‘Bandits’ and the bands: Isssues arising – Dr.Muiz Banire

In Nigeria of recent, one of the recurrent words in our lexicon is ‘bandit/ banditry’. This word ordinarily connotes a band of marauders, preferably in local parlance, robbers. Those who carry out activities in defiance of the law. The usage is not unconnected with the numerous criminal acts going on in the country, cattle rustling, human ‘rustling’ otherwise known as kidnapping, property ‘rapes’, murders, arsons, etc. To this extent, it becomes indisputable that banditry is on rampage in the country. Beyond the technical, (as technical as the word is), the import of the word, in contemporary period, is now being used in other contexts such as political banditry, judicial banditry, legislative banditry etc. In the circumstances of this engagement, the word is being used to describe those responsible for the allocation of electricity Bands to the consumers of electricity in the country.

That is, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) and the various Distribution Companies (Discos). This is therefore no exception to the loose usage of the word ‘banditry’. As is known to us now, the NERC recently hiked the tariffs of electricity in the country by nearly three hundred percent. NERC is the regulatory commission in charge of electricity issues in Nigeria. Beyond being a government agency, it is primarily meant to cater for the interest of the consumers; not so much different from the Consumers Protection Board/Commission. Not so many electricity consumers are familiar with NERC as the routine organization they interface with are the private electricity distribution companies. Even where there are issues, only a negligible number of Nigerian electricity consumers are aware that they can complain to NERC, and out of the meagre number with knowledge of such, few have the patience, endurance and time to pursue such complaints with NERC. No wonder therefore that the aggression against the inhuman tariff is against the distribution companies rather than the NERC. Even in that little space, any enquiry as to how the NERC have fared would reveal abysmal failure.
If my experience,via my residents’ association, is something to go by, then NERC has recorded colossal failure. Prior to the recent onslaught by the NERC, Nigerians have been used to paying tariffs as communicated upon approval by NERC; or as consented to by the consumers under the arrangement known as willing-buyer-and-willing-seller scheme. Under the latter arrangement, the parties’ bargain and agree to the payable tariff. This initiative, I recall, was that of the Ikeja Government Reservation Area Residents’ Association with the Ikeja Electricity Distribution Company (Ikeja Disco) which for one reason or the other could not birth until the Magodo community embraced it ahead of the Ikeja GRA community. As part of the package under the bilateral agreement, the Ikeja Disco amongst other issues is to assure minimum electricity supply of twenty hours at an average daily.
The arrangement also subsumes undertakings such as the renewal of the electricity distribution infrastructure, corporate social responsibility to the community; high level customerservice standard through twenty-four hours’surveillance and availability, etc. Going by the experience of my community, not so much benefit was derived from the relationship. In fact, along the line, the relationship kept drifting from bilateral towards unilateral as the tariffs were constantly tampered with, though not so much in a significant manner, by the Ikeja Disco. It was in the midst of this struggle that announcement was arrogantly and conclusively made by NERC, astronomically jerking up the tariffs by almost three hundred percent without recourse to the consumers; without regard to the existing bilateral agreements and without regard to the feelings of the ultimate consumers that are Nigerians.
NERC seems to have no regard for the sanctity of any contractual arrangement. Rule of law is alien to the Commission. The conduct is like that of a person in a jungle with no respect for the rule of law. The situation is so bad that there is no moratorium period. The idea of budgeting is foreign to the Commission. NERC assumes that those concerned already saved the money somewhere to service the bills. They forget the concept of preparation and planning which are evidently strange to the Commission. This is simply man’s humanity towards another. Let the actors remember that no position or condition is permanent, just as no empire or dynasty lasts forever. A day will certainly come when they will find themselves in the same boat.Office lo n re yin akowe o as every servant must vacate office one day! NERC shifted to what is described as service-based tariffs without warning, and without evidence of preparedness and verification as I shall unveil in the course of this conversation.

