Crazy Bills, Scarce Meters: Our Ordeal in the Hands of Electricity Companies, Consumers Cry

By The Nigerian Voice

Mr. Emeka Malachi lives in a three-bedroom apartment in Jimoh Balogun, an upscale neighbourhood in the Ketu area of Lagos.

Just a few days to Christmas, Malachi was surprised when he got his electricity bill for the previous month.

He could not contain his annoyance when the figure showed that he owed N15, 000 for the month. Malachi recalled that in that month, the supply of electricity to his neighbourhood was poor.

“I was angry because the bill did not reflect my consumption rate. There was a blackout at some point and I began to wonder how they came about their estimation,” he told SUNDAY PUNCH.

That marked Malachi’s frustration with the Ikeja Electricity Distribution Company which supplies electricity to his area.

The following month, he got another shocker when his bill showed he consumed electricity worth N20,000.

Malachi said he had applied for a prepaid meter from the power firm. At the time, the alternative metering scheme, Credited Advance Payment for Metering Initiative, which allowed customers to pay for meters from their respective DisCos and later be refunded, was in operation.

“It’s one year after I applied but have yet to get the meter. The situation has grown worse as the bills cannot be justified. I have stopped paying the outrageous bill,” he said.

Malachi added that he and his neighbour were initially using a prepaid meter obtained from the IKEDC. He said when his neighbour quit his apartment, he took the prepaid meter away.

According to him, he went to the IKEDC to complain but was told he would be on estimated billing pending the time they would make the prepaid meter available for his apartment.

Since then, Malachi has been at loggerheads with the IKEDC over the post-paid metering system and the overestimated billings.

He said, “Before, my neighbour and I were paying about N4000 monthly for electricity, using the prepaid metering system. But when he went away with the meter, the IKEDC started bringing estimated bills which I was not comfortable with.

“I applied for the prepaid meter, after complaining that I could not be paying for what I didn’t consume. Other people using prepaid meters on my street pay as low as N3,000 monthly. What annoys me most is that they bring a bill of N20,000 monthly despite erratic power supply. This is robbery.”

Gale of frustrations

The frustration expressed by Malachi was also shared by other residents of Ketu, served by the IKEDC.

The residents took turns to share their bitter experiences with the Ikeja Electric which they accused of “swindling them” with its overestimated billings.

One of them is a trader, Mrs. Mary Adeniyi. Adeniyi said she and other residents of her estate had become victims of outrageous billings by the IKEDC for a while.

She said, “They stopped reading my meter and brought outrageous bills of N14,000 for over a year. The marketer simply stopped taking the readings and instead brought estimated bills.

“Ours is a block of four flats. For over three years, we have been on their neck to supply prepaid meters so that we can be billed based on what we consume. Our landlord even went as far as paying N25,000 per flat to obtain it, but there’s no result up till now.”

While Adeniyi continues to endure what she described as unfair treatment, it isn’t any better for Mr. Olayemi Adebanjo, also a customer of Ikeja Electric.

Adebanjo and his four other neighbours, who occupy a block of four flats, rejected the bills allotted to their apartments. For many months, they got an average of N9,000 each as electricity bills for their apartments.

The engineer, who works with a building construction firm, said he was pained that the officials of the electricity firm they complained to, insisted there was nothing they could do about it because “it’s a general problem.”

He said, “How can they tell me it’s a general problem? How can you give me bills of electricity that I never consumed? Am I a fool? No, I can’t continue to be defrauded. I stopped paying and they disconnected our apartment from their line. Since then, I have been using generators to power my building.”

Adebanjo’s plight emphasises the frustration millions of electricity customers in the country go through owing to the failure of the distribution companies to supply prepaid meters to their customers.

Ikeja Electric is not the only DisCo giving customers a headache with its overestimated bills which have attracted criticisms from different quarters.

Nigeria currently has 11 power distribution companies carved out of the defunct Power Holding Company of Nigeria in November 2013.

Abuja Electricity Distribution Company serves the FCT, Niger, Kogi, and Nasarawa, while Benin Electricity Distribution Company covers Edo, Delta, Ondo, and parts of Ekiti.

Eko Electricity Distribution Company and Ikeja Electricity Distribution Company cover Lagos, while Enugu Electricity Distribution Company covers Enugu, Abia, Imo, Anambra and Ebonyi.

The Kaduna Electricity Distribution Company provides electricity for Kaduna, Sokoto, Kebbi and Zamfara while Kano Electricity Distribution Company covers Kano, Jigawa and Katsina.

