Residents, electricity firms at daggers drawn over prepaid meters, ‘crazy’ billing

•Electricity officials may remain threatened, until... —Customers •Attackers will go to jail —Discos

Just 15 days to the compulsory implementation of new meter policy, SHOLA ADEKOLA, AKIN ADEWAKUN, OLATUNDE DODONDAWA, CHIMA NWOKOJI, AYOMIDE OWONIBI-ODEKANYIN, SYLVESTER OKORUWA. ELLIOT OVADJE and LANRE ADEWOLE gauged the street mood and the feedback should get all worried, particularly the ladder men.

 

A recent viral video of a bloody encounter between some residents of an unnamed Lagos community and officials of one of the two electricity providers operating in Lagos State had raised the red flag regarding the rising tension between customers and electricity service providers, namely, Eko Distribution Company (EKDC) and Ikeja Distribution Company (IKEDC) mainly over the billing system which has been roundly criticised for being allegedly unfair.

In the trending video, officials of the service providers, believed to be IKEDC, were attempting to disconnect some customers from their current lines when a young man moved menacingly towards the one on top of the ladder and began shaking the ladder violently to throw him off, with his colleague steadying the ladder. A shouting match ensued and the commotion that followed saw a couple of other young men joining in the battle against the electricity officials, with the one at the top of the ladder having to hurriedly get down and abandon his disconnection mission. His colleague on the ground was already being mobbed with the duo having to endure the wrath of the affected community members.

Another trending video showing the frustration of the Discos’ customers tells of the hostile dealings with their officials more graphically. Recently, the social media was agog with the videos of the faceoff between Lajo community in Ikorodu and again, officials of Ikeja Electric Distribution Company showing some youths of the community on the eve of the presidential election having a confrontation with the officials which left some of the company’s men seriously injured.

The community was immediately thrown into a total black out and it took over a month to restore electricity to the affected areas. Some members of the community who chose to be anonymous said people could no longer tolerate the ill-treatment being meted out to them by the distribution companies. They claim they pay so much for darkness. “How can you be paying for something you cannot see? I pay N4,800 every month for this small house (two-bedroom) and still for a whole day you won’t get up to three hours of electricity.”

Felix Ofulue, spokesperson of Ikeja Electric, said those involved in the molestation of their officials had been taken to court as there was zero tolerance for impunity. He insisted that men on the field must be respected.

Islam made me a better person — Football star, Paul Pogba

I could have committed murder –Resident

Sharing his experience with Saturday Tribune, Mr Monday, who lives on Olorunto Street the in Iyana Ipaja axis of the metropolis, said he would have committed murder last month but for the timely intervention of people in the  neighbourhood. After paying what he felt he could afford on the month’s estimated billing, men of the Ikeja Disco had insisted he had to clear the amount for the month. The grace of part payment had been withdrawn, they said.

“I was livid. They brought over N7,000 for the month of April. I paid N5,000, yet they were insistent on disconnecting me. I went for their ladder, not minding the danger such an action constituted.

“Honestly, I have no regrets at all for my action. Thank God we are not all free to carry arms, otherwise it would have been disastrous,” the father of three stated.

A media personality had an even rawer deal. Here is his story; “I have been unfortunate at the hands of these shylock electric officials who have exploited   the weak system to defraud Nigerians of their hard-earned income through different means. I have never lived in a house with a prepaid meter all my life, so I have been under the yoke of these greedy officials who continue to milk me of my hard-earned money.

“For eight years where I lived at Mende Maryland, we paid the highest monthly subscription. The sole reason is that we are under commercial rate, because we have shops and residential quarters together. We wrote countless letters to them to remove us from the commercial and put us on residential rate but all efforts proved abortive.

“After eight years of paying high bills, I moved to Ikosi Ketu and it was the same story. The house I moved into was not occupied for three months and the bills were still being added. I wrote letters for the bills to be cancelled but nothing was done because those officials will never help but increase customers’ burden unnecessarily.

“In my new place I was told that my meter was coded and was not reading so they were giving me any amount the marketer liked, starting from N12,000 and it got to N20,000 per month before my wife cried to a new marketer, who helped us remove it from coded to reading and since then, the bill has dropped a bit.

