By Cyril Omote
NIGERIANS are desirous of a growth in the power sector. Such growth or progression, hopefully, is to be predicated on regular power supply, eradication of estimated billing through the provision of meters to all customers and efficient service delivery by the distribution companies (Discos) who are at the end of the power sector value chain.
Observers are quick to point out that such growth coming from a background with an order of magnitude of deficiency and inefficiency in the power sector caused by historical neglect, will require an associated order of magnitude of investment, commitment, focus, and patience, for its turnaround.
Efficient electricity market is and continues to be a defined outcome of the power sector reform effort. The elimination of estimated billing, largely, is one of the expected outcomes for an efficient market. However, attainment of this efficiency is also predicated on other factors such as appropriate electricity pricing, increased generation, efficient regulation, forex availability, consistency of regulation and policy-making and implementation, favourable lending terms, and the reduction or absence of electricity theft that, unfortunately, have been the albatross of the sector till date.
Good a thing the Muhammad Buhari-led administration has made the eradication of corruption in all facets of national life one of its cardinal focus. Analysts believe that corruption is not limited to financial crimes alone, as we have the siege in many facets of national life where people contravene the normal legal convention and shortcuts the benefits of many entities or people for few individuals such as energy theft. Therefore there is no gainsaying that electricity line disruption and stealing should be considered economic crimes in Nigeria, hence under the scope of operations of the anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC.
Little wonder then that recently the EFCC was reported to have begun the investigation into alleged collusion by some electricity distribution firms’ workers, consumers and meter manufacturing companies to steal electricity by bypassing the meter. It would be recalled that Nigeria’s Minister of Power, Works andHousing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, recently pointed out electricity distribution companies in the country are facing technical and commercial losses running at 75 per cent in some areas. Hence, making the sector not attractive to potential investors.
Electricity theft can be defined as the illegal use of electricity service with the intention to avoid billing charge. It is a problem for the electricity supply industry in many countries with huge consequences in loss of revenue and danger to life and property. In developed countries, it appears to be more controlled which is evident in low levels of non-technical losses.
The deliberate stealing of electricity is widespread and happens through various schemes, including direct connection to the overhead low tension distribution cables, bypassing the meter so that only a small load is connected to it while the rest are connected directly to the supply behind the meter or tampering with the meter to make its reading inaccurate.
The deliberate stealing of electricity is more often than not aided and abetted by experienced (current or past) technicians who understand how the systems work. Executive Director, Research and Advocacy, Association of Nigeria Electricity Distributors, ANED, Mr. Sunday Oduntan, disclosed at a recent programme in Port Harcourt that the body has carried out a research on energy theft in the country and the result was disheartening. “One major challenge is the low level of power available for Nigerians, even the little that is available is stolen by consumers.
“We have done a research that shows that 47per cent of installed prepaid meters are by-passed within the first four weeks of installation by the customers. Which means we have so many energy thieves in our country.”
There is an existing federal legislation that prescribes a 21-year jail term for energy theft offenders. The law is now being replicated at the state level as states are expected to pass the law for implementation. The evil thing about energy theft is that those not involved are indirectly paying for those involved, hence the need for all and sundry to fight the cankerworm. If there is no energy theft the efficiency desired from power service providers will be achieved.
It is, therefore, salutary that the regulatory agency in the power sector, Nigeria Electricity Regulatory Commission, NERC, has presented a bill to the Senate seeking a seven-year jail term for electricity theft. The bill is entitled: ‘A Bill for an Act to prohibit and prevent electricity theft, power infrastructure vandalisation and power company protection 2017.’ It was presented by the Chairman, Senate Committee on Power, Steel Development and Metallurgy, Eyinnaya Abaribe. The commission claimed that stealing and sabotage were responsible for between 30 per cent and 35 per cent energy loss in the country.
It frowned on some consumers who it claimed by-passed meters and also vandalise transformers and feeder pillars, among others. “If we fail to act decisively in correcting the ills of the power sector, including public power leakage, the opportunity for the country to recover could be lost,” the commission warned.
In the same vein, worried by the spate of incessant challenges in the power sector manifesting in the form of vandalism of electricity distribution network, equipment and installations, illegal tampering of meters and connections, meter bypass and other forms of electrical theft, Ekiti State government inaugurated the Ekiti State Electricity Regulation Act 2015 that makes vandals in Ekiti State risk a two-year jail term following the inauguration of the Act 2015 by Governor Kayode Fayemi.