To achieve the Commission’s unholy goal, NERC unilaterally decided to classify consumers of electricity in the country into various bands. To the extent that the consumers’ interests are not taken into consideration and the fact of the exploitative and baseless nature of the tariffs qualifies the commission as ‘ bandit’. Consequently, it appears that we now have ‘Bandits’ in action. The first matter arising, as remarked above,is, what is the essence of bilateral arrangements and agreements with the distribution companies when NERC, the regulator, could unilaterally sack the arrangement without consideration for the arrangement, and consultation with those affected?What manner of brutality is this? NERC just waywardly and rudely truncated parties’ agreements, just like that. Is this not truly banditry? If my recollection is right, we have Bands A, B, C and probably others that appear inconsequential. The basis of the classification is premised on the number of hours of electricity scheduled or planned to be supplied to the relevant areas/communities, NOT necessarily to the consumers.How the Commission arrived at this categorization remains a mystery to most Nigerians.
Is it that they relied on data supplied by the distribution companies,or they harvested the same from the feeders in the respective communities? Whichever source is adopted, it will seem discriminatory, unrealistic and unfair to the consumers. If the experience of the Ikeja GRA community is considered, it will be obvious that such basis is faulty, as it is one thing for the output/suppliesto reach the feeders, or at best, the transformers;while it is totally a different ball game for the supplies to ultimate hit the homes of the consumers, for multifarious reasons ranging from poor infrastructure; low current, cable theft, equipment vandalization, all of which are not the business of the consumers. The distribution companies are private enterprises that must shoulder and discharge their responsibilities. The point I am making, therefore, is that whichever of the two sources of data is used by the Commission to determine the band, it is certainly not reflective of the actual situation. Thus, since the basis of the classification is flawed, the categorization is faulty and baseless.

