Enforcing Electricity Consumers’ Rights To Better Services

The absence of regulatory control in the power sector for many years resulted in an almost lawless situation where consumers were taken for granted and their rights trampled upon. With a regulator now in place, it is high time the consumer, rather than the service provider, became king of Nigeria’s fledging electricity market. Juliet Alohan writes

No doubt, electricity consumers in Nigeria have endured age-long epileptic power supply from an inefficient state-owned power firm even as they were denied any form of rights whatsoever, due to the near absence of customer service.

All that was made possible by the absence of an independent regulator, a development which has since been corrected with the Electric Power Sector Reform (ESPR) Act 2005.

The Act gave birth to an independent agency, the Nigerian Electricity Regulator Commission (NERC) which was first inaugurated on 31st October 2005. The commission was later disbanded and re-inaugurated in December 2010 with a mandate to exercise regulatory control of the nation’s electricity industry.

NERC is in line with the Act charged with monitoring and regulating the electricity industry as well as ensuring compliance with market rules and operating guidelines among others.

The reposition of the commission notwithstanding, the various distribution companies, which are successor companies of the state-owned firm, Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) are yet to divorce themselves of the old ways of operations and fully migrate to privatised era and offer services in line with best practices.


Unfair industry practices

Under the new era, many consumers still do not know their rights let alone, how to enforce them. They consequently still have their rights infringed on by the service providers.

Staff of the newly privatised firms still exhibit gross unprofessional conducts and ugly cases of illegal collection and extortion, illegal distribution and sale of electricity are rife in the industry.

It is appalling to find that consumers are still made to pay for electric poles, transformers and other materials which are otherwise the property of the firms.

According to the report of the late Bamidele Aturu-led probe committee, which was instituted by NERC, enforcement apparatus must be intensified to ensure proper implementation of existing regulations on metering, billing and cash collection as well as overall improvement in customer service to eliminate the culture of impunity in the electricity sector.

However, for efforts by NERC in enforcing operational rules and regulations in the electricity industry to yield desired results, consumer’s must fully know their rights and demand that they are met by the service providers.

For example, not many consumers in the sector are aware of their right to electricity services, right to accurately functioning and properly installed meters, right to refund in the event of overbilling by the Electricity Distribution Company (DISCO) and right to prompt investigation of complaints as well as right to right to information about planned power interruptions.

Similarly, many may be ignorant of their right to transparent billing, right to due process prior to disconnection of electric service, right to reconnection of electric service after resolving problems, right to file compliant before the Forum Office and ultimately NERC if compliant is unsatisfactorily unresolved at the Forum Office.

Furthermore, consumers have the right to be heard upon lodging a compliant, right to redress, right to consumer education and the right to a healthy environment and safety.

In reality, however, how many consumers are aware of these rights and how many exercise these them? Consumers may also not know that the service providers under the law are mandated to provide electricity equipment for new electricity installations and replacements of poles, wires, cables, transformers and other materials without tasking consumers to contribute money for such.

The service providers are also supposed to provide a well-equipped customer complaint units where consumers can lodge complaints even as they are mandated to duly inform customers of any tariff increase when they occur and enlighten them on the different tariff classes to aid them in avoiding a situation where consumers pay tariff rate of a customer class they do not belong to.

It is also the responsibility of the service provider to ensure an accessible vending station where prepaid customers can obtain electricity recharge cards. The service providers are mandated to ensure that such vending stations are open during normal working hours on week days and from 8.00am to 12.00 noon on weekends and public holidays.

Therefore, situations where customers are frequently unable to gain access to meter recharge cards constitute an abuse of consumer rights.

But without the knowledge of these rights, consumers can do little or nothing to enforce them, but rather continue to endure the widespread corruption engaged in by some corrupt officials of these service providers.

Of the widespread irregularities in the industry, the issue of metering and inaccurate billing remain one that consumers are eager to see addressed.

