On Wednesday, April 12, 2017, a tea seller, Aliyu Umar (27), began his day by preparing a charcoal fire with which he would cook noodles, fry eggs and brew tea for his early morning customers at his makeshift shop, a hotspot for residents of Unguwar Hausawa (Hausa Ward) in Nyanya, a suburb of Abuja.
Umar came to Abuja from Sokoto State five years ago. It was rough for him in the first few months which saw him switching trades before he settled for food vending.
On that Wednesday morning, faulty high tension power cables over Umar’s shop and two residential buildings were being repaired by staff of the Abuja Electricity Distribution Company (AEDC). The AEDC staff seemed to have carried out a bad job because later that day one of the cables was left hanging dangerously.
Concerned residents in the area observed that one of the cables was frayed and could fall on any of their buildings, so they called the AEDC office to fix the problem.
When the workmen arrived, they demanded N5,000 before they would carry out any work on the faulty line. When they were offered N3,000, they refused and left without fixing the problem.
Some hours later, the electric cable fell on the building close to Umar’s shop and electrocuted the occupants: six-year-old Hassan Tsafe and his mother, Umaimah Tsafe.
Umar was unable to run to safety because the 11-kilovolt cable that fell on the neighbouring building immobilised him with a shock. Later, there was firebreak which spread to his shop, which sometimes served as his bedroom, and burnt down everything.
When Umar was brought out of the fire, he was confirmed dead, alongside Hassan Tsafe, while Umainah was still clinging to life. She was rushed to a nearby hospital, but died later.
Alhaji Dala, who acted as guardian to the late Umar, recounted the ordeal thus: “The AEDC workers were unwilling to accept anything less than N5,000, which was why they left, and most residents had left for their businesses that day. Maybe if we had completed the payment they requested, it would have been a different story today.”
After the incident, AEDC set up an eight-man investigation panel led by Mohammed Ainoko Sule to probe the fire after filing an official report to the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) and the Nigeria Electricity Management Services Agency (NEMSA) in compliance with procedural guidelines of the Electric Power Sector Act 2005.
Three months later, Alhaji Dala and his Secretary, Abubakar Hassan, petitioned NERC, citing negligence of AEDC in exposing residents to danger, and urged it to wade into the matter, but there was no response.
The findings of the investigative panel have not been communicated to the families of the victims even after they had submitted petitions to NERC and AEDC. To date, none of the affected families has been offered any form of compensation or relief. A resident of Wumba, Apo Extension in Abuja, Ikechukwu Henry, is wary of officials of AEDC, who he said extorted customers for services they were paid to render.
Henry said, “In January, our transformer got damaged; which AEDC promised to replace, when the transformer was to be installed two months later, officials of AEDC who came to fix it demanded that we paid them for installation, and that there were some electrical fittings that they were supposed to buy which the community had to pay for.”
The Wumba residents were forced to pay the officials to fix the transformer or risk not getting it installed. They, therefore, contributed over N60,000 before officials of AEDC installed the transformer.
Henry claimed that, “This has always been the case with AEDC staff. In 2017, when that transformer was bad, we were asked to contribute money to replace it, but residents were not comfortable with the idea because we had contributed money like that in the past and it found its way into private pockets.”
The General Manager, Corporate Communication, at AEDC, Oyebode Fadipe, defended the DisCo, saying it was currently the most compliant with the Meter Asset Provider (MAP) programme in the country.
While admitting that the company could not boast of 100 per cent rate in attending to its customer’s complaints, he said they were giving it their best shot.
Fadipe said, “There have been instances where we’ve not been able to meter customers within the number of days stipulated by the MAP regulations; which is 10 days, but it is majorly because most customers do not give us vital information for us to get to their homes or the location the meters are expected to be despite that we are the most compliant DisCo to the MAP programme.”
In Delta State, one Ibhade Emmanuel, stared in disbelief at the total amount he had been charged for estimated electricity consumption in five months.
Emmanuel said, “I have paid over N150,000 since April; which is outrageous. This made me start making formal complaints on the issue to the Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC) and NERC, but their responses have been frustrating.”
