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Criminalise estimated electricity billing!

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Electricity bill. PHOTO: Technology on Board

A bill before the House of Representatives seeking to criminalise the irritant estimated billing by the Electricity Distribution Companies (DISCOs) is remarkable at this time. When passed into law in good time, the legislation will alleviate the burden on electricity consumers, more especially, in this country where the plight of hapless consumers is hardly considered by the regulatory authorities.

A lot of complaints against estimated billing have been raised by electricity consumers across the country, but all to no avail. Rather than abating, the rip-off continues, with the result that at present, virtually all electricity consumers, except those with installed pre-paid meters, are often slammed with outrageous bills for electricity they did not consume.

The electricity distribution firms, unabashedly, are not restrained from demanding payment for power not supplied. And curiously, failure to pay results in illegal disconnection and blackout for consumers. This is an abhorrent conduct that should have no space in standard business practice. But again, this is an environment where consumers are not protected by agencies commissioned to do so. There is an impotent consumer protection agency, generally believed to be interested in blue chips and multinational firms that can easily make the news for them. This is unfortunate in the extreme.

Notwithstanding strange opposition to the Bill from the DISCOs, the lawmakers should do everything within their power to get it passed into law in the interest of equity, fairness and justice. The pro-consumer Bill deserves public support for its promoters and sponsors.

The culture of estimated billing, which amounts to blatant corruption has unfortunately been tolerated for too long. This is unacceptable. And so the time has come for the travesty to stop through this proposed legislation.

According to reports, the Bill, which seeks to amend the Electricity Power Sector Reforms Act 2004, has passed second reading and the public hearing stages.

It seeks to outlaw estimated billing and penalties for DISCOs that fail to supply prepaid meters to their consumers within 30 days of applying to be connected to power.

Sponsored by the Leader of the House, Femi Gbajabiamila, the Bill prescribes penalties ranging from a fine of N500, 000 to N1 million or a term of six months imprisonment.

The highpoint of the Bill is its provision that “All electricity charges or billings to the premises of every consumer shall be based strictly on prepaid metering and no consumer shall be made to pay any bill without a prepaid meter first being installed at the premises of the consumer.”

It is, however, unconscionable that after the House of Representatives concluded its public hearing on the Bill, many DISCOs opposed it and threatened mass disconnection of power to consumers should the law come into effect. This response itself is an affront to Nigeria’s legislature the constitution provides to make laws for the country.

Therefore, raising complaints, including the high cost of meters and alleged energy theft by consumers, which the DISCOs have called on the authorities to address may not be the main challenges. Such challenges will change when the electricity companies are efficient in service delivery to the people.

It is thus cheering to note that the House Leader and sponsor of the Bill, Hon. Gbajabiamila had reiterated that irrespective of the excuses offered by the DISCOs, they have failed to answer one fundamental question, which is: whether it was fair to bill customers for services not rendered.

The lawmaker noted that since no other country practices estimated billing, except in special cases, to deal with situations on a short run, nothing else could have been pushing the estimated billing than corruption. This is the inconvenient truth that most people in the public sector would not like to hear. We strongly support the National Assembly in its bid to solve the intractable problem.

Meanwhile, one way to deal with the situation within the framework of the proposed law is to liberalise the production of meters. Different companies should be encouraged to get involved in the production of meters as the Works, Housing and Power Minister once hinted. There should be no room for us to return to the old monopolistic way of procuring meters that can be easily procured in this digital age.

Therefore, let the day not come for the people to hear that the lobby of the DISCOs in the House of Representatives – to stop the Bill – has succeeded. That would be unfortunate in the extreme.


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