In August 2018, one month after I ‘moved’ into a rented apartment, Ikeja Electric sent me a power consumption bill in excess of N22,000. This was daylight robbery; I knew there was no chance I’d consumed a quarter of that — because even though the house was mine, it also wasn’t. What Ikeja Electric didn’t know was that it was my decoy house. Due to the risks associated with my job, I needed a full-fledged decoy residence — a house that would be known as mine but one where I could rarely be found. I ended up settling for a three-bedroom flat in Mende, Maryland, but I never really used a tenth of the available space because, in practice, I lived elsewhere. Two rooms remained empty while one, other than a mattress and a condemned AC, contained odds and ends. The sitting room was empty, too, save for a television I hadn’t switched on in nearly two years. In all, the only two power-consuming appliances in the house were a small-sized fan and a standing fridge. Again, I rarely lived there. Often times I was away for weeks; and when I showed up, it was only for a few hours during the day or to pass the night, then disappear again for weeks. Just minimal appearances to keep the house habitable. How, then, could I have consumed N22,000 worth of electricity?
If I asked the spokesperson of Ikeja Electric, or that of any other electricity distribution company to explain the factors fueling this estimated thieving in the name of estimated billing, the answers would be clichéd. The DisCos and the government are N1.3trn apart in their valuations of the price of electricity that DisCos could generate. Technically, this would mean that DisCos are running at a loss. Bridging this tariff gap is one fundamental impediment to improved electricity supply and customer satisfaction. But, as you may imagine, it is not the only one.
Generation Companies and the Transmission Company of Nigeria are running at a loss, too — because the DisCos, which distribute electricity generated by GenCos and funneled to them by TransCos, must pay back GenCos and TCN after collecting revenues. So far, the DisCos continue to short-change the GenCos and TCN. It appears to have marginally improved in recent years but some four or five years ago, the remittance was as poor as 20 per cent. Meanwhile, just as the people feel cheated and over-billed by DisCos, the government feels the same. While DisCos put the indebtedness of Ministries, Departments and Agencies of the Federal Government in the last three years at over N90bn, the government insists it was able to verify only N27bn. Of this amount, government’s proposition in the 2019 budget was to pay N5bn — just 18.5 per cent. Would any private individual still be enjoying electricity if he only paid 18.5 per cent of his three-year billing?
Last year, DisCos had a major falling-out with Babatunde Fashola, the then Minister of Power, Works and Housing, during which they accused him of being more interested in awarding “over-priced, misguided contracts” than in bridging the over N1.3trn tariff gap in the industry. Since the former Lagos Governor expended N78mn on his personal website before vacating Alausa, the claim of DisCos could indeed be true. However, if Ikeja Electric and other DisCos must recoup a sizeable portion of this tariff gap, they have to look inwards, and they would be shocked to discover the monumental loss of revenue being spearheaded by their own men.
For instance, in Mende, whenever Ikeja Electric engineers are broke, they embark on indiscriminate disconnection of lines of consumers, who have paid a decent fraction (more than double or triple of government’s 18.5 per cent) of their over-estimated bills. Underpayment is always the excuse for disconnection, but once the victim gets in touch, the engineers’ demand shifts from payment of the outstanding bill to payment of a N3,000 reconnection fee, which ends up in a private pocket. These engineers no longer make any mention of payment. In that same Mende, an estate agent once asked me if I’d rather just buy over Ikeja Electric engineers with N3,000 reconnection fee every month without ever needing to pay regular bills. My connection would be wired straight to the pole or I pay the N3,000 in lieu of disconnection for indebtedness. No chance. The government isn’t of much use to me, but God forbid that I become part of the problem I’m complaining of. This agent had facilitated one of such arrangements for someone in the area; the deal has been on for four years already. That’s N36,000 per annum for electricity worth probably N120,000 in real consumption or over N400,000 in estimated thieving. In other arrangements, consumers strike deals with Ikeja Electric staff to connect as low as 20 to 30 per cent of their electricity load to the meter, and the remaining 70 to 80 per cent straight to the pole. This is happening not just in Mende but elsewhere in Lagos, such as in Igando and Egbeda in Alismosho Local Government Area, as previously documented by Kelechukwu Ogu of SaharaReporters.
Another sore point in the electricity supply chain is the unavailability or difficulty in obtaining prepaid meters. It is a responsibility DisCos like to push to the government, but one that is ultimately theirs, and one they’re keen to frustrate for the simple reason that estimated-billing customers are the Father Christmas that pays for the ineptitude of the system and the corruption of DisCo staff. In the few cases where meters are available, their distribution is frustrated by corrupt DisCo staff. When I tried to obtain the prepaid meter last year, for instance, two Ikeja Electric staff told me to bring N200,000, even though, publicly, the meter was known to be free. I notified a senior manager in the DisCo, at a time they were still located on Sunmola Street, and even offered to help fish out the saboteurs but the manager has been avoiding me like a plague ever since, implying the complicity of senior management staff in the racket. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only journalist thinking this way; in 2017, Taiwo Adebulu of TheCable exposed how officials of Ibadan Electricity Distribution Company sourced prepaid meters from local producers and vended them in the black market to extort customers, who can part with huge sums for the scarce commodity in Ibadan, Oyo State.
From the onset of privatisation in 2005 to its completion in 2013, there are many reasons why Nigeria’s electricity problems are not about to end just soon. The government apparently promised GenCos and DisCos too many sweet nothings. The DisCos themselves didn’t do their homework thoroughly; they had scant idea of the genuine customer base and strategies for fixing illegal connections and underpayments. The DisCos in particular weren’t ready for the challenges of the sector they delved into. They’re unwilling to invest in the needed infrastructure to, for example, distribute the full range of generated electricity. Add to this list the corruption of their staff, their evil estimated billing and the connivance of greedy members of the public, then it’s clear our electricity conundrum has only just begun.
Soyombo, former Editor of the TheCable, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) and SaharaReporters, tweets @fisayosoyombo