In what appeared like a drama, residents of Maiduguri, the Borno State capital, recently protested against a 24-hour supply of electricity to their communities. For them, rather than rejoicing, the constant electricity supply has increased the amount they pay for electricity and has led to ridiculous and “outrageous billings”, as they called for a reversal to the 12-hour electricity supply they had previously enjoyed.
The issue of electricity supply is a big deal in our country today. 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.
For those that cannot do without electric power, the next option is to use the generator. There is hardly any household in Nigeria that does not have at least, one generating set or another, as an alternative energy source. The burden of the people is worsened not only with the erratic power supply but because they are made to pay for what they did not use. This is simply sheer exploitation.
It is for these reasons – to end exploitative electricity billings – that the House of Representatives is seeking to criminalise estimated billing system by the Electricity Distribution Companies. This forms part of the oversight function of the National Assembly. The legislation, being sponsored by the Reps, 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, fuelling, domestic gas and even basic essentials of life that we all get in the open market. It is one form of exploitation or another in which the people keep stomaching such unjust practices.
In practical terms, the bill by the legislators 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. Estimate billing is done to give speculative recording of the electricity used within a period of time. No doubt, a lot of complaints against estimated billing have been raised by electricity consumers across the country with the result that virtually all the electricity consumers are faced with outrageous bills for electricity that they did not consume in the first place. The culture of arbitrary charge and estimated billing, which amounts to corrupt practice had been condoned and tolerated for too long in our public life and should no longer be allowed.
In line with global practice, government’s investment in business ventures are either privatised or managed on public-private partnership basis. 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 to almost non-existent level. The government seems not to be doing enough to punish erring electricity distribution companies for their inability to live up to the expected standards of improving energy distribution companies in relation to monies spent by the consumers. 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 unable to do as much as they would want to, nor generate as much revenue as they should on their huge investments in the country.
The nation’s erratic electricity supply has lingered on for decades, despite the colossal resources allegedly invested; the situation has really not improved significantly as we were told. Poor electricity supply has driven up the cost of manufacturing and production, created uncertainty in the future of most businesses, led to unsustainable level of output 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 main actor in the electricity production, the Transmission Company of Nigeria, is said to be hampered by factors such as 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 gas debt is pending on the Discos while the cost-reflective tariff is still a big problem. On their own part, the Discos have promised to deliver over 1.8 million pre-paid meters to consumers, ensure an improvement in service delivery, extend the distribution network and scale down power interruptions, but none of these promises had been achieved after several years.
Epileptic supply of electricity has remained a national embarrassment. Despite the huge investment and the appointment of prominent Nigerians to oversee power matters, not much succour has come the way of the nation. It is widely believed that certain interests that are benefitting from the pitiable state of electricity supply could be undermining genuine efforts at revamping the energy sector. Therefore, there is need to restrategise on how to turn around things for the better by crushing the cabals that are working against regular public supply of electricity. It is saddening that smaller African countries like Ghana enjoy better electricity supply than Nigeria.
As a way forward, there is the need to deal with the situation within the framework of the proposed law by the National Assembly and liberalise the production of meters such that different companies would be empowered 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. Policies that are hindering effective private participation should be set aside while genuine investors should be encouraged to come in. More importantly, the government should show the necessary political-will to make things work, just like in other countries that can take regular supply of electricity for granted. Afterall, the people are not afraid to cry out when nobody is listening to them even when you give them Greek gifts such as the one that spurred the Maiduguri protest.
. Kupoluyi writes from Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta and can be reached via: [email protected], @AdewaleKupoluyi.