or decades, Nigerians have been under a heavy yoke brought upon them by the inefficiency and epileptic power supply to homes, offices, schools, markets and manufacturing concerns.
The defunct National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) and its successor company, Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), were notorious for their poor service delivery. Their trademark was power outage and estimated billings due to the absence of a proper metering system.
Like a typical monopoly, NEPA operated with so much arrogance and disdain towards its customers. Its officials never bothered about the feelings of the public because they felt Nigerians had no choice.
Then came the Power Sector Reform Act, which saw the unbundling of the sector and the privatisation of electricity generating companies (GENCOs) as well as the electricity distribution companies (DISCOs), presumably to put things right.
Years after the privatisation of these firms, it has become obvious that nothing has changed. The services of these private firms have remained poor and bills have even become crazier.
It is in this light that the recent effort by the House of Representatives to criminalise the estimated billing system operated by the electricity distribution companies has become imperative. A bill to amend the Electricity Power Sector Reform Act 2005 to prohibit and criminalise estimated billing by electricity distribution companies, as well as provide for compulsory installation of pre-paid meters to consumers, is currently under consideration at the lower chamber of the National Assembly. The bill was first introduced in the Eighth Assembly and passed, but was not assented to before that legislative session elapsed.
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rt. Hon. Femi Gbajabiamila, who led a debate on the bill, described the estimated billing system operated by the electricity distribution companies as the biggest fraud ever in Nigeria.
Gbajabiamila argued that the estimated billing system is not supported by any scientific or arithmetic calculation, but was borne out of arbitrary allocation of figures.
We cannot agree less with him because how else would a customer be billed for a period in which there was no power supply to his home. It is doubtful if there is any other country in the world where citizens would be paying bills for electricity not delivered to them. It is akin to paying for light while living in darkness. This is sheer fraud and must stop.
There have been several attempts to get the DISCOs to install pre-paid meters for electricity consumers, but sadly these efforts have been largely frustrated by operators in the power sector.
First was the excuse that meters were not produced locally and have to be imported at a huge cost. The DISCOs made sure that the cost of procuring these meters was borne by electricity consumers and even, at that, they created an artificial scarcity around it.
Even when the World Bank came to the rescue, the DISCOs created meter rackets, run by some unscrupulous officials whose goal was to rip poor customers off. The general experience is that the DISCOs are usually not interested in installing these pre-paid meters because they prefer the arbitrary billing system, which enables them get huge sums of money for electricity not supplied.
We recall that there have been several protests by consumers of electricity across Nigeria over the vexed issue of estimated billing. Some of these protests have largely been peaceful, while many degenerated into violence. As it stands now, the marketers who work with these DISCOs and whose responsibility it is to share estimated bills every month are at great risk.
We insist that instituting an appropriate modern metering system should be compulsory and the DISCOs, who ultimately would claim the equipment, should bear the cost.
Nigerians are running out of patience over this issue and it is only a matter of time before the clashes between the agents of the electricity distribution companies and their embattled clients would begin to record fatalities.
We urge the House of Representatives to expedite action on the legislation criminalising the estimated billing system.
It is also our hope that the Senate would follow in the footsteps of the lower chamber, just as we urge President Muhammadu Buhari not to withhold his assent from this bill this time.
We are convinced that abolishing the fraudulent billing system and prescribing appropriate sanctions for defaulters would compel the DISCOs to be alive to their responsibilities. When they are aware that they can only collect revenues on the exact power they supply to their customers, they would be more willing to invest, not only on procuring and installing pre-paid meters, but would also work hard to improve on electricity supply.