By Dele Sobowale
“An organization has no pants [trousers] to kick and no soul to damn. And by God, it should have both” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, 1841-1935, Vanguard Book of Quotations, VBQ, P. 179.
US Supreme Court Justice Holmes made that statement when judging another case before him involving a giant company which swindled and terrorised its customers in full confidence that none could strike back – until one was a final year law student who sued the company.
Nigeria is full of business organisations which victimise their staff, neighbours, suppliers, contractors and, especially, customers. They get away with such because people are too scared to speak out.
When the former President, Goodluck Jonathan, administration privatised the power sector most of us were extremely happy – believing that the private sector would do better than “NEPA”. The Distribution Companies, aka, DisCos, have proved us wrong.
When General Babangida asked why the Structural Adjustment Programme, SAP, which worked wonders in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, failed in Nigeria, my reply to him in 1990 was simple.
“The Nigerian Factor! Economic principles are based on the assumption that the people are reasonable. The vast majority of Nigerians, including business executives, are unreasonable.”
Today, it is safe to state that Jonathan handed our power sector to individuals just as bad as public servants working for NEPA. DisCos have once again proved that principles which work elsewhere fail here because we are Nigerians.
Dairy of a serial victim of DisCos
“The customer is king”; an axiom of marketing companies worldwide.
The reader must understand that I write from documented and objective experience – not emotions. I am naturally quantitative as an economist. Like late Papa Awolowo, I keep meticulous records – cheque books for ten years and “NEPA” bills for about fifteen years are around somewhere. Not from me statements like “they are useless”, I will present facts to indict them.
Furthermore, directly or indirectly, I am responsible for paying five (5) DisCos – three South and two North.
So, I have more than a narrow view of their operations. For Nigerian DisCos, the customer is a cow tied down by the Federal Government to be milked without restraint. They now illegally extort money from badly-serviced customers without any pang of conscience.
From my observations, the FG will need to step in before fuel subsidy removal in order to prevent large scale violence against the staff of DisCos.
Nigerians have had enough. No other business is allowed to charge customers arbitrarily and get away with it as DisCos have been doing. This has got to end.
Why Lagos DisCos?
Two reasons account for selecting Lagos Distribution Companies. First, a major culprit is DisCos in Lagos State – so called Centre of Excellence. Several blue chip companies and multi-national organisations are resident here.
We should receive the best possible service of any place in Nigeria. Second, on the average, Lagosians are more enlightened than other Nigerians. Yet we have allowed ourselves to continuously lose billions of Naira every month to estimated billing. Crazy bills, sent out by DisCos, endured by us, constitute a violation of the basis of honest commercial transactions.
Every financial transaction in a civilised country expects the seller to prove beyond doubt the quantity of measurable goods sold and at what price per unit. The customer is expected also to pay fully for the goods bought.
The Nigerian Government, before and after the creation of DisCos, has created one group of suppliers who can charge customers for any volume of power, presumed consumed, as they want without proof. The DisCos have not been slow to take advantage. Another definition of legalised robbery will be difficult to imagine. Yet, this is the power that has been bestowed on Nigerian DisCos.
There is a method in the madness
“There is a pleasure in being mad which none but madmen know.” – Saul Bellow, VBQ, p. 147.
There is a great deal of profit in sending “crazy bills, which the senders and the FG know too well.
It will be difficult to believe that the FG which gave birth to DisCos, and established a toothless agency to mediate between the millions of cheated customers and the DisCos, was not aware that they were setting up catch-weight contests in which each individual customer faces a giant company – with all his rights to fairness removed. The FG knows it; the DisCos also know it. So, they exploit the situation to the fullest.
To begin with, there is no such thing as a “crazy bill”. We dignify fraudulent bills by calling them “crazy” – as if a computer or a staff of the DisCo goes haywire and sends bills in error. The truth is more shocking.
In every billing unit, a few clear-eyed and absolutely sane individuals sit and determine how much each of us will be charged. Almost all the time, it has nothing to do with how much we actually consumed. Here is how the swindle works.
At the end of the month, each DisCo receives a bill from the Generating Units for the megawatts of power supplied to it. The DisCo allocates the total amount to each of its operating units.
Each unit deducts from the total all payments received from prepaid meters. The balance is then distributed among those without prepaid meters. The consumption figure recorded on every customer’s bill has no basis in reality; it is just assigned in order to distribute the charges arbitrarily to consumers and to pursue fictitious claims. Below are some of the methods adopted by DisCos to deliberately cheat customers.
A. Exceeding the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, NERC, approved maximum charges.
Even the guidelines, the maximum consumption approved for consumers in each unit by NERC are disregarded if it pleases the officials of the DisCos. Thus, in December, a three bedroom bungalow, with four residents – three working and one baby – received a bill for consuming 1144KWH.
That was 184KWH more than the maximum 960KWH approved for the area. The bill was N36,969.65. Even the 960KWH represents the maximum; not the mandatory charge. The biggest building in the same area is a four-storey residential tower with 42 rooms and over 240 residents.
That unit should attract the maximum 960KWH charge. No honest business person can argue that the bungalow and the biggest building should be charged for 960KWH – let alone billing one for 1144KWH of power consumed.
B. Charges made without stating units consumed.
Furthermore, August bill for the bungalow was N11,423.85 – without stating the consumption. This is akin to a customer going to a filling station; and being asked to pay N11,000 without telling the customer how many litres amounted to N11,000.
The stunt – charges without disclosing units consumed — was again repeated in September – when a bill for N14,639.45 was presented.
C. Unsubstantiated claims for arrears.
In March last year, a customer who has paid his bills fully, suddenly received a demand for payment of arrears for N22,624.60. Letters sent to the Customer Service Manager and copied to the Managing Director have not been acknowledged; not to talk of taking action.
The protest letter accused the DisCos of fraudulent billing. It is doubtful if any CEO of any other company will allow his company to be branded that way and fail to take action. Only a DisCo MD can ignore such a charge.
We have in Nigeria today an important sector which is not serving us at all.
It is better to admit that privatisation has failed in this sector.