Emmanuel said he had bought a pre-paid meter for his house in January, 2017, and was charged N100,000 (metre) and N5,000 (installation) at the BEDC office in Ovwian, Udu Local Government Area of Delta State.
He explained that he left the country before the meter was installed, but that his family was able to make use of it for a couple of months before they were told the meter was not registered.
BEDC officials said they would take estimated readings from the meter until it was registered, but the registration was never carried out. After repeated calls to the DisCo to rectify the problem, Emmanuel wrote a complaint to BEDC in April, 2019, requesting the DisCo to fix the meter or stop the estimated charges.
Officials of BEDC, therefore, disconnected his residence when he refused to pay the estimated bills and said it would be fixed when the issue surrounding the unregistered meter sold to him at the BEDC office was resolved.
Emmanuel told the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) that, “Sometimes we had power blackout for 16 straight days, but at the end of the month the bill would be over N19,000, even when we rarely had power supply for six hours in a day when there was power. It makes me wonder how they come with such figures without reading the meter,” and added that he also wrote to NERC urging it to intervene and stop the illegal extortion by the DisCo, but that his letter was ignored.
Subsidy soars as regulator’s grip on sector wanes
While electricity consumers complain of being ripped off by DisCos through the adoption of estimated billings, analysis of NERC’s data on the power market shortfall indicates that the tariff shortfall is on the rise.
From 2015 to 2018, the Federal Government spent N1.12tn as electricity subsidy according to data from Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC). The data also show that the shortfall to be paid to the DisCos has been on the rise in recent years.
In 2015, the DisCos were owed N165bn by the Federal Government in subsidy, and it climbed to N235bn in 2016. PWC has predicted that the debt is expected to reach N522bn at the end of 2019.
Between 2015 and 2018, the total revenue spent by the Federal Government in subsidising electricity stood at N1.12tn, while the subsidy spent on petroleum products within the same period was pegged at N1.2tn, data from the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) have shown.
Analysis by PWC also shows that the combined sum of both subsidy payments estimated at N2.3tn accounts for 17 per cent of Nigeria’s foreign reserves and 26 six per cent of the 2019 budget.
We are not spirits – NERC
The Zonal Head of NERC, Samuel Ekeh, was asked what action NERC had taken to punish erring DisCos for flouting the EPSR Act with regards to the estimated billing of customers and their sluggish responses to consumer complaints.
Ekeh said, “We are not spirits to know when DisCos are shortchanging you, it is only when you speak out and complain to us. That’s why we have forum offices in every state to sanction DisCos and give consumers succor.”
He dismissed the accusation that NERC is ineffective in carrying out its regulatory obligations, saying consumer complaints which came to the attention of the commission were given priority.
He explained that, “If you don’t report to us and follow our complaint interface mechanism, then you may not get our help; which is why most people go to the social media, saying there is no NERC. It doesn’t make sense; if you make a complaint to DisCos, and if after 10 working days your issue is not resolved, then send them a reminder, after that, you can put it in writing to the commission for us to take it up.”
According to Section 32 of the EPSR Act, NERC is expected to prioritise consumer needs by setting up customer service mechanisms that will proffer solutions to customer complaints to ensure safety and good quality service in the delivery of electricity.
The Executive Director of PowerUp Nigeria, Adetayo Adegbenle, said he was concerned about NERC‘s data and believed the data lacked empirical evidence.
Adegbenle said, “The EPSR Act compels the DisCos to submit a summary of their performance compliance with customer service standards within 10 working days at the end of each month, but they don’t do it. So if NERC comes up with any data on consumer complaints, then they have to be attached with the monthly monitoring form from each DisCo as empirical evidence.”
PowerUp Nigeria is an electricity consumer rights group advocating for the right to the accessibility of electricity and proper billing system
This report is part of a collaborative investigative series by Daily Trust, the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR), Premium Times and TheCable, facilitated by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism (WSCIJ) under its Regulators Monitoring Programme (REMOP) for the Electricity Sector, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
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