19th June, 2013
By Tayo Ogunbiyi
Nigerians bear a lot of burden. Perhaps, they could, at best, be referred to as ‘beasts of burden’. In various parts of the country, major highways are becoming impassable. Some Nigerians live in places that do not dignify the human race as recently reflected in a documentary which a major news-based TV station in the country did on some of the satellite settlements in Abuja. Many die avoidable deaths in painful but preventable circumstances. Often, security agents that are paid to protect them inexplicably turn against them. Poor Nigerians! They are virtually short changed on all fronts. Even GSM service providers are not left out in this grand conspiracy to add to their already heavy yoke as they are usually charged for calls they don’t make in a service that has become quite disruptive.
Currently, the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, saddled with the responsibility of providing electricity to homes across the country, is taking undue advantage of the burden bearing capacity of the average Nigerian through its indiscriminately high tariff. In recent time, Nigerians have had to grapple with the weight of PHCN unbelievably soaring bills. Ironically, the current state of power supply across the country remains unsatisfactory. In the particular part of the country where I reside, popularly referred to as ‘New Lagos’, the current position of public electricity leaves much to desire. Yet, officials of PHCN regularly come around with crazy bills and with sheer impunity and arrogance threatening fire and brimstone if you dare argue with them.
Many people have come to believe that the bills that most electricity consumers in the country are confronted with are based on estimation (as opposed to charges on actual power consumed), leading to haphazard figures posted on the bills served on monthly basis. Most consumers are at a loss in respect of the actual understanding of the workings of the PHCN as far as billings are concerned. In recent times, electricity consumers in residential buildings had bills as high as over N24,900, excluding VAT, slammed on them in a month. Considering the irregular nature of power in the country in addition to the fact that most consumers still spend enormous amount of money to power and maintain their respective generating sets on a monthly basis, the current billing pattern of PHCN is difficult to understand.
To underscore the erratic nature of the current PHCN billing system, a friend recently revealed that a particular apartment that was locked up for three months in his neighborhood, with no occupants within same period and invariably no consumption of power, regularly received crazy bills from PHCN for the three months it was abdicated! The marketers of PHCN have been fingered to be responsible for the anomaly in the company’s billing system. It is being argued that most PHCN marketers, in a bid to meet their monthly targets simply allot unbelievable figures on consumers’ bills. In most cases, they don’t even bother to pick the readings on the meters before coming up with the so-called bills.
Sometime ago, when PHCN came up with the idea of pre-paid meters, most consumers were relieved that it would help curb the exploitative tendencies of the organisation. This is quite understandable coming from the background of recent experience with GSM operators’ pre-paid billing system which emancipated Nigerians from the grip of comatose NITEL. However, the difficulty in obtaining pre-paid meters has dampened the expectations of Nigerians. It is, indeed, being insinuated in some quarters that the scarcity of pre-paid meters is not unconnected to the grand conspiracy of certain unscrupulous PHCN officials to sabotage the process so that the old, fraudulent order could continue unhindered.
It is quite unfortunate that Nigerians have, over the years, continued to bear the burden of PHCN inefficiency. This is not good enough. Our people have been taken for a ride for too long. If a public corporation like PHCN, which is being funded with tax payers’ money, could continue to milk the people unchecked, then we have no moral right to complain when some third rated firms from foreign countries short change us through the provision of poor services and fake products.
For years, successive governments in the country have failed to decisively tackle the rot in the power sector despite investing huge amount of money as intervention fund for the sector. Late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, in January 14, 2008, disclosed that Nigerian spent a massive sum of $10 billion on the power sector between 1999 and 2007 without any corresponding stability in the power situation. Consumers have continued to pay for services not enjoyed. Despite its transformation from National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) into Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) with added establishment of 18 companies consisting six generation companies, one transmission company and 11 distribution companies, constant power supply has continued to be a mirage across the country. Yet, less endowed countries in the West African sub-region have been able to overcome their power challenge.
Appropriate government agencies should look into the current PHCN billing trend with a view to saving the people from the perceived fraudulent activities of some PHCN officials. It is bad enough that power is not yet stable in the country. It is, however, unacceptable that the people should continue to pay for services not rendered. The time is ripe for the billing mechanism of PHCN to be properly reviewed in order to redress all its inherent lopsidedness and the attendant fraud. Efforts should be made to seriously scrutinise the activities of the so-called PHCN marketers who are at the centre of the whole issue. Those that are culpable should be made to face the consequence of their actions.
Equally, there is need for government and other stakeholders in the power sector to explore other sources of power aside from hydropower. Efforts should be made, in this respect, to seek collaboration and cooperation of countries that are already making successful use of alternative power sources.
Perhaps more important, the federal government should step up its restructuring agenda in the power sector. With the enormous human and natural resources at the disposal of the country, stabilizing the power sector should not pose such a great challenge. The centrality of the power sector to the overall performance of the nation’s economy calls for a more robust approach in tackling challenges associated with the sector.
•Ogunbiyi is of the Features Unit, Ministry of Information and Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.