‘Assent to power reform amendment act will stop arbitrary estimated billings’

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Elias Offor

Mr. Elias Offor holds a Masters Degree in International Law from the University of Turin, Italy. In addition, he has undergone relevant training with the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute. 

Offor has bagged some awards like the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) Merit Award and the Nigerian Law School Moot Court Prize. He has also worked as a Lecturer at the Nigerian Police Academy, Wudil, Kano. 

He started his law practice from the Nigerian Law Publications and Gani Fawehinmi Chambers. 

Human rights activist, he has represented groups before the House of Assembly Committee on Public Petitions.

Electricity power generation in Nigeria has become an albatross for the nation’s authorities. Successive governments, in spite of all efforts such as the unbundling of the National Electricity Power Authority (NEPA), have not been able to find answers to the power conundrum. They have all ended up gifting Nigerians darkness in exchange for their hard-earned money. In this interview with Assistant Editor, Law & Foreign Affairs, Joseph Onyekwere and Sunday Aikulola, an Abuja-based energy lawyer, Mr. Elias Offor decried the situation and gave the verdict that assent to the amended Electric Power Sector Reform Act 2005 would at least curb the rip-off in the sector, while citizens endlessly wait for improved power generation. 

What does the regulation say about non-metered buildings by the electricity distribution companies?
The Methodology for Estimated Billing 2012 made by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), pursuant to its powers under Section 96 of the Electric Power Sector Reforms Act, 2005 states clearly the categories of electricity consumers that may be issued estimated bills. According to Regulations 5.1, 5.2 and 5.3 respectively, they are customers with faulty metres, those whose metres cannot be read and those without metres at all. However, the regulations go ahead to state the methodologies for the estimated billings.

A recourse to the consumer rights handed down by NERC pursuant to the Electricity Reforms Act, states that the right of un-metered customers to be issued electricity bills is strictly based on NERC’s estimated billing methodology. One wonders whether such methodology should not equally be periodically explained to the consumers for engendering transparency in the process. The qualifying directive to this rule that such process should not be arbitrary simply begs the question. A situation where the DisCos operatives simply put a lame look at the “cut-out” terminal and go back to the office to report the load without any information regarding such an outcome to the consumer who only sees the outcome in a new bills regime, which at times triples what used to be levied is in itself arbitrary. In other cases of attending to similar complaints for the consumers, electrical appliances popularly referred to as points are also taken for such analysis. The consumer is also left in the dark in this process which still turns out in a similar surprise where the bills take a different mind blowing turn. The extent to which these complex methodologies are supervised by NERC or explained to consumers so they could be abreast of such billing systems seriously begs for explanations. Another consumer right churned out by the NERC in discharging their constitutional duties states that the consumer should be notified in writing ahead of disconnection of electricity service by the electricity distribution company serving such a consumer. The widespread disregard of this rule and lack of adequate sanction contained in the rules from the regulatory body has made the DisCos to continue this flagrant violation of the consumers’ rights with impunity. It is important to note that the general information concerning payment and disconnection dates typewritten on the bills do not fit into the requirements of the law. A separate disconnection notice must predate each disconnection operation to apprise the consumers with the specific date of disconnection. On June 24, 2019 all the flats on the premises where I reside including the metred apartments were disconnected without any form of notice, for what the DisCo officials called a discrepancy on the residents’ accounts in their (DisCos) system. On inquiry, I was told that the whole residents had been summoned to present all their bills for examination. That night was spent without power supply in the building. For clarity, Connection and Disconnection Procedure for Electricity Services 2007 states that disconnection of electricity supply to a customer can only be after a written notice has been served on such a consumer by the DisCo. The requirement for a written notice can only be jettisoned where there is an illegal connection by the consumer.

Also where due to any act or omission of a customer, a metre is inaccessible to be read for three consecutive bills, provided the DisCo informs the customer by written notice or telephone contact of the inaccessibility of the metre and requests him to provide access arrangement and he fails to do so, further notice could be dispensed with before disconnection. According to the procedure, after disconnection, a notice of disconnection stating the date and time as well as reason for disconnection must be provided to the premises. These rules have never been complied with by the DisCos in totality and the regulatory bodies remain toothless bulldogs for what the late Fela (Anikulapo-Kuti) described as “paddy paddy” relationship. It is very worrisome because, the ordinary people are always at the receiving end.

Who then should be held accountable for lack of proper regulation in the sector?
The Electricity Power Sector Reforms Act 2005 sets up the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission and Section 32 which states the objectives and functions of the Commission states that it shall have the responsibility of ensuring a balanced billing system that will be fair both to the licensees (the DisCos) and the consumers. The same Section 32 in its subsection (g) states that NERC shall present a quarterly report to the presidency and the National Assembly on its activities. This undoubtedly shows that the issue of who to hold accountable for non-compliance with extant laws by the DisCos cuts across the presidency and the lawmakers apart from the huge duty of due diligence and fairness ordinarily owed by the DisCos to the consumers. One wonders whether the procedure laid down by the laws are ever complied with in this whole estimated billing saga.

