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Enugu electric’s digital migration: Sour New Year ‘gift’ unsettles Southeast consumers

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Clutching his prepaid smart card, Onuoha Ikenna walked briskly into the Agbani Road service station of the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC) on January 2 to recharge for him to enjoy electricity supply at his residence. He actually ran out of energy on January 1, but since it was not a working day, he decided to do the transaction the next day.

He was, however, shocked by the response of EEDC’s vending staff on duty, who told him he would no longer enjoy electricity supply via the prepaid smart card, as the company had phased it out on December 31. He was asked to register and apply for a new digital meter. Furthermore he was advised to apply for “meter by-pass” to enable him continue to enjoy electricity, while waiting for the new meter.

The staff explained that the ‘meter by-pass’ meant he would be placed on estimated billing, pending installation of the new meter.

What Ikenna found more worrisome, however, was that there was no specific time frame for the installation. So, he went home to monitor the development and has been living without electricity since then. His fear is that, using the ‘meter-bypass’ would cost him N19, 000 per month, which he doesn’t have.

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Narrating his ordeal to The Guardian, Ikenna, a commercial cab operator, noted that there was no prior awareness campaign on the new policy. He said he was only informed that a new meter would cost N39, 000 for the single phase and N69, 000 for the double phase.

He said: “If I pay N39, 000 to install a meter in a property where I’m a tenant, that means I will be forced to procure a new one, when relocating to another place.

“It is a wicked policy. EEDC is taking its customers for a ride because of the monopoly it is enjoying. How can I suddenly be placed on estimation billing after procuring a functional prepaid meter years ago? Placing you on estimation means paying as much as N19, 000 per month, when power supply has been erratic. It is not right. I think they are trying to rip me off. Otherwise, they should have quietly replaced the meter, since it is still their property. Why would they subject me to paying for their property?”

Mrs. Charity Ugwu, a businesswoman, who lives at 6, Agbede Street, Awkunanaw, said a notification about the new policy was posted on their building on December 20.

Tendering a copy of the notice dated December 16, 2019 and signed by one Ijotirmaya Lenka, a Network Manager for Awkunanaw district, she said she was alarmed to discover she had less than two weeks to sort herself out for possible new meter or risk living in darkness.

“I quickly recharged and that is what I am enjoying now,” she said. “I have never heard that EEDC was replacing prepaid meters, except through that notice. I know there was a time they said they procured new meters, but the announcement was that those who did not have prepaid meters should apply, not those with existing prepaid meters.

“Besides, my prepaid meter is functional. I inherited it from PHCN and have maintained it since then. If they think it is obsolete and doesn’t have the appropriate technology to sustain it, is this the way to go about it? It is unfortunate that EEDC has continued to lie about these meters. Why would they claim they informed us before now? Through which means? It is sad.”

Ikenna and Ugwu are among the about 40, 000 EEDC customers in the Southeast that were given the New Year gift of darkness on the guise of migrating them from their Standalone meters to a digital metering platform. It has, indeed, been so frustrating to the residents. After Christmas and New Year festivities, majority of them no longer enjoy electricity. The development has assumed a major discourse in the zone, with many calling on the regulatory authority to call EEDC to order.

Explaining the facts behind the discontinuation of the standalone (unistar) meters in their network, EEDC, which is the sole distributor of electricity to the five states of the zone, said the about 40, 000 customers, out of the over 1.3 million customers they have in the zone and located on eight of their 18 districts still use them.

The company claimed it communicated in writing to affected customers “the increasing difficulty in providing support for the card reader system used in vending these meters over three months ago.”

EEDC said: “These card readers are now only available at a handful of our Service Centres, with most of them malfunctioning. In addition, due to age and obsolescence, these meters are no longer reliable and the vending system is inconvenient to customers. We recently upgraded our billing system, and the new system is designed to make customers experience even better.”

The Company said it had provided a consultation of several teams for each Service Centre to ensure timely migration of affected customers to the new prepaid meters, and those with used credit in their meter accounts will be transferred to their new meter accounts, once the team of installers arrive their locations for the exercise.

It further explained that to address the financial burden of affected
customers, the company had undertaken to install new meters under the Meter Asset Provider (MAP) Scheme, without the requirements for initial upfront full payment, while the installment payment will be spread over 24 months.

EEDC’s latest position on the contentious issue, which was made public on January 8, contravenes an earlier statement from the company that was conspicuously posted at their Service Centres. The undated statement indicated that affected customers would be migrated to “postpaid connection” and would start receiving the postpaid bills from the next billing cycle, starting from February 2020. It added that their existing credit/unit would be adjusted in the postpaid bill.

The statement also said customers that had already run out of credit and wished to continue to enjoy electricity supply would be de-commission and migrated to postpaid connection, pending installation of the new digital meters.

But this explanation appears not to have gone down well with the residents, who are rising against it.

A Public Affairs analyst, Joseph Nnaji asked: “Why should people on prepaid meters be put on estimated billing, instead of replacing their meters already bought and in use before the introduction of another meter the provider calls smart prepaid meters?

“Again, EEDC should inform the people of the operational standards. How long will it take them to provide new meters and would there be supply before then? How are they going to be billed, pending arrival of the new meters? I know that Southeast gets the least of the generated power and pays more for it by design, not the making of the DISCO.

“EEDC appears to be making matters worse by its methods and approaches. Did they explain to consumers why they want to change functional meters? Do they have to implement it by foisting it on consumers? I watched one of their officers on television explaining the situation, and I just felt it is still the monopoly attitude of providers.

“The officer said they informed consumers six months ago. Is that how to sensitise? Even if they did, the backlash is a feedback loop that the sensitisation was not effective, and they can suspend it and do a proper thing. Since the consumers are to pay for the new meters, what happens to the ones they paid for, which EEDC will take back, even when still functional?

“ I know they have been under-remitting funds for which their licence is under threat, but they should not use our people to make up, while not providing requisite services. If Nigeria is making the region to pay more for less, EEDC should not aggravate the exploitation.”

Another resident attributed the new order to the owners’ inability to invest into it, since it was handed over to them four years ago.

Angered by the development, the Conference of Nigeria Political Parties
(CNPP) has given the company a 14-day ultimatum to rescind the decision or face the occupation of its premises by residents.

CNPP in a statement by its chairman in Enugu State, Adonys Igwe also asked the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) to properly supervise EEDC’s activities, especially the alleged “exploitative tendencies and stop the unjust policy against the people of Southeast.”

Igwe noted that there could not be any economic development in a nation, “where power supply is irregular, especially when people are made to pay for what they did not consume.”

Similarly, a Coalition of Civil Society Organisations and Concerned Citizens have described the recovery of standalone meters from electric consumers and asking them to pay for its replacement as undue exploitation, which must be resisted.

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Addressing newsmen at the Secretariat of the Enugu State Correspondents Chapel of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), their leader, Onyebuchi Igboka, said they might resort to the law court to ensure compliance to the people’s yearnings, should their appeal to rescind the decision fail.

Igboka lamented that NERC has seemingly compromised its position by not restricting EEDC’s extortionist tendencies.

Corroborating Igboka’s stance, Ken Onyekaonwu said it was unacceptable that the people should be confronted with hardship by
EEDC. He said with the new policy, many residents have been put on the edge.

“Will NTA or TVC go to people’s homes and claim ownership of television sets or dishes,” he queried. “Will telecoms companies go to individuals to claim ownership of handsets people bought from the markets?  Replacement of meters should be EEDC’s business and not that of consumers. This is injustice and should not be allowed.”

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