Metering Dark Light: In Southern Nigeria, Electricity Remains A Challenge Years After Privatization (Part 1)

In Breaking News, Crime, National News, Reports

By Agba Jalingo and Jonathan Ugbal

Years after Nigeria privatized its power sector, the ghost of its corrupt past has continued to haunt consumers in South – South Nigeria. Despite repeated warnings, commitments and investments, Nigerians are yet to see improvement in the supply of electricity.

CrossRiverWatch spoke to respondents in Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Rivers States where the Port-Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company (PHEDC) is the utility company that distributes power it receives from the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN), and generated by any of the 6 power generating companies (GenCos).

“I have not seen any improvement from when it was National Electricity Power Authority (NEPA) to Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) which we joked the name affected it so much that it held back power supply to Nigerians and now that it is PHEDC,” Omari Odey, a trader residing in Degema, Rivers State told this Newspaper on phone.

According to Omari, she went from having up to 15 hours of electricity per day in the early 2000s to less than 20 hours a week as of May 2021 – a situation that greatly impacts her salon business.

Her ordeal is not so different from many other residents where the PHEDC is in charge of operations.

A Brief Hi-Story…

The PHEDC is one of the 11 distribution companies created by the Electric Power Sector Reform Act of 2005 which called for the unbundling of the PHCN into a series of 18 successor companies: six GenCos, 11 distribution companies (DisCos), covering the entire country and the TCN which is also owned and controlled by the government despite the sensitivity of the nature of power transmission.

The PHCN ceased to exist from September 30, 2013 following the initiation of the process by the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan when the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) was formed as the independent regulatory body as enshrined in the act.

The PHCN, formed between the late nineties and early 2000s, succeeded NEPA which was formed by decree 24 of April 1, 1972 after the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria which was formed by the colonialists’ Ordinance 15 of 1950.

Expensively Metered Amidst Dark Hope…

Different respondents who spoke to this Newspaper complained about the way public utilities carry out their business especially when it comes to metering, resolving complaints, disconnection and reconnection.

The most reported problem for public utility has been estimated billing. To solve this, prepaid meters were introduced and different payment structures have been used for some years now. But, all have failed in different ways, thereby forcing some people to pay twice for prepaid meters while others pay heavily without justification.

Ene Mazelli, a staff of the University of Uyo who resides along Use Uffot in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, awaits her prepaid meter after paying NGN48,000 for it about a year ago.

“I rented this apartment in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 restrictions and paid for a prepaid meter, but despite moving in sometime in August, I met an old meter and till date despite visiting the PHEDC office three times and calling several times on the phone, I am been told to wait because there are no meters available,” she told this Newspaper.

Despite receiving about 30 hours of electricity per week, she is contemplating other options.

Mrs Ene Mazelli
Mrs. Mazelli… still waiting for her prepaid meter months after paying for it

“My friend paid in February 2021 and got hers almost immediately because according to her, she knew someone and said she will connect me to the person who will help me get my meter. But, I don’t want to lose more money as I am paying between eight and 10 thousand Naira as bills every month,” she said.

Eleanor Nora, a civic space actor residing in Port-Harcourt, Rivers State, is confused as to how fast the units she buys run out.

“I spend NGN6,000 weekly to buy units and only my two refrigerators are connected to the light. I have an inverter which is the source of light for other things like the bulbs. I don’t even know how my neighbours are coping because they don’t have inverters. Before I bought the inverter, it was an average of NGN8,000 every week.

Nora, who stated that her landlord may have bought the meters as she met the prepaid meter when she moved in, said her apartment which is located in an Estate is connected to what she called “federal line” where they enjoy about 23 hours of electricity every day.

Nora; spends over NGN20,000 monthly on public electricity as bill

A story not so different from Eleanor Nora’s is that of Violet Fanseh, a Sexual and Reproductive Health expert based at the Osong Amah Estate in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State.

“We are using a prepaid meter shared amongst the tenants and the Landlord who collects a fixed rate of NGN1,500 from the four of us monthly to purchase units,” Fanseh told this Newspaper.

She said she enjoyed over 15 hours of electricity per day, a sharp contrast from Mrs. Mazelli whose residence is less than five kilometres away at Use Uffot.

