So yesterday, I read on Nairaland that there is a looming electricity tariff hike and I couldn’t help thinking; when would Nigerians catch a break? If we were getting constant power supply, then one might say hey, thy have probable cause for the hike. Y’know, to keep things running fine. But since the privatisation of the power sector, there has barely been any improvement in power supply – and worse still, the distribution companies still want to charge us more money for epileptic service. In what sane society does that work?
But I’m rambling here; this post is not about the general travails of Nigerians and our power problem that seems to defy solution. This post is specifically on an ongoing process, one that affects a lot of Nigerians and something I can only consider a systemic fraudulent activity. I’m talking about estimated billing, in case the title of my post hasn’t already given it away.
For those who use prepaid meters, the estimated billing phenomenon might need a bit of explanation. Now, back when we had NEPA, all buildings connected to the national grid used an analogue meter. The meter was to measure the amount of electricity used by customers. Now back then, for the older meters, billing system was supposed to be this: staff of NEPA would go to each meter and read how much electricity had been used in a month and use that reading to calculate each customer’s electricity bill. Of course, things being what they were in this country, that system quickly went south. Part of it was from customers who would try to intimidate NEPA staff that came to calculate their bills. The other part were from some of the NEPA staff who realized that instead of stressing themselves going from house to house each month, they could just stay in their offices, eat yam and drink beer and sleep, then come up with an arbitrary amount to put on each person’s bill as the cost of their electricity usage for a month. Thus the estimated billing system was born. I remember when I was much younger and my dad challenged a NEPA official to explain exactly how bills for each flat in his building for the month were calculated and all the man could say was “oga, you no go understand am. Abi you wan learn my work?”.
Well, NEPA went and was succeeded by the PHCN which basically inherited the estimated billing system – and perfected it. One funny thing about this system was exactly how obvious it was that people’s bills weren’t the product of any calculation and, in some cases, any actual service usage. For example, one of my dad’s tenants moved out and my dad decided to leave the flat unoccuppied for a little renovation work to be carried out in it. Interestingly, for the next three months after the tenant moved out, bills for that flat – an empty flat, mind you, kept turning up, each more expensive than the last. When my dad finally confronted the PHCN officials who came to cut the power lines for nonpayment of bills, they told him that he should have written a letter to inform PHCN that the flat was empty so they could stop billing it! An empty flat!
After the advent of mobile telephony in Nigeria and the concept of Pay As You Use started becoming rather commonplace, Nigerians started asking if this system could be extended to electricity usage – afterall, what could be better than only paying for what you actually use? The idea of prepaid meters took hold and customers started demanding for prepaid meters (this was roughly close to the end of PHCN’s life and the beginning of our power Distribution Companies or DISCOS for short).
Well, after the power distribution sector was fully privatised and the DISCOs came to be, my dad made it a point of duty to get a prepaid meter for each flat in his building. Suffice to say that it took tremendous effort – and quite some money just to get one for his own flat. As for the other flats, the DISCO we use kept foot-dragging and coming up with various reasons why they wouldn’t install a prepaid meter for them as my dad wasn’t ready to offer more bribes just to get what should be easily obtainable. For one of the flats, the DISCO said the previous tenant was owing an unpaid bill of N20,000. As at that time the flat was empty and the previous tenant in question was certainly not one to take off and leave a bill behind. He was one of my dad’s better tenants who always paid his rents, dues and bills on time because as he once remarked to my hearing “it’s not cool to have your landlord pursue you about for something you have the money to pay for”. Interestingly, this tenant in question wasn’t even based in the country and only rented the flat so he could have a place to stay and put his things whenever he’s around instead of staying at a hotel. Inspire of the fact that at least 75% of the year his flat was empty, he still paid his rent when due and sent money for his electricity bills and other fees and the only reason he moved out was because he had erected his own building. So certainly he wasn’t one to leave a N20,000 bill behind but the DISCO insisted. Either way, my dad paid up the N20,000 from his own pocket and asked them to install a prepaid meter before a new tenant moved in. The DISCO refused on the grounds that the flat was empty and that whenever a new tenant moved in, they would install a prepaid meter. Eventually, a new tenant moved in and inspite of my dad sending repeated requests to the DISCO to install a prepaid meter, they didn’t and sent an estimated bill instead. I can’t forget the new tenant’s reaction when he saw his first bill:
” Ehnn??? “N65,258 ??? I dey run factory for my flat? Where the light set wey una dey give we una dey give person this kin bill? I am not paying this o, abeg.”.
The funny part? The N20,000 my dad had paid off as the ” outstanding bill” on the flat miraculously showed up on the bill as an unpaid charge.
So why are the DISCOs reluctant to make sure that each flat has a prepaid meter? Well, that’s where the corruption we talk about comes in. Now, my dad has a prepaid meter and spend N4,000 max on electricity for his flat in a month. However,for the flats without prepaid meters, they get estimated bills that could range anywhere from N20,000 to, on one occasion, N100,000. Of course, the affected tenant wouldn’t want to pay that charge and would go to the DISCO office to complain. They would then negotiate the bill down to a fraction of the estimate but would still be more than the customer might spend on a prepaid meter. For instance, on a bill of N50,000 they could negotiate it down to say N15,000. Meanwhile, if the customer had a prepaid meter, he could spend roughly N4,000 to N8,000 in a month on prepaid recharges AND if there is no electricity usage for that month, the customer doesn’t pay anything. If the customer decides not to pay their ridiculous estimate, well, the old method kicks in – people with ladders would suddenly show up while you’re most likely at work to disconnect your flat or your building. If you are lucky to be around, then you have to offer them a bribe not to disconnect you – at least for that day. If you’re unlucky to be away, after negotiating an agreeable sum later, you would still have to pay a “reconnection fee”. See how not giving people prepaid meters benefits them now?
This estimated billing system is archaic, outdated and extremely corrupt and needs to be done away with – but aren’t we in Nigeria where we all accuse government officials of corruption while the private sector and individuals are equally corrupt?