OpinionViews

Reps and that evil called Estimated Billing

For many decades, Nigerians have been grappling with the problem of what is called Estimated Billing in the power sector. Until nearly about a decade and a half ago, when prepaid metres were introduced in major cities of the country in 2006, electricity consumers in Nigeria had resigned to their fate.

So, what is Estimated Billing? Though all electricity consumers are familiar with what has now become an evil act, a rough definition may not be a bad idea. Estimated Billing, simply put and as the name implies, is a billing system where various electricity distribution companies (Discos) sit in the comfort zones of their offices and decide what a household or a business organisation consumes of electricity in a month without using any verifiable and known yardstick.

In other words, the Discos bill their customers based on assumptions, not minding the actual consumption within a particular period. A situation where citizens use their hard-earned money to pay for the electricity that they never consume should not be allowed by any society. Unfortunately, that has been the practice since the days of the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) and the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), both of which are now defunct. This looks more like a heist going on for years.

Nigerians from all walks of life have complained bitterly about the exorbitant amounts they pay through the noses for electricity supply that has been epileptic. At some point, they had to surrender. The practice is so weird and bizarre that even unoccupied houses are billed.

Disturbed by the way Discos take advantage of millions of Nigerians through Estimated Billing, invariably reaping where they do not sow, fleecing the citizens in the process, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. Femi Gbajabiamila, introduced a bill that seeks to prohibit and criminalise the act in all instances except where a consumer’s metre cannot be accessed by the service provider.

The draft legislation, first tabled before the House in 2018 when Gbajabiamila was the House Leader, has the long title ‘A Bill for an Act to amend the Electric Power Sector Reforms Act to Prohibit and Criminalise Estimated Billing by Electricity Distribution Companies and provide for compulsory installation of prepaid meters to all power consumers in Nigeria and other related matters.’ Its short title is ‘The Electric Power Sector Reform Act (Amendment) Bill.’

Passed for the first, second and third readings by the 8th House of Representatives, the Bill could not be assented to by the President.

Determined to ameliorate the hardships Nigerians go through in the hands of the Discos, Gbajabiamila reintroduced the Bill in the current 9th Assembly. In fact, it was one of the earliest Bills introduced in the life of the 9th House.

What does the Bill say? It provides that Discos must install prepaid metres on the premises of a consumer within 30 days of receiving an application and payment from such consumer or face penalties.

Thus, the Bill states that any Disco that fails to provide prepaid metres within the stipulated time frame is prevented from refusing a consumer access to power supply, disconnecting them, where connection has already been granted, or reverting to Estimated Billing.

What this means is that once the Bill becomes law, it will become criminal for Discos to issue estimated bills, and failure to comply with this provision attracts either a one-year jail term or a fine of N1 million or both.

Leading the debate on the bill during its reintroduction, Gbajabiamila, who came down from the Chair, where he was presiding, noted that the action of the Discos was highly condemnable and unacceptable by every standard. He argued that: “This billing is not known by any scientific rule.”

The proposed law vests the powers of ensuring that Discos comply with its provisions on the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC).

In October last year, the House concluded work on the Bill and transmitted it to the Senate for concurrence before it will be forwarded to the President for his assent. The bill is still in the Red Chamber.

At every forum, Gbajabiamila voiced his opposition to the Estimated Billing system. On June 9 this year when he inaugurated the House Ad-hoc Committee on Power Sector Reforms, the Speaker said “Estimated billing remains a no, no for me and members of the House. However we need to do it, we have to do it.”

Gbajabiamila has also been an avid advocate of ensuring that all Nigerian electricity consumers are metered before any hike in tariff. For that, in late June, he, alongside the President of the Senate, Dr. Ahmad Lawan, met with President Muhammadu Buhari and convinced the president on the need to suspend the planned hike that was to take off on July 1. Both the Legislature and the Executive then agreed on the suspension, which was effected immediately.

On August 26, NERC, through its chairman, Mr James Momoh, came out with what was cheering news to Nigerian electricity consumers, saying President Buhari has directed the commencement of mass-metering programme nationwide. This, he said, was part of efforts to bring an end to Estimated Billing.

A day earlier, precisely on August 25, the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Hajiya Zainab Ahmed, announced that President Buhari has approved a one-year deferment of the 35 per cent import adjustment tax (levy) imposed on fully built unit electricity metres.

She said the approval was to support NERC in rolling out three million electricity metres under the Metre Asset Provider (MAP) framework.

The minister said: “The 35 per cent levy was imposed on the recommendation of the Federal Ministry of Industry, Trade and Investment, to encourage local production, as well as protect investments in the local assembly of electricity metres.”

The two actions taken by the President are indeed laudable, coming at a time that Nigerians demand value for their hard-to-get money, not just in the electricity they consume but also in other aspects of their lives.

A careful consideration of the whole situation would reveal that notwithstanding the President’s people-oriented directives, what is most needed to tackle the seemingly intractable problems of the power sector, especially with regard to Estimated Billing, is a law that would address the issues once and for all. If not, a return to the ‘old normal’ in the sector is inevitable once the period covered by the president’s directives is over.

Matter-of-factly speaking, there is an urgent need for the Bill at this time that the Discos have hiked electricity tariff, which will leave more sour tastes in the mouths of their customers, especially those under Estimated Billing.

This is where the synergy and the good working relationship that exist between the Executive and the Legislature since the take-off of the 9th National Assembly could come to play.

The President has between June 11 last year and now signed into law several bills passed by the National Assembly, including the Finance Act, the Deep Offshore Sharing Formula Act, the Companies and Allied Matters Act, among others.

With President Buhari’s posture on addressing the hydra-headed challenges in the power sector, it is given that once the Power Sector Reforms Act (Amendment) Bill gets to his table, he would not waste time in appending his signature to it.

When that is achieved, Nigerians can go to sleep with their two eyes closed, believing that they can get value for the electricity they pay for and consume.

Baba Ya’u wrote this piece from Abuja.

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