The only downtime is when a fuse in the transformer gets blown where they are all made to contribute money to fix – a responsibility of the public utility company- PHEDC.

At the University of Cross River State, UNICROSS (formerly Cross River University of Technology, CRUTECH), a senior lecturer in the faculty of science who did not want to be named but resides at the staff quarters said the residents were not supplied power for over a year due to a faulty transformer which got bad due to the increasing number of houses connected to it by PHEDC officials.

“We had to contribute money to fix the transformer as residents of the quarters since the PHEDC people did not answer us for over 10 months’’.

“When these buildings were erected, the transformer was brought in to cater for the specific number of houses but as people took over the school land and began building, they paid monies to PHEDC who came and connected them to our transformer and it kept getting faulty,” the senior lecturer said.

Sharp Estimated Billing…

Five respondents in Akwa Ibom, Cross River and Rivers States who still use the post-paid meters said they keep wondering how the PHEDC calculates their energy consumption.

Mrs. Mazelli in Uyo said: “My old meter is inside the house and the compound is fenced with a gate, but since I moved in, no one has come to check the meter for any reading, yet I see a piece of paper every month as a bill.”

For the senior lecturer at UNICROSS, “The meter is inside the garage and I cannot recall the last time my children or I opened it to them to rake a reading.”

The same complaint was for another Professor in the Faculty of science at UNICROSS and Mrs. Elizabeth Akpong at the University of Calabar staff quarters.

Mrs. Odey in Degema said she usually returns from her saloon to see the bill stuffed at the door while her meter is in the room she keeps the generator which remains under lock excluding when it is been turned on or off or serviced.

Devil In The Details – Dealing With Ignorance…

Most of those interviewed for this report admitted knowing that the federal government had increased electricity tariff, they also admitted knowing the government said those who have not been given prepaid meters should not be billed.

But, all said they never knew how much a unit of electricity costs and said they never bothered going through all the tiny numbers in their bill.

For instance, two visits to the UNICROSS staff quarters revealed that the readings printed on two bills were entirely different from what was on the post-paid meter’s screen.

For instance, the reading as at June 19, 2021 of one house was 17,046.03 kWh meanwhile, the bill for February 2021 which the reading was taken on March 1, 2021 as stated therein showed the consumption reading as at that date as 94,051.00 kWh.

More shocking was the fact that the previous reading was also 94,051.00 kWh and the units billed were 130.00.

The bill for a particular month is issued the next month and due on the 15th day of that next month.

For instance, the reading for your May 2021 bill is taken on June 1, 2021 and the bill prepaid and sent to you within a week which you are supposed to pay by the 15th of June.

The photographs taken of the bills and the meter reading cannot be shared as insiders in the electricity sector have advised that there are so many numbers and alphanumeric codes that can be used to track the exact household.

For January 2021 in that same house, the reading taken on February 1, 2021 was consistent with what was taken on March 1, 2021 which was 94,051.00 kWh. The previous reading taken on January 1, 2021 according to that January bill was 93,945.00 kWh.

But, the December 2020 bill whose reading was supposedly taken on January 1, 2021 said the reading was 93,981.00 kWh – a difference of 35 units which at the rate of NGN30.23 (before it was increased by NGN2 in April 2021 to NGN32.23 per unit) meant over NGN1,088.28k.

And, despite the reading of December 1, 2020 as per the December 2020 bill issued in January 2021 showing a total overall consumption of 93,881.00 kWh, the current reading shown on the November 2020 bill issued in December was 16,035.82 kWh – a difference of 77,845.18 units.

This means that the PHEDC added nearly 78,000 unit reading to that meter despite its current reading being 17,046.03 kWh.

In a nearby house, still located within the Calabar – Amika Urban axis, the reading as at June 19, 2021 at the post-paid meter was 94,639.08 kWh while the reading in the May 2021 bill was just 100.00 kWh. The previous and current readings in the bills issued remained the same 100.00 kWh from September 2020 until date. The only exception was the September 2020 bill whose previous reading was 0.00 kWh suggesting that the nearly 3 decades old meter was newly installed.

