supply and other social services in the country appear to be highly erratic and going from ridiculous state to almost non-existent. To make matters worse, the people are heavily billed for electricity that is never supplied. That is what they are used to getting. The government is not doing enough to punish erring electricity distribution companies for their inability to live up to the expected standards of improving energy distribution companies. On their part, energy providers are complaining of poor returns on investment and that, after investing billions of naira to buy the outfits, they are neither able to do as much as they would want, nor be able to generate as much as they should on their huge investments in the country.
The nation’s erratic electricity supply has lingered on for decades, despite the huge resources allegedly invested; the situation has really not improved significantly as we were told. Poor electricity supply has also driven up the cost of production, created uncertainty in the future of most businesses, led to unsustainable level of production and inevitable high cost of finished goods and services. It is unfortunate that many years after the privatisation programme, the power sector is still mired in debilitating challenges, ranging from poor liquidity, inefficient distribution line and weak transmission line, among others.
A few challenges are worthy of mention now. The main actor, Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN), is said to be greatly hampered by high non-technical losses and low infrastructure coverage of the country with less than 40 per cent of the nation actually covered by the existing transmission infrastructure. TCN has, at many instances, suffered stranded generation such that the improvement of its operational performance and efficiency remains fundamental to the attainment of stable and reliable power. Furthermore, the defunct Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) gas debt is still pending on the Discos while the cost-reflective tariff is still a big problem. On their own part, Discos had promised to deliver over 1.8 million pre-paid meters to consumers, ensure an improvement of service delivery, extend the distribution network and scale down power interruptions, but none of these promises had happened several years later.
As a way forward, there is the need to deal with the situation within the framework of the proposed law and liberalise the production of meters such that different companies would be encouraged to get involved in the production of meters. There should be no room for the people to return to the old exploitative way of procuring meters. It is hoped that the people would be able to get value for their money and not be exploited all in the name of providing uninterrupted power supply. Afterall, the people can always cry out when nobody is listening to them even when you give them Greek gifts. That is simply the take-home from the Maiduguri protest.