Ibadan Electricity Distribution Company takes care of Oyo, Ogun, Osun, Kwara and parts of Ekiti, while Jos Electricity Distribution Company serves Plateau, Bauchi, Benue and Gombe.

Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company services Rivers, Cross River, Bayelsa and Akwa Ibom, while Yola Electricity Distribution Company covers Yola, Adamawa, Borno, Taraba and Yobe.

According to the proposals submitted by the core investors in the DisCos during the privatisation of the power firms in November 2013, about 6.52 million new meters are expected to be installed over the course of five years.

Findings by our correspondents showed that four years after the privatisation, many of the DisCos have been unable to meet their metering obligations under the Performance Agreements with the Bureau of Public Enterprise.

Recent data obtained from the Presidential Taskforce on Power showed that an estimated six million registered electricity consumers are in Nigeria, but half of them are not metered and remain on estimated billing.

Exactly four years after the sector was privatised, electricity supply still remains a nightmare in Nigeria where the majority of the citizens are daily subjected to discomfort caused by erratic power supply.

Fraudulent estimated billings

SUNDAY PUNCH gathered that most of the disCos still rely on old methods of estimated billings by engaging in the equal allocation of bills to their consumers using the same feeder.

This billing process is usually done without recourse to the nature of the building occupied by each customer and the number of appliances or loads that consume electricity in such apartments.

Copies of bills shown to our correspondent showed that while a bill of N15,000 per month was given to an electricity consumer who lives in a mini-flat apartment, other consumers on the same premises who occupy a three-bedroom apartment pay the same amount for the same period.

“The current billing methodology prescribes an avenue for overestimated billing. The DisCos have noticed loopholes in the system and have capitalised on it. They call it community billing which implies that they measure all the power they supply to an area. That alone is fraudulent. One, there is nowhere in the Electric Power Sector Reform Act that says a community can be billed from a transformer,” said the Founder of Power Up Nigeria, an electricity consumer rights advocacy organisation, Mr. Adetayo Adegbemile.

According to Mr. Tola Jaiyeola, who lives in Magboro area of Ogun, electricity distribution companies are taking advantage of consumers by claiming they don’t have meters.

Jaiyeola lives in a three-bedroom apartment and gets a bill of N17, 500 a month from the Ibadan Electricity Distribution Company, which serves his area.

He said, “The bill is too much. Before now, it used to be N4500 monthly. After that, they started bringing a bill of N17,500 per month. We complained that it’s too much. People around us who use prepaid meters from the same company buy N2500 worth of electricity credit for their monthly consumption. The highest of the credit they buy every month is N4,500.

“When I got tired of paying outrageous bills, I applied for the prepaid meter. I was given a form to fill last year but up till now, we have not heard from them.”

According to another customer identified only as Mr. Abidakun, the non-availability of prepaid meter as an excuse for estimated billings is a scam.

Abidakun, who also lives in Magboro, said he does not consume up to one-third of what IBEDC brings every month as electricity bill.

He said, “We usually don’t have regular supply of electricity. Hardly do we get up to 24 hours of electricity supply in a week. I think they make more revenue through estimated billings. We were even told that the meters are available but they refused to give us.

“I applied for a meter for my property in 2013. Till today, nothing has been heard. Every month, they bring estimates. One of the officials told us in confidence that they don’t know what is wrong with their management because the prepaid meters are available.”

Another resident of Magboro, Mr. Emmanuel Madike, did a comparative analysis of his former office in Adeniyi Jones and his new office on Acme Road, Ikeja.

At Adeniyi Jones, Madike said he and four other occupants of his office building paid N4, 000 monthly as electricity bill but when he relocated to Acme Road, Ikeja Electric, gave him a bill of N20, 000 because the office did not have a prepaid meter.

He said, “I went to their office to complain. I went there on several occasions to get the meter but they kept telling me to be patient. They said those available were being given out for industrial use.

“Yet, they kept bringing crazy bills. I told them to disconnect me from their lines and they shouldn’t come to ask me for payment. I bought another generator. When I need to do an important job, I put on the generator. I realised that it is even cheaper for me.”

In other parts of Nigeria, the story isn’t different. In Abuja, electricity consumers like Mr. Idowu Bakare experience same.

Bakare, a civil servant, told SUNDAY PUNCH that his encounter with the Abuja Electric showed that the distribution companies were deliberately defrauding their customers by failing to provide prepaid meters and issuing estimated bills.

Bakare recalled that residents of the TradeMore Estate, Lugbe, in Abuja staged a protest at the office of the Abuja Electric when they got tired of paying crazy bills.