“They are also not interested in repairs or maintenance but only to cut lines and collect N2,000 as reconnection fee. Customers have nobody to cry to; they suffer in silence while the officials of the Discos smile to the bank. Because of their attitude, customers now meet quack electricians to reconnect their lines in the night. These quack electricians do all kinds of illegal connections and the development can be dangerous and life-threatening. But what can the people do!

“The officials behave like tin gods as they treat their customers with disrespect and display unprofessionalism in the course of carrying out their duties with no iota of fear because they share their ill-gotten loot with their bosses in the office. Electricity business in the state is riddled with corrupt practices perpetrated by the officials of the two Discos serving us.”

 

Operational bases

Possibly due to lack of enough awareness, many Lagos residents still see the electricity providers as one and regularly refer to them collectively as PHCN, the last acronym of the electric establishment as a government business. Now as a private enterprise, two Discos operating in Lagos State have their areas of operations clearly defined. Ikeja Electric covers from Jibowu to Ikorodu and Iyana Oworo axis, including Gbagada, just before Oshodi as well as Akowonjo down to Toll Gate, while Eko Disco covers from Jibowu to Yaba, down to Lagos Island to Epe, including Oshodi, down to Badagry.

But to the disgruntled customers, the difference between both in the area of customer satisfaction is like that of six and half a dozen.

Both Discos have witnessed violent protests at their doorsteps and the field men of the duo have suffered physical attacks at the hands of traumatized customers. But in the area of frequency of public show of disaffection by customers, Ikeja Disco would be deemed to be the more troubled of the two.

Mr Moses, an okada rider who resides at Akowonjo, Egbeda, fears the manhandling of the Discos officials may continue until the stakeholders are able to roll out enough prepaid meters to cover all parts of the state, though he did not support the people taking the law into their hands.

“Many people in Lagos are getting frustrated with the lack of adequate prepaid (meters). In Lagos today, it is generally believed that the story of shortage of prepaid meters is being made up by the officials as an attempt to continue to swindle us.

“The officials are the ones sabotaging the supply of prepaid meters so that they can continue to collect illegal money from us. The moment the prepaid meters are made available, there will be no friction between Lagosians and the officials. Until this is done, the government should expect more beating for the electricity officials because people are getting frustrated.”

From investigation, only a few areas like Gowon Estate are enjoying the use of prepaid meters, while major parts of Egbeda, Bammeke and Shasha are still being exploited by the officials through postpaid meters and estimated billing.

 

 Meters everywhere, but no meters

Apart from other ancillary issues like long period of blackout, cable theft and replacement as well as installation of transformers with the required capacity, the main problem between the consumers and Discos in the state, going by Saturday Tribune findings, is the billing system, which the majority of the residents believe can only be redressed by appropriate pricing of the services being rendered them through mass installation of prepaid meters.

Coincidentally, nearly all stakeholders – government, Discos, Gencos and others – hold the same belief. Why then were prepaid meters not being mass-produced? Saturday Tribune checked in certain quarters, starting with manufacturers of the said product in the state.

Mr Kola Balogun, the chairman of MOMAS, a meter manufacturing company located along Lagos/Ibadan Expressway, pointed out that the patronage from the Discos had improved over the last two years.

“Back then in 2017, it was very bitter because the level of patronage was very low. I can tell you that the situation has improved considerably. The patronage has increased due to certain policies and regulations that have been put in place. DISCOs are beginning to patronise Nigeria-made meters. The Meter Asset Provider (MAP) scheme has really enabled consumers to pay to get the product.

“The scheme was introduced by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), which brings together individuals and companies for the general good. I would say prepaid meters are very much readily available and the government is still doing a bit dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.

“The franchising scheme has also been introduced to help the Discos with cluster areas. Franchising will go a long way in providing alternative power solutions where companies will help with providing power to clusters to relieve Discos.

“The Discos finally decided to patronise us when they saw that the quality of meters being manufactured in Nigeria is not different from what is obtains abroad. Sincerely, I am impressed with the patronage,” Balogun said.

