SPECIAL FEATURES: Estimated Billing: How Communities in Lagos Battle Eko Distribution Plc

SPECIAL FEATURES:  Estimated Billing: How Communities in Lagos Battle Eko Distribution Plc

The issues of power supply and billing have been a thorny one for many consumers. Recently, the ‘struggle’ for proper billing seems to have assumed a different dimension as some communities insist they would rather be without power than continue to pay the ‘crazy’ bill by the DISCOS. Assistant Editor, CHINWE MADUAGWU, reports.

The power supply in some parts of Lagos, and indeed other states in the country is nothing to write home about. Yet, the bills which consumers are saddled with on a monthly basis are unbelievably high.

In the recent past, many communities in Lagos have at one time or the other found themselves at daggers drawn with officials of the Distribution companies servicing their area.

It has more or less become a norm to see communities stay without power for weeks, not because there are electrical faults but simply because they have said to their distribution company, ‘we will no longer pay your crazy bills, give us prepaid metres.’

Yes, it has come to that point. Many communities are saying the DISCOS, ‘enough is enough. We don’t pluck money from the trees.’

When in late 2006, the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), introduced prepaid metres, the whole idea was to put an end to estimated billing and ensure that consumers pay what they consume.

Many Nigerians who at that time felt they were paying exorbitantly for power, rejoiced believing that there was respite in sight. As that time, PHCN officials had long jettisoned the idea and practice of metre reading. They would sit in their office and by whatever means, best known to them, decide what an individual would pay for power consumed.

Twelve years after the introduction of the prepaid metering system, the metres are yet to go round. Consumers have pleaded, they have threatened and now, they are insisting that it is prepaid metre or nothing, preferring to be without light.

As at the time of this report, some areas at Papa Ajao and Ilasamaja, both in Mushin Local Government Area, have been without power for four weeks. Some of them spoke to the Next Edition on the issue.

Mr. Jude Ononuju, who owns a pharmacy store at Yessuf Street, Papa Ajao, Mushin, Lagos, and also resides on one of the adjoining streets affected by the power outage told The Next Edition:  “This PHCN issue, I don’t know the word I would use to qualify them, whether they are fraudsters or 419, but I would say that they are stealing by tricks by billing us between N28, 000 and N35, 000, per flat in a month. I have complained severally, I have been to their office severally too. They asked me to photocopy the bills and bring to them, I did that also several times, yet nothing happened. Sometimes they would ask me to write a letter of complaint, which I have done still nothing changed.

“I don’t know why it is like that especially this our area, Papa Ajao, Mushin. I think it is worse here. The last bill I got, which is part of what is causing trouble is N30, 000 and this is just energy charge for this my pharmacy shop. In my house, a two-bed room flat, they gave me N28, 000. So, for electricity bill alone, I’m expected to pay almost N60, 000, in one month. And if you pay like N28, 000 out of the N30, 000, they will still disconnect your light. Down the street, they gave one woman N35, 000 in a two-bed room flat.”

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He continued: “About three months ago, they billed me N28, 000. I paid N26, 000. They still wanted to disconnect the light, one of my girls wanted to pour water on them, before they came down. I really don’t know what PHCN wants from us or why they are doing this. I have done everything they asked me to do. So I am appealing to the government and the Minister of Power and Housing to come to our aid. Sometimes, after paying the light bill, every other bill is left pending including our children’s school fees. Government should really look into this issue and do something to help us with this situation.”

Mr. Ononuju insisted that the prolonged outage was deliberate on the part of Eko distribution, which is in charge of the area. His words: “Close to a month now, if not more than, we have not had light in the area. And it’s not as a result of any fault. They intentionally shut off power because residents refused to pay the bills they brought. Our position on the matter is, ‘no prepaid metre, no payment.’

“I have gone to their head office in Lagos to complain, the community leaders have gone to complain as a body, yet, they have not done anything. What they keep telling us is that there are no prepaid metres.”

He alleged that a staff of the distribution company promised to get him a prepaid metre but never did, absconding with his N30, 000.

On how long he has been receiving the exorbitant bill, he said: “We have been getting this crazy bill for a long time, like up to two years or more now and we’ve been complaining without any changes. Each month, I pay about N60, 000 – 70,000, and it affects me. The worst part is that they don’t even read the metres.

“A few people on the street have prepaid but majority do not  have. It is not as if we have regular power supply here to justify the bill. There is no way the bill we are given is commensurate with the power we are given.

“I have been to the Marina office to see if I can get the prepaid metre, but they said they didn’t have and directed me to the branch at Aswani. There also, they told me they didn’t have prepaid metres.”

Mr. Onyenekan Gbolagade is the Secretary of the Association of the streets affected by the power tussle.

He narrates their story: “Our issue with the distribution company started around August 10, 2018. They brought bills for the area, which was so high. The people complained that they could no longer cope with the amount they are being given on a monthly basis. So, there was a meeting of the residents, those who are not on prepaid metres, and we agreed to go to the PHCN office to formally complain. We did this.

“On getting there, we told them that the bill was too much. They collected the bills and told us that we would hear from them. But we didn’t hear anything. A few days later, they took the light. We thought it was the normal thing and that they would bring the light back. It was not until a week after, that information got to us that they disconnected the light from the feeder.

“We went back to their office and they told us to go and pay our bills, this was happening around the ileyaperiod and we pleaded with them to reconnect the light so people can enjoy the celebrations, but they were adamant that we should collect our bills and go and pay.

“We told them that people cannot afford to pay the bill. Imagine a room paying N35, 000. When they didn’t respond well, we had no other options than to contact our lawyers who have written to them. Up till now, they have not restored our light. In these hard times, nobody has that kind of money to pay.”

According to him, they have been dealing with the District Manager at the Isolo branch of the Eko distribution as well as the Marina office.