“How I got to know that these DisCos won’t do what is right except they are compelled to do so is that after the protest, they reduced their estimated bills from N14, 000 to N6, 000. If we didn’t protest, they would have continued to grow fat on our money.

“We went a step further and insisted that we needed to get our meters. We even paid for meters and there is no reason for them to do estimated bills again. After much pressure, the officials installed meters and we no longer complain.”

Protests everywhere

Like their counterparts in other states, electricity consumers served by the Benin Electricity Distribution Company are groaning under the weight of estimated billings.

A resident of Ado Ekiti, Ekiti State, Mr. Bola Oluwole, said when the issue of estimated billings became unbearable, he offered to procure the meters himself.

“Anytime I talk with the BEDC workers unofficially, they always say there are plenty prepaid meters in their store at Benin but that their management refused to release them for sale. This is because it means releasing them will ensure that people only pay for the electricity they use and that will drastically reduce the revenue from estimated billings,” he added.

Nigerians are not leaving anything to chance to air their frustration over the non-availability of meters and the outrageous billings.

Some residents of Magboro, on Saturday, took to the streets to protest what they called “crazy bills and insensitivity” of IBEDC.

The protesters demanded that the IBEDC should install prepaid meters in their homes.

They brandished placards with inscriptions such as “IBEDC, our mumu don do,’’ “Fashola, IBEDC stop these crazy bills” and “Enough is enough.’’

Speaking with the News Agency of Nigeria during the protest, the Chairman of the Community Development Association, Mr. Yinka Ogungbemi, said, “IBEDC forced us to sign a letter that the electrical equipment we bought would be a voluntary donation without any compensation. But after that, what we got in return are crazy bills.

“They have been treating us badly. We pick the bills in their office. They don’t distribute bills and the billing system is not right. Sometimes we pay as much as N10, 000 per month over power supply that is not up to an average of two hours a day.

“We invested over N500m to ensure that we have power supply; we even bought transformers, cables, and electric poles,’’ he said.

Some residents of Lafia in Nasarawa State have also protested against overestimated billings allegedly given them by the Abuja Electricity Distribution Company.

The residents, who said they barely got power supply from the AEDC, said they were made to cough up huge sums as bills. They asked the AEDC to stop its operations in the area.

A resident of Lafia East, Mr. John Hassan, who spoke with our correspondent, stated that for the past two months, the AEDC had failed to supply electricity to most parts of the state, thereby causing residents discomfort.

He said, “The AEDC has succeeded only in transmitting darkness and we have been paying for darkness since April. The best thing is for them to leave or install prepaid meters in homes so that they can stop charging us for darkness.”

Consumers not blameless

A senior manager with the BEDC, who spoke to our correspondent on condition of anonymity, said the power firm actually has meters on the ground but that they were only installing it for “certain categories” of customers.

The source said the BEDC does not give out new prepaid meters for now because it had a shortfall, adding that those available were for old customers who might have problems with their meters.

According to him, the only way to ensure the DisCos don’t exploit the consumers is to revert to the CAPMI scheme which empowered consumers to buy the prepaid meters from the DisCos as against the current regulation by the National Electricity Regulatory Commission mandating the DisCos to supply meters pro bono.

The source, however, said although accusations that the DisCos were exploiting their customers may be true in some cases, many electricity customers had made revenue generation difficult for the DisCos by not paying their bills and by bypassing the metering system.

He explained that bypassing the meter is a common form of energy theft where the prepaid meters are tampered with by consumers in order to avoid paying for the electricity they consume.

The official disclosed that some staff of the company connived with the consumers to perpetrate energy theft through their prepaid meters.

He said, “The level of infractions on the part of the customers is taking its toll on us. Some customers bypass the meters. Energy theft is our major problem. Once they bypass the meters, the meters won’t read at all and they can enjoy light without paying.

“To curb this crime, we have started installing the meters on the electric poles as temporary measures against energy theft. Before now, we installed it at the entrance of the apartments.

“Despite this, the infractions have not stopped. The consumers would mount the poles and still bypass the meters. These infractions are usually aided by BEDC staff with no conscience who are quick to blame their deeds on poor remuneration.”

Power firms’ respond

The distribution companies have, however, denied allegations of exploitation levelled against them by their customers.

In an interview with our correspondent, they blamed their inability to supply meters on the economic recession which affected foreign exchange.

One of the spokespersons for the BEDC, Mrs. Kikelomo Owoeye, explained that the power firm uses a credible estimation methodology approved by the NERC.