Specifically, closing the huge metering gap which existed in the sector where less than 50 per cent of electricity consumers are metered, was one of the areas many thought would be quickly addressed by the new owners upon taking over the utilities.

While this would have ensured that consumers pay for the energy they consume, findings on the ground suggest that the utilities are not in a hurry to meter customers but rather, prefer to have them on estimated billing where customers are served outrageous bills monthly whether or not there was power supply the entire period.

The bills are in most cases unrealistic and without recourse to the methodology on estimated billing initiated by NERC.

In arriving at an estimated billing for a customer, with regards to NERCs directive, DISCO is expected to establish a basis, considering the duration of electricity supply to the customer, apartment size and electrical appliances used and more importantly, benchmark with customers on prepaid metering within the same cluster.

But the reality on ground is one where consumers are unilaterally billed at the discretion of the DISCOs with their unit loads periodically increased.

The recent fact finding on the Credited Advance Payment for Metering Initiative (CAPMI) conducted by NERC revealed DISCO’s reluctance to provide customers with prepaid meters.

CAPMI is a scheme initiated by NERC whereby willing customers can advance money for purchase and installation of meters which should mandatorily be installed within 45 days by the company. The payments would be subsequently refunded through a rebate on the fixed charge element of the customers’ electricity bills.

Among companies scolded over poor implementation of metering under the CAPMI was the Jos Electricity Distribution Company (JEDC)

Chairman of NERC, Dr. Sam Amadi, who was represented by the general manager, Government and Consumer Affairs, Dr. Anthony Akah, said the regulator was not pleased with customers’ compliant of non-installation of meters by the DISCO despite having paid.

While noting that such failure is a breach of contract, he said: “We are not satisfied with your performance in terms of metering of your customers. This is a breach of contract, especially when a customer has paid for a meter under the CAPMI scheme. It is not that the meter suppliers are not forthcoming, we demand a satisfactory performance from you”, he said.

The level of electricity consumer’s ignorance about their rights has given room for their exploitation by the utility companies.

Clear cases of electricity consumer’s ignorance about their rights and how to demand them, by making input into policies that concern them have been observed at the various consumers forums organised by NERC across different parts of the country.

The forum usually has in attendance representatives of the service providers, electricity consumers and other stakeholders, but consumers have always been poorly represented.

NERC chairman, Dr. Sam Amadi has at various fora expressed displeasure over the poor response of consumers, especially residential consumers, at workshops aimed at enlightening them about their rights and responsibilities as well as getting their inputs into matters that affect them

Amadi has often lamented that despite advertising the notice of such meetings in both print and electronic media, consumers always turn up poorly.

“What can I do, I can’t go to their individual houses to force them out to make their input in a matter that affects them’,’ Amadi lamented, at a forum held in Abuja.

He assured however, that the commission would nonetheless continue to ensure that consumers are protected from unfair practices.

In the meantime, the president, Nigeria Consumers Protection Network, Kunle Kola Olubiyo, has tasked the regulator to put in more efforts aimed at enlightening consumers about their rights and ridding the sector of irregularities, saying a lot still needs to be done by NERC in its oversight function of the sector.

He alleged that DISCO now engage in price loading whereby they unilaterally increase a consumers unit consumption and bill them as such without carrying out a load audit to ascertain the appliances used by the customer.

While noting that NERC has done a lot to enforce regulatory policies in the sector, he said, “But gaps still exist in the regulatory function for which it needs to do more to make sure these things are checked. I am resident in Abuja and I am not on prepaid billing and I have seen across board, complaints from consumers.

“Consumers should be billed for energy they consume, it should be scientific, not at the whims and caprice or discretion of the DISCOs”, he stressed.

Conclusively, there is a need for the era of arbitrariness to, as a matter of urgency, be replaced with that of objectivity and decorum in dealing with electricity consumers issues and complaints. This would go a long way to justify the transition of the industry from government to private run.

Source : Leadership

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