In this bill, the previous and current reading taken as at May 1, 2021 remained 100.00 kWh meaning no electricity was consumed. But, they were still billed for consuming 217.22 kWh of electricity translating to over NGN7,000 in monetary terms

However, between that time and May, 2021, the household, according to the bills issued, used a whopping 1,437.03 kWh of electricity!

In the August 2020 bill, the reading taken on September 1, 2020 as stated was 93,735.00 kWh. When that is subtracted from the current reading of 94,639.08 kWh, the difference is 904.08 kWh which is 532.95 kWh lesser than the accumulated units in kWh issued to that household.

In monetary terms, the household was charged NGN16, 806 more than they should have been charged assuming the reading as at August 1, 2020 was correct.

The difference was calculated bearing in mind, the difference in the tariff rate that came into effect in April 2021. The units for April and May 2021 were subtracted from the 532.95 kWh and multiplied by the current rate of NGN32.23k. The sum was then added to sum of the balance which was multiplied by the old rate of NGN30.23k.

Unbundling Burdens…

From the early 2000s until now, different protests have rocked the power sector. While the protests caught the attention of the authorities, what made them popular among Nigerians were the different inscriptions on placards, helped by comedians.

NEPA was always mocked as “Never Expect Power Always” amongst others while PHCN was mocked as “Please Hold Candle Now,” among others which reinforce the position of Mrs. Odey stated earlier.

The privatization did not yield the desired results as a weakening economy meant increased costs for the needed infrastructure to generate, transmit and distribute electricity.

“For every one megawatt we want to produce, we spend an average of NGN100,000 million,” Iyadim Amboni, told this Newspaper in an earlier interview on the side-lines of the commissioning of the 3 megawatts diesel fired power plant by the Cross River State Government in Obudu. He was at the time, the Special Adviser on Public Utility to Governor Ben Ayade.

He explained that power infrastructure had become so expensive that setting up plants to generate power at whatever capacity was a job States could not really do due to paucity of funds.

Governor Ayade had also threatened the PHEDC with legal action over a failing distribution infrastructure which caused the death of dozens of football fans at Nyaghasang community in Calabar in 2017.

Several fires in markets, homes and buildings across the three states in the past five years was also blamed on the failing infrastructure, a situation which a staff of the PHEDC who spoke on condition of anonymity after several unsuccessful attempts to speak with the spokesman of the PHEDC, Mr. John Onyii, said was due to the failure on the part of government to fulfil certain terms in privatization agreement.

The Ikom market fire of 2016 was allegedly caused by failed public electricity infrastructure

“There were certain concessions that were made and the government was supposed to provide some things to enable the investors access facilities from banks to be able to replace aging infrastructure. But, a new administration came in and the tone changed! So, you see some people buying transformers and power equipment but, that does little especially if transmission is poor,” the staff who works at the Uyo city office told this Newspaper.

He refused to disclose some of the terms especially as it impacted on the PHEDC but said the greatest problem faced by the Disco was non-payment of electricity bill and its inability to recover old debts.

“There are some people who owe up to half a million and are crying wolf, you bill them NGN10,000 and they come and pay three or four thousand and we are paying for this power, so, how do we do that? As well as pay staff salaries,” he added

Public Vs. Private Power…

Respondents insisted that they will pay bills if there was commensurate supply of electricity from the Discos.

“I buy NGN2,000 worth of fuel and it takes me f or only two days because I turn it on by 7:00PM and off by 11:00PM. If you multiply that by 31 days, we are talking about NGN16,000 or more a month asides the seven, eight or nine thousand I pay every month for public electricity. Sometimes, the bill goes as high as NGN13,000 and we won’t have light for days,” Dr. Ugeh, a resident of Ekpo Abasi in Cross River told this Newspaper.

Mrs. Odey and Mrs. Mazelli shared the same sentiment.

But, a new challenge is usually backlog of debts especially in apartments that are rented.

A Case Of Two Atsu’s…

Jeremiah and Pablo Atsu may have the same surname and both hail from the same Local Government Area in Cross River State, but they are unrelated and live hundreds of kilometres apart in two States.

Jeremiah teaches mathematics in Calabar and says when he moved into his current apartment, the former tenant left a debt of over NGN150,000 which he was forced to pay over time.

Paul Atsu on the other hand, is an administrative staff at We The People Center for Social Studies and Development based in Port-Harcourt.