A source at another local prepaid meter manufacturer, MOJEC International, located at 244/246 Apapa-Oshodi Expressway, didn’t have Balogun’s kind of kind words for the Discos. The firm has been around since 1985. Saturday Tribune was told there was a lot of reluctance shown by Discos in patronising the homemade products even though the company reportedly has the capacity of rolling out over a million meters to consumers every year. The source accused the management of Discos of deliberate sabotage in the process so they could allegedly contract out the supply of meters to their foreign allies. When asked the official reason(s) given by the Discos, the source said they claimed the foreign meters weren’t vulnerable to bypass and electricity theft, unlike the homemade.

Strangely, the same Discos get to connect the same locally made prepaid meters when directly purchased by their customers from MOJEC.

Bi-annual CAPMI

Estimated billing system, designed by the discos in allocating bills to unsuspecting customers not based on their actual consumption but the discretion of the operators and the attendant crises, was the reason behind the introduction of the Credit Advance Payment Metering Implementation (CAPMI) scheme,  in 2013, to protect the customers, according to the government. The policy failed. Averagely, it takes a lucky customer a minimum of two years to officially process a prepaid meter under the policy. According to a customer who declined to be named but availed Saturday Tribune a copy of receipts that showed a meter that was applied for in 2012 and was finally delivered in 2014 at a cost of N25,000, nothing could be crazier.

“I knew people that were willing to fast-track the process which took less than a month for the meters to be delivered at an average cost of N70,000 to N90,000,” he said.

He could be said to be lucky.

Residents of Number 30, Adebayo Oyelana Street, Iyana Ejigbo, have waited on the NEPA/PHCN/IKEDC to fulfill its obligation of allocating prepaid meters to consumers in the area for years despite promise made to them that the meters would be available in September 2018. According to the secretary of the tenants’ forum, Mr Titus Chimaroke, the entire six blocks of about 45 flats use one meter, which is attached to the transformer. Most residents of the building came in four years ago and met some outstanding bills. The bills accumulated because there were unoccupied flats which marketers from Oke-Afa undertaking office in Oshodi Business District continued to bring bills to.

Each block then decided to pay an amount above monthly bills in order to defray all outstanding bills.

“We continued to pay bills ranging from N2,500 to N5,000 until April 2018 when IKEDC struck with an estimated bill of N16,000 per block. They explained that power supply had increased since April and that if we continued paying the old bill, we would be underpaying for the quantity of electricity we consumed,” Chimaroke said.

According to the secretary, in the block where he lives, the occupants had paid all the outstanding bills and as such, the May bill came down to N2,907.45 but the marketers seized the bill and demanded that occupants of block two in the estate should come and see them.

“When I got to their office, the head of the marketers (name withheld) wrote N14,000 on the back of the bill. She gave me a Zenith Bank account number which she said is a ‘Loss of Revenue Account’ for IKEDC. We were asked to pay the N14,000 into that account and bring the teller to their accounting department. As for the original money in the receipt, they said we should pay in their office as usual.

“She explained that our June bill would carry the N16,000 estimated bill like that of the other blocks. We told them that we could only pay what was written on the bill because we could not be punished with exorbitant bills for paying up and clearing our outstandings. So, we did not pay the N14,000 but when the transformer developed fault last week, the field officers came and threatened to disconnect our block for refusing to pay the extra N14,000,” he stated.

IKEDC appears not to be winning this particular billing war, considering that those affected are now being asked to pay 30 percent of whatever is outstanding, whether on estimated or accumulated bill.

 

Will MAP find the way?

The unsuccessful story of the earlier scheme led to the MAP scheme in 2018, but officially debuting in April 2019 and all discos are under legal compulsion to begin implementation before the end of this month. The discos are mandated to purchase at least 30 percent of their stock from local meter producers.

Dr Usman Abba Arabi, the head of the public affairs department of NERC, said MAP regulation was expected to fast-track the closure of the metering gap and encourage the development of independent and competitive meter services in the sector.

This new policy, according to the government, will be reviewed in two months, precisely August 2019, to know if the discos are complying.

“The Meter Asset Provider (MAP) Regulation (No. NERC/R/112), which kicked off on April 3, 2018, introduces meter asset providers as a new set of service providers in Nigeria electricity supply industry. As assets with a technically useful life of 10-15 years, the regulation provides for the third-party financing of meters, under a permit issued by the Commission, and amortisation over a period of 10 years.

