electricity

By Edlyne Anugwom

THE way things are now in the country regarding electricity, one may rightly begin to ask why those who claimed to know unbundled and privatised NEPA. Yes, they may have been driven by good intentions but mind you that public service in Nigeria usually goes with two intentions – the overt intention that is stridently voiced out (public interest) and the covert or subterranean intention which is predictably self-serving but unfortunately drives most actions of public servants and politicians.

With the benefit of hindsight, it is bemusing how on earth we broke up a public monopoly and replaced it with exploitative oligarchs (new owners of energy and electricity firms that literally shared the spoils of NEPA) who are the new wheelers and dealers in the electricity industry in the country. 

The only significant and consistent improvement in electricity over the years seems to be the regular and insatiable upward adjustment in tariffs while customer satisfaction and meeting felt needs in the economy are jettisoned. The outcome – reinforced heartless exploitation of ordinary citizens who willy-nilly must use electricity.

An exploitation that is even more dumbfounding when one realises that these new energy companies(especially the distribution companies or the aptly named DISCOs) have been bailed out more than once by the government using public funds. Meanwhile, these firms are privately owned and managed! But our problem surely goes beyond the DISCOs since even common challenges of electricity provision, including managing the national grid effectively are now dressed in largely mythomaniac garbs that defy both common sense and basic science.

Incidentally, the National Electricity Regulatory Commission, NERC, which should be some form of beacon of hope for electricity consumers has remained a faltering hulk of what it should be ideally. Apart from playing active role in anti-people tariff adjustments, this organisation has not significantly impacted on consumers of electricity in Nigeria. So, one wonders what exactly the mandate of NERC is.

The NERC in line with the Electricity Power Sector Reform, EPSR, Act of 2005 is expected to ensure an efficiently managed electricity supply industry that meets the yearnings of Nigerians (not electricity oligarchs!) for stable, adequate and safe electricity supply. I believe the reader is in a good position to be the judge of how the aspirations have played out in Nigeria. 

Therefore, NERC is charged inter alia with protecting the rights of electricity consumers (a total of about 15 clearly stated rights, most of which are observed in breach and abused by DISCOs on daily basis).

However, the same consumers are held strictly liable for fulfilling all accompanying obligations. Once again as is common in the country, the matter is not the spirit and contents of the laws establishing the NERC but the failure of implementation. It seems obvious that NERC appears often too ready to please the DISCOs to the detriment of consumers.

NERC is an agency that should ideally be guided by the ‘pro bono publico’ principle i.e., for the public good. Thus, while one is impressed with the massive number of orders, regulations, rules, etc., on the website of NERC, the agency scores poorly in monitoring and implementation, especially with regards to the DISCOs.

NERC and other consumer protection agencies should wake up to the fact that a lot of what Nigerians spend on electricity in terms of payments of various guises to electricity distribution companies are neither legitimate nor justifiable. The above is possibly worse in the South-East of the country.

NERC, in this part of the country, appears largely comatose, totally irresponsive, and insensitive to the plight of consumers. As a result, there are many infractions and glaring cases of exploitation and there is hardly reprieve from NERC. Expectedly, the laid down process of even attempting to seek redress through NERC is as frustrating as it is time-consuming.

The above simply means that consumers most times grudgingly part with their hard-earned money rather than bruise their knuckles on the hard to open doors of NERC. The electricity distribution company in the South-East is perhaps the most corrupt and perfidious organisation I have encountered in Nigeria in recent times.

Incidentally, the company is reportedly owned by people of Igbo extraction and the staff are mostly people from the South-East. So, the activities of the organisation are unwholesome and driven by the greed of both staff and owners. 

It is thus a good example of one in so many other cases that make our penchant for externalising the failures of our public institutions in this part of the country self-serving and deceitful. The distribution company is neither owned by the Hausa-Fulani nor the Yoruba, yet it has emerged as a huge rent-seeking and avaricious organisation preying on helpless and hapless consumers. 

The way it functions, there is reasonable grounds to suspect that those in charge are neither aware of extant regulations nor conventions on electricity distribution. Perhaps, the primitive lure for lucre and service racketeering have numbed their sensibilities. From the high cost of acquiring pre-paid meters, collusion with dubious landlords (the South-East, especially Enugu, harbours some of the meanest and irresponsible landlords you can meet anywhere in the developing world) to imposition of imaginary tariffs and costs on consumers the organisation reflects a humongous edifice on how not to serve. Thus, the degree of malversation in this organisation is really bewildering!

But this organisation is one as already mentioned of the many instances in which South-Easterners have emerged as their own worst enemies. While there is no gainsaying the need to confront structural inequalities at the centre of the federation, there is also need for good charity to begin at home.

Ranging from the price of foodstuff in the market to the price of fuel in service stations, the South-East has established itself overtime as the apogee of self-destructive greed and ruinous exploitation. I have written this piece based largely on recent experience and interactions with the electricity distribution company and even NERC in the South-East, even though it would smirk of bad faith to provide specific details in a medium like this.

Probably, other organisations may be doing a better job of responding transparently to the needs of electricity consumers elsewhere in the federation. But down here in the Eastern ‘backwaters’ of Nigeria we surely need help. 

In electricity access, the South-East has been effectively ghettoised by its own distribution company. Perhaps, the perfidy and odious exploitation we confront in accessing electricity is some form of penance for enjoying a four-day working week here. Like they say, you cannot have it all.  

Prof. Anugwom teaches in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Nigeria, Nsukka.

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