In your view, how can the ultimatum for end to estimated billing be enforced? 
When in January 2019, the Bill criminalising estimated billing by DisCos passed third reading in the National Assembly, Nigerians heaved a sigh of relief not knowing that assent to the bill could wait forever. Seven months down the line, electricity consumers, especially those living in non-metred apartments are still yearning in despair without any remedy in view. The bill sponsored by Honourable Femi Gbajabiamila which is set to amend the Electric Power Sector Reform Act 2005 contains a lot of useful innovations which should have been given a rapid push regarding the mischief it is called to address. For instance, the bill amended Section 67 of the Act to give the Regulatory Commission power to proscribe estimated billing. Sections 68 to 72 of the Principal Act were completely amended to outlaw any form of estimated billing and prescribe adequate punishment for offenders.
Taken that there is still a glimmer of light in view of the pending law, it is presently a free-for-all in guerrilla enforcement of revenue by the DisCos, a rat race to grab much before they are finally caged. Assent to this bill will definitely do everything concerning stoppage of the arbitrary estimated billing.

Comparatively, what obtains in other jurisdictions where power companies are unbundled?
In other countries where power companies have been unbundled, the regulatory bodies become active to make sure the various components comply with extant rules.

In recent times, we have seen electricity distribution company officials brutalised while trying to disconnect customers. Can such action be justified on account of the perceived exploitation by DisCos? 
It is illegal for anyone to take the laws into his hands. There are however, laid down procedures for making complaints pertaining to the excesses of the DisCos. Unfortunately, these procedures hardly produce satisfactory results. I give an example with my own experience. I packed into an apartment in September last year and met a jaw-dropping estimated billing by Abuja Electricity Distrivution Company (AEDC). I then wrote the NERC Consumer forum according to the complaint procedure made by NERC. I was informed that a hearing would be made in about two months. In February this year, the bills had increased astronomically and no hearing was fixed and neither did I get any response from the forum. I dropped another complaint letter to the Area Office and copied NERC. I had also written to the head office at Zone 6 without any response. It was in April that a prepaid metre was finally installed. But before the installation, the arrears of accumulated billing were deliberately orchestrated ready for migration into the metre. Another letter for reconsideration of the billing to the area office had a very minute effect as the bulk of the accumulated amount was migrated to the metre making any amount loaded to evaporate like air. When I dashed to the area office armed with the last complaint letter, a paper containing what they called debt being deducted from the metre was printed and presented to me. It looked so complex that even the customer care representative could not explain anything contained in the paper. Where are we going from here? I re-echo what Senator Dino Malaye said in one of the Senate plenaries when he lamented about estimated billing on his apartment. If as a lawyer, I passed through this needless predicament in the hands of the DisCos, what of the ordinary people that hardly know their rights or what to do?

Comparing where we are coming from, can you say we have achieved any success unbundling NEPA with the current state of power generation in the country? 
I dare say without equivocation that we have to go back to the drawing board to better the lot of the power sector. What is success and how do we measure it? Do we measure it in the light of the DisCos or the consumers? Do we measure it by comparing the relatively steady electricity of the past to the erratic supplies of recent times? Or maybe when the DisCos feed fat at the expense of the poor consumers, we will say that success has been achieved. The companies are pursuing profits with brazen disregard to the rights of the consumers. We have not achieved the set milestone contemplated by the policy unbundling the NEPA.

In all of those, what does it say about the fight against corruption in Nigeria?
Social injustice is the worst injustice that any people will have to grapple with. The saying that there is no peace without justice is indisputable. Moreover, when the institutions of the government saddled with various functions are weak, whatever policies doled out by the government become mere charade. The fight against corruption cannot yield result without the appropriate reform of the institutions enforcing various rules and regulations. An example of a functional society is where these institutions are functioning effectively to achieve government’s set objectives.

What do you think is fueling the increasing rate of insecurity in the country?
Insecurity is one of the major problems the country is currently facing. We have the Boko Haram, the killer herdsmen and armed banditry in various shades. The loss of life and property is also telling. In all these, several questions have been begging for answers. What is delaying the implementation of the much-talked about regional or state police and the amendment of relevant laws to engender this?  Among the top countries in Africa affected by the worst armed conflicts in the past two years based on the Uppsala Conflict Data Programme, Nigeria has been ranked after Somalia in terms of higher scale of fatalities. Kenya despite the significant spill-over effects of the Somalia civil war and political violence has occupied a lower scale in terms of fatalities. Libya currently facing some violent crises and severally mentioned in arms proliferation in the Lake Chad Basin, also recorded lower fatalities moving their conflicts outside the rubric of “wars” in the conflict chart. A total overhaul of the security architecture in the country is urgently needed. In addition to the call for a state police and adequate remuneration and increase in the number of police-civilian ratio, the quasi-military autonomy in the anti-terror operations in the North East has shrouded the war with some forms of secrecy and that should not be the case. It has also created unnecessary politics in the anti-terror operations. There could be checks of some sorts when the military echelons in the battle experience some forms of change. The next hierarchy takes charge of necessary investigations and fills loopholes. This way, sabotages and other infractions in the theatres of war could be reduced maximally. Farmers have not only been sacked from their farms by killer herdsmen, they have been killed in their numbers. If other countries have effectively ranched cattle, why should it be difficult in Nigeria?

Source:

https://guardian.ng/features/assent-to-power-reform-amendment-act-will-stop-arbitrary-estimated-billings/

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