She said, “The allegations are not correct. It is not as if we want to dupe our customers because it’s not even convenient for us not to give prepaid meters to them. We are not even making much from it because the customers are not even willing to pay for what they call outrageous bills.

“When the DisCos were privatised, we were only authorised to sell energy and not meters. Metering was contracted out to some suppliers, implying that a third party is handling that.

“These suppliers buy the meters from abroad. We experienced a problem when the dollar rate went up. As of the time that we made an agreement with them, the dollar was around N150 or N160. By the time the dollar rate increased, we had problems in meeting the cost of production. Meters are coming in now and we need to pay the difference in price. They are bringing the meters gradually but it is not enough for the requests we have on the ground.”

Owoeye said most consumers get overestimated bills because of energy theft in their areas.

“That is why we engage our customers and sensitise them to the fact that if your neighbour is engaging in illegal connection, it is better you report the person because their illegal consumption of electricity will affect unmetered customers.

Also, the Head, Corporate Communications, Ikeja Electric, Mr. Felix Ofulue, said the allegations that electricity firms were fleecing customers and intentionally denying them of meters were unsubstantiated.

Ofulue said, “There is no proof. They should show proof that we have meters somewhere and we are not giving it out. Estimated billing is not peculiar to us. It happens across the whole DisCos in Nigeria. There is a methodology we use that was sanctioned by the regulator.”

Ofulue added that consumers cannot apply for the prepaid meters under the current scheme.

On overestimated billings, he said, “That is why we call it estimation. There is a methodology for the estimation. It’s not like we wake up in the morning and do as we like.

“There is a methodology approved by the NERC. We have even gone a step further by installing measurement devices on our transformer. We know how much energy comes into your area and we now apply that parameters as defined by the regulators.”

The Head, IBEDC Media Communications, Mrs. Angela Olanrewaju, said customers would always present untrue reasons to justify the problem.

Olanrewaju said the huge metering deficit was compounded by the dollar to naira exchange rate which skyrocketed.

She said, “If a customer believes that he gets a crazy bill, there are avenues for redress. They should go to our offices and make their complaints. Most times, these allegations of overestimated billings are not true. For instance, the Magboro people want us to supply electricity to them 24 hours. How can that be possible with the situation of things in Nigeria? It’s not a Disco problem.

“If a customer has four hours of power supply every day for 30 days, the bill will be around N10,000 to N12,000 monthly. The rate is N24.97 per kilowatt-hour. The customer gets a bill of N10, 000 and he says it is a crazy bill.

“Also, customers don’t know how to read their bills. There is a difference between your current usage and the total outstanding usage. If you get a bill of N10,000 last month and you pay N5,000, there is already an outstanding of N5,000 which will be added to the current month. Some live in residential houses and make use of electricity for commercial purpose.”

The way forward

An energy expert, Bala Zaka, stressed that the only way out of the quagmire was to allow the consumers to buy meters from the DisCos.

According to him, estimated billing is neither good for the consumer nor the distributors of electricity.

Zaka said by estimating the electricity usage, the DisCos were inadvertently encouraging their staff to be corrupt because “estimation opens the door for fraud on the part of the staff.”

He added, “It is in the interest of the consumers and the DisCos to ensure that there are prepaid meters. Worst of all is that the suppliers will end up losing and creating an avenue for stealing on the part of the staff.”

Adegbemile noted that since it was obvious that metering is not a cheap business, NERC should allow independent service providers to sell directly to the consumers.

The energy expert said, “This will give the system flexibility. If a metering service provider opens up services today, a lot of consumers will buy the meters and it would have solved the problem of estimated billings.”

The Chairman of Sabrud Consortium, an indigenous prepaid meter manufacturing company, Bright Nwangwu, corroborated Adegbemile’s views.

He advised the Federal Government to allow producers to sell prepaid meters directly to electricity consumers.

“We appeal to the Federal Government to allow prepaid meter manufacturing firms to sell directly to local customers. Prepaid metering is a crime in advanced countries and it should be discouraged in Nigeria; selling directly to customers will eliminate the practice.

“We also call on the Federal Government to enforce the local content policy in the sector which says that all government and private companies spend 80 per cent of their procured goods and services on an indigenously manufactured meter,” he had said in an interview with NAN.

Responding to protests over prepaid meters and overestimated billing in some parts of the country, NERC’s Head of Public Affairs Department, Dr. Usman Arabi, urged the consumers to always forward complaints to the organisation for necessary action.

Source: IWIN