Mr. Gbolagade told The Next Editionthat negotiations had been suspended for now.

“In the first place, they don’t have the right to disconnect everybody. Some people are on prepaid, so why should they be denied their right? Those whose businesses depend on availability of light, cannot do their businesses. These are some of the things we are agitating against. They have to restore the light first before we can proceed with negotiations. They think we don’t know our rights?

“Two years ago, we had the same issue and matched to their office but they cajoled us to go and pay that they will do something about the bills. We trusted them and did as they asked us to but the bills kept increasing. This time, the people said they are not going to accept the crazy bills.

“Information reaching us is that there are prepaid metres available but they don’t want to give them out because they are selling it at the rate of N120, 000 – N150, 000 to people that have the money,” he alleged.

Continuing, he said:  “Our lawyers have written to the management of both the Marina office and the Isolo branch and they acknowledged them all.”

For residents of Kekereowo and environs at Ilasamaja, Lagos, electricity was taken off on August 13,  2018.

According to Musa, residents of the area had met and agreed they would no longer pay the estimated bills, which their power distributor, Eko Distribution, was giving.

He told The Next Edition that some single users were getting as high as N35, 000, per month.

At a meeting between the residents and Eko distribution officials at the Isolo office, on September 13, one of the leaders of Kekereowo residents who would only identify himself as Mr. Kayode, said they were prepared to pay a flat rate of N5, 000 per metre pending when they will be metered.

Insisting that they must be given prepaid metres, he said paying the bills as issued to them was unacceptable. “We have made it clear to your colleagues and we are saying it again that we cannot pay what they have given us. All we want from this meeting is for you to make us an offer and we can negotiate,” he told the officials led by the District Manager, Mr. Chukwudike Dim.

Responding, Mr. Dim insisted that prepaid metres were not available as the Discos could not afford the financial burden of importing them. He also tried to debunk the claim by the people that power to their area was deliberately turned off by their staff. An argument, which the people did not buy.

He also told the agitators that the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) had contracted out the importation, distribution and installation of the prepaid metres under its Metre Asset Provider (MAP), project, and assured them they would be metered once they become available.

According to Mr. Dim, however, there were two options to resolving the estimated billing problem on the long run and these he said were either taking load inventory or using the Distribution Transformer Monitor (DTM). But in the meantime, he insisted they should pay their outstanding bill.

“I cannot stand here and tell you to pay any amount without knowing what you are using. I am new in this office even though I served in the district earlier. For now, go and pay your bill and anybody who feels he or she is over billed should come with their bill and we would look into it,” he told them.

After a long drawn out meeting lasting over three hours without any agreement, officials of the Discos and the leaders of community along with some residents went into a closed door meeting.

At the of the meeting, the residents were told to pay 60% of the disputed bill with a promise that power would be restored to their area within 24 hours of the meeting.

This, however, did not go down well with some of the residents. One of them who spoke to The Next Editionunder anonymity said, “how can they agree to pay 60%? My bill is N35, 000, if I should pay 60%, that would be N21, 000. For a month, that is still very high and I cannot pay it. Did they not think of that when they were discussing with the officials.

“If I have to pay N21, 000, what was the point of all the weeks of no light. Why all the hours we have wasted meeting with the officials. This is nonsense. It can’t work.”

Another resident who was not satisfied with the outcome of the meeting also insisted that he would not pay.

Hear him: “I’m a single user and my bill is N28, 000. 60% of that is N16, 800, it is still too much for me to pay.”

A day after the meeting, in keeping with their promise, power was restored to the residents of Kekereowo and environs after their leaders signed an undertaking to abide by the agreement.

Yet, some residents remain adamant that they will not pay the 60%. Ms. Kemi told The Next Edition: “They restored the light about 8.30p.m on August 14 after our leaders had gone to their office sign, but people are still insisting that they will not pay. Like me now, they are billing me N26, 000. So they expect me to pay almost N16, 000. I can’t pay that.”

Mr. Ugochukwu Orji, a resident of Oshinkolu Street, off Oloja, Papa Ajao, who is on prepaid metre lent his voice to the story: “I’m on prepaid metre, yet EKO Distribution has chosen to deprive us the use of the light. I personally felt shortchanged and see it as a breach of contract. We buy our credit as we use but because there is no way they can give us electricity without those on estimated bill enjoying it, that’s why they seized it from source. Though we are not ‘enjoying’, the light now, there’s nothing we can do.

“However, I don’t think the bill they present is fair on the people. It’s outrageous. I see people being billed as much as N35, 000, a month. And really the power supply here cannot justify the bill in anyway.”

On what he averages in a month as prepaid metre user, Mr. Orji said: “As someone on prepaid, depending on what you use, especially if you go out in the morning and come back in the evening, you can do N2, 500 a month. But you can also do higher. It depends.”

He insisted that it was not possible to do N35, 000, a month on prepaid “even if you have air-conditioners in all your rooms.”

His position is corroborated by Mr. Jide Philips, resident at Ilasamaja. He said: “I don’t spend up to N4, 000, a month and I have a washing machine, freezer and some nights the kids use air-conditioner in their room.  This, of course, is in addition to the regular bulbs, fan and television.

“So how does the Discos arrive at the outrageous bills they give people? It’s cheating and extortion. Government really needs to look into the matter.”

The issue of making prepaid metres available to consumers has been a source of contention between users and the service providers. While the providers claim that the metres were not available, consumers insist they are selling it to the highest bidder.

As Mr. Kayode pointed out, the Discos officials at their meeting, a newly constructed four – flat building in his area had the metres installed recently.

Where did the metres come from?

There is a school of thought which insists that the Discos do not want the metres to go round because they will not make as much money, legal and illegal, as they do with estimated bills.

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