“The electricity distribution companies, in line with their licensing terms and conditions, are obliged to achieve their metering targets as set by the Commission under the new regulation. The contracting of Meter Asset Providers shall be through an open, transparent and competitive bid process thus ensuring that meters are provided at a least cost to electricity customers.

“It is to be noted that there are no free meters even under the current tariff regime as all customers, including those on estimated billing, currently pay for a return on the investment made by electricity distribution companies on meters in their networks. Under the new MAP regulation, customer classes shall be amended to ensure that customers only pay for meters when a meter is physically installed in their premises. The electricity bill of customers provided with a meter under the new regulatory framework shall comprise of two (2) parts – energy charge and metering service charge.

“The payment of metering service charge will be removed from the customer electricity bill upon the full amortisation of the meter asset over its useful life. All faulty meters are expected to be repaired or replaced free of charge within two working days, except in instances where it is established that the customer is responsible for the damaged meter,” Dr Arabi said.

 

300,000 prepaid meters coming for Ikorodu –Ikeja Electric

Ikeja Electric Plc (IE) has, however, announced how MAP would work for its customers. It said the roll-out would begin in Ikorodu under the Ikorodu Business Unit. Under this unit, about 300,000 units of prepaid meters have been promised within 18 months.

According to the spokesperson of the company, Felix Ofulue, the deployment and installation of prepaid meters to customers in Ikorodu, which will be carried out by one of its MAPs, New Hampshire Capital Limited, will commence on June 17th (Monday), following the successful registration and subscription for meters by thousands of customers spread across Ikorodu and Epe.

He noted this as part of the first phase, which would further extend to Abule Egba and Shomolu Business units next week. He said customers applying for prepaid meters are expected to visit map.ikejaelectric.com to register.

Ofulue said, “In line with NERC regulations, customers are expected to pay for meters. Through the online process, customers are to abide by the rules and regulation guiding the metering process and they should not pay cash to anyone or fall prey to unscrupulous elements who may want to take advantage of the scheme to fleece customers. They will be advised on the designated channels for payment.”

While explaining the process, he noted that every customer is expected to go through the Know Your Customer (KYC) process and also agree on settlement of the outstanding debt. After this, account survey will then be carried out before payment for prepaid meter is made. The meters will be provided and installed within 10 working days of payment.

Ofulue also advised customers who dispute their unsettled post-paid bills to take advantage of the various repayment options available during the KYC process. Outstanding balance can also be rolled over into the customer’s prepaid account and paid in installments.

According to him, the stipulated cost of a single-phase meter is N38,850 while a three-phase meter is N70,350. These are all inclusive of VAT.

The spokesperson of Eko disco, Godwin Idemudia, said all is set for massive roll-out of prepaid meters under the MAP scheme. “We have all our vendors ready and we are ready to go,” he said.

 

Current realities

A few days to the compulsory roll-out of pre-paid meters, Saturday Tribune discovered that residents of the state are not putting their fate solely in the hands of the discos as they now bypass the providers to purchase their meters directly from the manufacturers, though some are still going through them by paying the stated amount which covers purchase, installation and 100 unit credit. However, it is N27,800 for single-phase and N65,000 for three-phase, if customers are buying directly from manufacturers, with complete approval of the disco in charge of the affected jurisdiction.

In the midst of all the hullaballoo of prepaid meter, a curious situation was discovered by Saturday Tribune among some residents of the riverine communities, in a suburb of the state. The dwellers want nothing to do with any form of metering.

Reason is that they are enjoying power supply from some companies as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). But those not covered by these companies and are against metering are presumed to be indulging in acts capable of hurting the discos’ business.

 

The discos also told Saturday Tribune that they are not doing anything to protect their men but only take culprits/suspects to court. Eko Disco boasted of succeeding in this with culprits getting convicted for harassing their officials in the line of duty. When Ikeja Disco was asked about the video on social media, the spokesperson said they got culprits convicted with jail terms.

 

Rebuilding consumers’ confidence

A communication expert, Mr Ola Emmanuel, cautioned against settling dispute with bloody clashes. He advised the discos to build fresh confidence in their customers by building relationship through effective communication of their policies and service delivery. According to him, “it is high time all stakeholders changed tactics. Violence benefits no one and if your customers are not happy, you are hardly in business, even if you are a monopoly. The time to do things differently is fast running out,” Emmanuel said.

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