In the circumstances, nothing meaningful can be predicated on it. Assuming without conceding that the basis is correct, is it not only logical that in introducing the service-based tariffs, experimentation and validation of the service be done, prior to imposition of the tariffs? I believe this is only naturaland reasonable except the Commission is unconcernedwith the welfare of the consumers. How just is it, to ignore the consumers that are meant to be the beneficiaries of the electricity supplies and the persons to bear the burden of the bills? This is a fundamental issue for address by all concerned. I am therefore not surprised that cases have started springing up in courts, and the Commission will start using public funds to defend it. This is how wasteful we are as a people. Moving away from this, Nigerians are wondering what could be the basis of the almost three hundred percent increment? If there must be increment, the people as consumers are entitled to know the basis upon which that is founded. This is lacking and the consumers are in the wilderness. Where is this done?
Let us even assume, without conceding, that it is due to withdrawal of subsidy. Subsidy in which respect, generation, transmission or distribution, which one? If for instance it is on generation, what if a community gets a generating company that can generate at a sum not requiring subsidy? Would the subsidy still apply? These are questions begging for answers. Nigerians and those to pay the bills are entitled to the decomposition of the increment in tariffs. Again, in what percentage are the subsidies so that, as I opined above, a community getsa generation company that will not require subsidy and bring down their bills, why is that option not feasible?The bottom line is that there is need for transparency and accountability.
This is vital so that we can benchmark the basis as they occur. For example, it is certainly not unexpected that fluctuation in foreign currency would affect the tariff, to what extent is this impactful? As the Naira firms up against these currencies, how is it reflecting on the tariff regime? As this occurs, tariffs ought to reduce except there is manipulation or a disconnect along the line. I experience this regularly in London. Why should our system be an exception? Are we to allow the private companies to be feeding fat on the innocent citizens?Information I am alluding to is even that obtainable under the Freedom of Information Act. Should we continue to be kept in oblivion? what if in six months’time the regulator wakes up and slams us with another outrageous tariffs? We keep quiet again. Remember that all it takes a nation to decay, is for the good people there to keep quiet, so says John Stuart Mills. Also well captured in the Yoruba proverb that, A i le soro ni ipile ori buruku which literally translates to mean the origin of misfortune and denial is inability to voice a protest.
The plea therefore is that the affected consumers be availed the basis of the increment. Now,approaching the crux of this discourse, how realistic, affordable and sustainable is the new service-based tariff? In my view, it is not affordable and sustainable. My view is that apart from the tendency of the tariff to throw more people into the unemployment market as some of the businesses in those Bands will surely collapse, it will breed another vicious circle of poverty. This is quite apart from the capacity of the pressure associated with the hike to fuel corruption in the system. If I take the Ikeja GRA community as a case study, a sizeable number of the residents who are meant to be paying the new tariff are civil servants both of the federal and Lagos state. Where do we expect them to derive the financial capacity to fund the bill? The only way is to start compromising their jobs. Recall that till date, none of the levels of the Government is ready and willing to pay as much as three hundred percent increment in salaries.
Notable also is the fact of inflation around 33.20 percent now,according to the Bureau of statistics. The message therefore to the civil servants in the affected areas is to either relocate out of the concerned areas; or compromise themselves to meet the obligation. In addition to that population of consumers, is another sizeable community of widows/widowers and retirees who, by accident of history, are living in the affected communities. These are citizens who are barely surviving presently out of the magnanimity of others and meagre pensions they collect. Again, nobody is reviewing their pensions by three hundred percent.The message again is that they either relocate at theirlate age or die off as a result of non-conducive atmosphere as darkness and heat would fast track their demise. I am not too sure this is the way to maltreat our elder statesmen. God bless Mr. President as Governor of Lagos State then when he created exceptions for these categories of citizens under the Land Use Charge Law of Lagos State.
Now for the other categories of residents, the rate is simply unreasonable, unaffordable and not sustainable and egregiously discriminatory contrary to Section 116(2)(e) of the Electricity Act, 2023 which forbids discriminatory electricity bills. Except it is not in the same economy we are all deriving our sustenance from, I am not too sure any honest worker in Nigeria can sustain the payment. Now let us progress to the issue of meeting the supply threshold. Experience equally has shown that this is actually becoming an impossibility. Is it national grid collapse, transmission issues, infrastructural issues or domesticated issues, all of which contribute to the denial of such attainmentthat we want to deal with? With the NERC unable to assure anybody of the threshold of the supply, devoid of the challenges, how fair is it then to impose such prohibitive tariff on the people? The further implication of the tariff is enhanced insecurity. Presently, all perimeter/security lights attached totenements are permanently off, throwing the communities into environmental darkness. As the Yoruba would say: okunkun o mo eni owo.
Darkness has no respect for anyone. As the residents are endangered by this, so also are the security officials that are meant to secure them. This is apart from the reality of more people becoming jobless. In addition to this is the health implication, for not only the elderly but other occupants that are arm-strung with the unaffordability question. I am aware of a couple of people that have landed in the hospitals as a result of free falls arising from slips. Is this not therefore a case of kobo wise, pound foolish as the government will now be spending more on health issues arising from the effects of darkness or inability to afford electricity supplies. The worst scenario is that while we are complaining as consumers, even the electricity workers too were not consulted. This is appearing to be a situation of no consultation but autocratic decision of the few in the NERC. This is atrocious. It is my fervent view therefore that all stakeholders need to be consulted to arrive at workable and sustainable tariffs.
The present tariff system is unsustainable. Negotiation is pertinent and it is the hallmark of leadership. I need bot remind others that are presently ‘bandless’, or in the lowest of category of the Bands, that they are just enjoying Christmas, as in due course, if they fail to speak out, they will soon be victims. I therefore appeal to Mr. President to step in to arrest this exploitative scheme in favour of the private companies. Even if the removal of ‘subsidy’ is required, it must be gradual with moratorium granted as this is an essential commodity and a necessity that cannot be avoided. The consumers must be allowed to plan for it.

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