The passage by the House of Representatives last week of a bill criminalising “Estimated Billing” is a landmark legislative intervention in the country’s troubled power sector. The envisaged law is expected to deliver longsuffering Nigerian electricity consumers from the tyranny of ruthless and dodgy power firms that are evidently only interested in profiteering without adding value to their services. With this groundbreaking development, all that is left to complete the process is for the document to be transmitted to the Senate for concurrence and, thereafter, to the President for assent.
Essentially, the Electricity Power Reform Act (Amendment Bill) 2018 will make it a crime for power distribution firms to persist in their depraved and scandalous practice of foisting on Nigerians “crazy” bills based on guesstimates and arbitrariness. It will also be contrary to the law for DisCos to disconnect a customer who has not been provided a meter after 30 days of duly applying for it; refusing to meter customers is not only disgusting and primitive, it is criminal. Different fines and prison terms have been spelt out for failure to comply with the provisions of the new law, including a one-year jail term and N1 million fine for defaulters.
Estimated billing ensures that electricity consumers are deliberately left unmetered so that, at monthly intervals, they can be slapped with outrageous bills that have no bearing whatsoever on the quality or quantity of electricity supplied or consumed. This state-sanctioned fraud has managed to survive over the years due, in the main, to weak regulation, as the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission has found it difficult to curb the excesses of the DisCos.
Rather, the regulatory authority that should guarantee the interest of power consumers has bent over backward to accommodate the shortcomings of investors that, in the first place, had neither the wherewithal nor the know-how to wrought positive changes in the sector, the fundamental reason for embarking on the power privatisation in the first place. Deadlines set by NERC for the provision of prepaid meters have been blatantly flouted with no consequences. Until recently, the investors also had the unalloyed support of the Minister of Power, Work and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, who, at a time, blamed practically every ill in the sector on customers’ refusal to pay their arbitrary bills.
Figures from the Nigerian Electricity Management Services put the metering gap in the country at 5,323,433 from a customer base of 8,914,601. This means that only 3,591,168 customers have been supplied with prepaid meters since the ownership of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria changed hands in 2013. Rather than add value to an appalling power situation they inherited, they have only succeeded in inflicting pains on Nigerians. The economy of the country that could have ramped up with an improved power supply has remained prostrate, while the effect on the wellbeing of the citizenry has been devastating. Even when they claim that power generation has improved from the over 5,000 megawatts that they met to about 7,500MW now, it has not translated into a steady supply of electricity.
Many have wondered why firms that are notoriously inefficient should be so prolific in contriving dubious bills for consumers. Even when, for weeks or months, there is no electricity supply, it does not change the billing situation. A classic example is that of the House Speaker, Yakubu Dogara, who told his colleagues how his house in Bauchi, which had no occupant, was receiving a monthly bill of N80,000. The practice of estimated billing is so controversial and deceitful that even when customers are disconnected, the bills keep running. If customers travel out of town, upon return, the bills, sometimes even higher, will be waiting.
This is why the perspective of Femi Gbajabiamila, the Majority Leader of the House, who sponsored the bill, is so critical. He argued, “Any regulation that allows estimation of bills when the actual consumption can be ascertained is against natural justice and equity and should not stand.” It still remains to be seen if, with the new law, a set of firms that are used to getting away with all manner of sharp practices, will now start playing by the rules, if the law is not followed with strict enforcement.
According to the performance agreement signed when the private investors took over the power firms, within the first five years, customers were to be provided with prepaid meters to ensure that they had access only to what they paid for, just as telecommunications services are available only to those who pay. But five years after, very few metering has taken place. Instead, the debate has been ingeniously shifted to the need for “cost-reflective tariff.” The question however arises, how can cost-reflective tariff be determined if not by providing meters?
It is quite baffling that it has taken this long to give legal consideration a thought on this matter. It is also interesting that the metering of customers is being decentralised to allow other companies to participate. Perhaps the two initiatives will speed up the provision of meters. According to Fashola, over 180 companies had signified interest in participating in meter manufacturing and distribution. “…We are going to license them too as meter asset providers in the value chain of power suppliers,” he said.
In South Africa, for instance, access to metering is made very easy. In fact, it is not only limited to electricity but is extended to water. Recharging is also made easy as a customer could walk into any public place and have the meter recharged, just the way mobile telephone lines are recharged. Similarly, in Ghana, the Electricity Company of Ghana Limited’s adoption of prepayment meters has been described as a success story in revenue collection.
An official of the company was quoted recently as saying, “The prepaid metering system encourages and supports consumers to be more receptive to energy conservation practices, which leads to savings.” If the power firms in Nigeria have no motives of corruptly enriching themselves, prepaid metering is something to embrace wholeheartedly to ease revenue collection challenges.