Almighty DISCOs & Monopoly of Power

Almighty DISCO caricature

There was a time in Nigeria when if you wanted a telephone line at home or in the office, you must, of necessity, go to NITEL – acronym for Nigeria Telecommunications Limited. It was the only government-owned company mandated to provide such services to Nigerians.

But because they monopolised that sector, NITEL ran exasperating rings round their customers: they tossed lines indiscriminately; charged customers exorbitant fees for services not provided and if you dare complain, you might never see that chunky set resembling a miniature typewriter you so much wanted on a corner table in your sitting room unless you went to them on your knees – with cash.

In short, you couldn’t do without NITEL. And because of their vice-like grip on anything from installing new telephone lines to making calls, NITEL played God, turning themselves into monopolists in the process. But most Nigerians know that, for the period it lasted, NITEL was a colossal failure.

Nigerians also know that NITEL’s obituary was written when TELCOS replaced it as service provider in that all-too-important sector in the lives of many citizens. And such was NITEL’s total demise that, today, some younger generation of Nigerians brandishing sleek Android and I-Phones do not even know what NITEL stands for let alone what its national mandate was.

Competition, economists like to say, brings out the best in people, products and services. And where there is no competition? The result is strangulating monopoly, monopoly that does not grow business rather it stifles or kills business.

Nigerians are beginning to feel strongly that DISCOs (Distribution Companies) in the power sector may go the same way as NITEL, meaning that if they do not shape up, they may eventually ship out.

A major reason is their monopoly of the power sector. Known by several regional names like Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC), Eko Electricity Distribution Company (EKEDC), the existing DISCOs in the country are 11 in number. To be sure, DISCOs do not generate or transmit power. Gencos and TCN do that while DISCOs distribute to our homes and collect revenue for power consumption. This is where they have had the most serious issues with customers ever since they came on in 2017, especially paying customers who complain of overbilling, illegal disconnection and much else.

Last October, to cite a recent face-off between a customer and EKEDC, a woman in Surulere, Ms. Oluwasolafunmi Kotun, an accountant and development coach, was overbilled by almost three hundred percent. The bill EKEDC sent to her suddenly rose from N33, 000 to N215, 000 in just two months.

“In September, it went from N33, 195. 66 to N83, 859.30,” Ms. Kotun told THEWILL via a WhatsApp message. “We paid because the tariff had been raised and we got more power. When they brought the October bill, it went from roughly N84, 000 to N215, 360.32 for a household. The bill claims that our energy consumption was 3, 572. 45 kilowatts.”

According to the accountant, her house is under Ijora/ BAGCO feeder band. Since the house itself has not been metered, the feeder band in her own case cannot go higher than 856 kilowatts and not the 3, 572.45 kilowatts by EKEDC.

Of course, the woman refused to pay because her household consumption pattern had not changed. Soon after the outrageous bill, Kotun wrote to understand why and how. No response came from EKEDC. Next, she wrote another to a forum where differences between consumers and suppliers are resolved. Nothing came of it. Kotun has also written to Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) but met the same wall of silence.

In the back and forth between the accountant and EKEDC, the power distributors threatened to disconnect her from the power grid. But she stood her ground, insisting that, according to NERC, disconnections are not permitted or at best ilegal if there is an ongoing altercation between a consumer and the supplier.

There is also the matter of N400, 000 arrears which EKEDC insists she must pay before providing a pre-paid meter. She refused to pay. Kotun believes the “matter of technicalities on billing and the failure of EKEDC to be customer centric. If we did not complain, they would have cheated us and used it as a way to get us to blindly move to pre-paid metering.”

According to Kotun, a staff of EKEDC came once to the residence to install a prepaid meter. But he came with a single phase meter for two buildings with three phases. A second installer called but never visited the premises in person.

In an earlier letter sent to EKEDC concerning the unresolved arrears, Kotun complained that she “has never heard a situation where any bill payer will agree to pay a portion of a bill that includes a disputed amount as part of the ‘total amount due…the unwillingness of any of your team members to a request for clarification on the revised December bill and to state  clearly (without the usual ambiguity) an amount to pay highlights the inability of EKEDC to provide transparent billing to us as a customer.”

Of course, EKEDC’s customer care would have received thousands of such complaints from customers. Responding to the complainant, Tope Ajiboye of EKEDC said the company he represents “regret the delay experienced with regards to reconciliation of account.” He also urged the customer to “make payment based on the approved capping for your feeder knowing full well that reconciliation was ongoing and to enable you still enjoy supply.”

For now, however, the customer is not much keen on EKEDC power supply. After the disconnection, she installed solar panels and bought inverters as alternatives to the Almighty DISCO.

Generating her own electricity supply is the least of her worries, though. What is more galling is how EKEDC has breached her right as a consumer. For those who do not know, there are certain rights due customers of power companies. One is that “all customers have a right to transparent billing.” Others are notifying customers in writing ahead of disconnection of the electricity service by the DISCOS serving the customer in line with NERC’s guidelines” as well as the customer’s right to contest any electricity bill.

Customers also have a “right to file complaint and to the prompt investigation of complaints.”

It is apparent that in the face-off between Kotun and EKEDC, the power company never observed any of those rules.  For one, it took EKEDC three long months to respond to the intial complaint made last October. Even the one made in December is yet to be addressed.

It must be said however, that DISCOS also have their own worries in discharging their duties. One is they are underfunded and become insolvent in the process. Witness last week’s takeover of Ibadan Electricity Distribution Company. The receivers were there at the head office in the Oyo state capital to take over IBEDC.

IBEDC services not only the entire Oyo state but neigbhouring states like Ogun, Ondo, Osun and some parts of Ekiti and Kwara. The takeover by Assets Management of Nigeria (AMCON) was announced by the COO of IBEDC, Engineer John Ayodele to the startled staff of IBEDC.

But are takeovers lasting solutions to poor performance of DISCOS or their shabby treatment of customers and sheer unprofessionalism in performing their duty?

Experts say no, insisting the real problem is their monopoly in the power sector. They couldn’t be more correct. NITEL once had that monopoly. Once TELCOs were introduced into that sector, Nigerians were free of NITEL’s stranglehold.

Can the same measures work with the Almighty DISCOS? Can the government break their monopoly in the power sector and allow professionally-minded, private companies run the power sector?

Those are questions Nigerians have been asking without credible answers just yet. For some however, not bowing to bullying tactics and overbilling by DISCOS is now a thing of the past. Ms. Kotun is a living example. With her solar panels and inverters, she has looked the supercilious staff of EKEDC in the eye and not blinked first.

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