The governor who was represented by the Secretary to the State Government, Mr. Biodun Oyebanji said the law was made to protect suppliers and the users of electricity. The customers, he said, have responsibility to BEDC Electricity Plc by ensuring they do not tamper with electrical fittings, meters or vandalize transformers, while the distribution company also have the responsibility of providing efficient power with billing commensurate with power supply.
According to the SSG, the content of the Act seeks to deter illegal and unauthorised use of regulated electricity supply as well as to protect electricity infrastructure. Vandals and those involved in all forms of electrical theft now risk two-year jail term with an option of N2 million fine.
The law also mandates the establishment of electricity committees in all communities in the state to partner with the State Electricity Board in ensuring the prevention of trespass upon or damage to substations, buildings, cable, poles, transformers, electrical installation or premises appertaining to any supply undertaking or otherwise belonging thereto.
The challenge of energy theft is so daunting to the extent that such theft of electricity and associated loss of revenue, may have compelled the Abuja Electricity Distribution Company to acquire and install an Integrated Commercial Management System, InCMS, worth N2.4 million to check repeated theft of electricity by consumers within its network coverage. Besides reducing losses to electricity theft, the automated system according to the Disco was equally expected to improve the service experience of its consumers.
It is high time the wave of curbing energy theft took firm root in Edo State where the service providers, BEDC Electricity Plc., says between 30 and 50 per cent of energy distributed is lost to energy theft. It is, therefore, a timely step by the Edo State House of Assembly which mooted and passed into law the Electricity Theft and Other Related Offences, and Establishment of the Special Offences (Electricity Theft) Court and For Other Purposes Connected thereto.
Tough times await illegal consumers of electricity in the state as the enacted law prohibits energy theft and other related offences and also establish a special offences court to prosecute offenders. It provides that an offender should pay all calculated loss of revenue in addition to being liable for an imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years if convicted by a court and payment of penalty and reconnection fee.
Theft of electricity occurs when a person, staff of electricity service provider or any other persons wilfully and unlawfully without appropriate authority taps, makes or causes to be made any connection with overhead, underground or under water lines or cables or service wires or facilities of the service provider.
“Where it involves damaged or stolen equipment such person shall in addition to being handed over to the police be made to either replace/return or/and pay for the damaged and/or stolen equipment/infrastructures through the effort of the police or judgment of the court when prosecuted” the law stipulates further.
The assembly also legislated for the establishment of a special offences (Electricity Theft) court for the purpose of trying various offences under this law “which shall sit at any convenient place close to the scene of the commission of any offences triable by the court under this law and committed within Edo state.”
“Any person who commits an offence under this law will be brought before the court and the court will have power notwithstanding anything to the contrary in any other enactment to impose any of the penalties provided for under this law” the assembly added.
Listing what constitutes evidence of illegal use of electricity, the Edo lawmakers said the presence of a drilled hole in the glass cover of the electric meter, or at the back or any other part of the meter and the existence of any wiring connection which affects the normal operation or registration of the electronic meter and the presence of a tampered, broken, or fake seal on the meter, or mutilated, altered or tampered meter recording, among others are evidences of illegal use of electricity.
All men of goodwill, including the ebullient Governor, Godwin Obaseki should muster the political will and courage to support the law in spite of outcry by some criminally-minded residents who are illegal consumers of electricity to give the necessary backing required for the law to be activated.
It will be recalled that BEDC had taken some of them including members of the Edo State Civil Society (EDOSCO) to court in Edo state, a case which was brought before a Benin Federal High Court where BEDC took some suspects including EDOSCO members to court in March 2017 for allegedly tampering with electrical fittings, this being a crime punishable under sections 1 (9) & (10) and 3 (6) of the Miscellaneous Offences Act cap M.17 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria (LFN) 2004. The suspects are being tried on charges relating to removal, damage, tampering and interference with electric fitting, meters and other appliances designed to be used for transforming or converting electricity, property of BEDC. The action was taken against the backdrop of overwhelming cases of energy theft through meter bypass and tampering by some members of EDOSCO who use it as a cover up to avoid payment of electricity bill
Critics of the energy theft law who may underscore the metering challenge and estimated billing used by the distribution companies (Discos) should remember that the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) has approved third parties to provide meters for disco customers, while there is an ongoing public consultation across the country being organized by NERC to cap estimated billing.