He said when they moved into the new office, there was a debt of over half a million. Despite complaints, they were asked to pay and at some point, the light was disconnected.

They kept paying NGN5,000 monthly for over a year until early 2019 when it was temporarily restored only for it to be disconnected days later. Paul was not in the office that day and upon his return the next day, the power line officers asked his office to pay a reconnection fee and that was the end of their relationship with the PHEDC as they have resorted to using generators since then.

A similar situation occurred at his branch office in Calabar.

In The Eye Of The Public…

With non-response from the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission, this Newspaper had to resort to other sources for information on some of the challenges mentioned above.

These reporters wrote to the producers of Public Eye, a television program to use comments from the January 3, 2021 episode which focused on the electricity sector and the rights of the consumer. Amongst the guests, was Eyo Ekpo, a former Commissioner in Charge of Licensing, Tariff and Market Rules at the NERC.

Ekpo posited that contrary to the wide held perception that Nigerians only had about 5,000 Megawatts to share, the country produces about 50 to 60,000 Megawatts from backup power plants such as generators, solar power among others. The conundrum according to him, was switching that bulk produced privately to make it public so people enjoy public supply at a cheaper rate.

He blamed the politicians who have made Nigerians feel that electricity was supposed to be free.

“Our leaders, right from independence have always led Nigerians to believe that we will always have quote ‘free light’ or we would have light as we call it at no cost. But, we forget that electricity like telecommunications services is a service that requires bringing together a number of inputs,” he said.

Eyo Ekpo while featured as guest on The Dialogue With Agba Jalingo on Hit FM
Eyo Ekpo… says public electricity cannot be free

He continued: “Nobody gets electricity from the air like oxygen or like water from rain. Even water has to be processed. So, electricity is actually a product of a manufacturing process just like your coca-cola or bread.”

He insisted that Nigerians had to pay for the price of producing electricity if it must be consistently available and explained that unlike other sectors, setting up a grid from generation to transmission and distribution was herculean and takes time.

Furthermore, while justifying the need for consumers to pay their tariffs as at when due, he said the DisCos had their share of the blame as they did not meet some minimum standard in terms of light availability, this leading to a poor consumer attitude towards paying tariff, a situation which meant dwindling revenues as compared to investments on assets leading to non-commitments and buy in from investors and lenders.

His position was re-echoed by Iyadim who recalled that the power plant in Obudu suffered a setback as the PHEDC and the State could not work out how the State will recoup its investments with the Disco refusing to share the bill with the State.

An effort to make residents pay an additional NGN7,000 to whatever was billed them was met with stiff resistance and for months now, the plant has remained dormant.

Corruption Privatized?

The call for the privatization of the power sector actually began in the 70s and 80s when the World Bank insisted on devaluing of currencies and government limited intervention in certain sectors to allow for private sector participation as a condition for lending and funding.

The call for privatization was at its heights in the mid-2000s following continuous reports of corruption in the private sector.

Clearly, privatizing the power sector did not bring about the expected reforms as corruption and inefficiency got worse by the day with the findings above showing that some bills are not necessarily estimated, but concocted.

While there may not have been a major scandal reported recently, a study from 1999 shows that there may be need for strong political will to correct the ills.

From the Independent Power Plant deal between Enron and the Lagos State government in 1999, to the House of Representatives indictment on bribery following its investigation into how $16 billion was allegedly spent in the power sector between 1999 and 2007 without any visible improvement in power supply. This probe indicted public officers but died after a bribe of NGN100 million was brought to the fore. Nothing was heard of the report again.

The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission indicted a member of the House of Representatives and his colleagues over the theft of NGN10 billion public funds meant for rural electrification in 2010 less than a year after it arrested the Chairman of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission and six commissioners in the agency over NGN5 billion fraud in 2009. They were removed from office and charged with 197 counts of fraud involving misappropriating money through fictitious contracts. In 2010, charges were suddenly dropped. No further prosecutions were carried out.

The country’s minister of power was also forced to resign in 2012 after news broke out that companies associated with his business interest were in the bid for public power assets which he was partially responsible for selling which led to the cancellation of the bidding process and by 2015, a probe by the Senate also led to revelations of corruption but nothing happened afterwards.

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