By Oji Odu
No month or year passes without Ikeja Electricity Distribution Company (IKEDC) being enmeshed in one form of controversy or another. To electricity consumers under it, the name of the company is now synonymous with ‘Notorious’, because of its myriads of illegalities employed to rip them off of their hard earned money without commensurate services.
Worse still, it seems the electricity company is above the law. Because IKEDC has allegedly been treated with kid gloves by the authorities, the company has continued to ignore and refuse to obey government directives, including sanctions. But both the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), Civil Society Groups and electricity consumers would have none of this. They have never relented in calling them to order at various times, even in the midst of threat.
PROTESTING electricity workers had over the weekend suspended the picketing of the headquarters of IKEDC, which crippled and paralyzed operations of the distribution company for three days with the switching off of electricity supply to the zone. The suspension followed an agreement between the management of IKEDC and leaders of NUEE, who led the assault on the company alongside allied unions.
The aggrieved workers had last Wednesday stormed the premises of IKEDC and barricaded the office, accusing the management of unfair labour practices including arbitrary dismissal of over 500 workers, poor welfare, uneven salary structure, adoption of anti-labour policies and frustration of the implementation of condition of service among others.
They called for an immediate review of the privatisation of the power sector. They claimed that since the takeover of the sector by the private sector, and despite the huge amount of money invested by government in the last five years to help them improve the sector, the power situation across the country had worsened.
Addressing the protesters, General Secretary of NUEE, Joe Ajaero, regretted the maltreatment of workers by the IKEDC had lingered for over two years without moves by the company to make consideration for conducive working conditions. He further regretted that a joint committee that was convened to address their concerns following the layoff of over 200 workers in 2016 was dissolved by IKEDC which replied by sacking more workers despite court ruling that the statusquo be maintained.
“We have for over two years been writing letters, meeting with them but they don’t want to agree. The sack of workers is usually premised on non-productivity and the mode for assessment of the staff is not known. When, you give a staff target to make N100 million and there is no power supply in that area, will the people pay? If you give a staff a target of N150 million and you don’t have transformer there and there is no power supply to them, they will not pay and he or she will be termed as failure. They want workers to force people to pay for what they did not use,” he said.
However, in his reaction, Head, Corporate Communications of IKEDC, Felix Ofulue, questioned the motive for the picketing which he described as self-serving. “When NUEE chooses to cripple socio-economic activities of over a million households, for issues that can be resolved through dialogue, one then wonders if the motives are as selfless as they claim. How do you plunge a country’s commercial nerve center into darkness because of a few of your members who have been separated from the business for cogent reasons? It is really appalling. It’s an abuse of privilege to picket.
“Imagine that our employees in Alausa Injection Sub Station were chased out of the facility by the Union and they had to shut down nine Feeders that supply power to Ikeja and its environs on safety grounds. This has resulted in an immediate blackout for at least 3000 customers…,” he said.
In April 2016, the Magazine recalls that Civil Society Groups, in collaboration with the Citizens’ Access to Electricity Initiatives (CATEIN), continued the picketing of IKEDC following that by organised labour in March same year over lingering power outages and the sack of 400 workers. The groups barricaded the company’s office in Lagos, asking the company to address the contending issues.
The picketing was, however, suspended after the IKEDC reached an agreement with the National Union of Electricity Workers (NUEE) and the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) to set up a committee to monitor its performance appraisal and competency assessment process. Joseph Emmanuel, CATEIN’s General Secretary, told the Magazine that the protest was to register their displeasure over poor service delivery in electricity supply across the country.
According to Emmanuel, the protest was to sensitise Nigerians against injustice in electricity service delivery, as well as the case of the sacked workers. He said that the distribution companies should be able to provide meters to measure electricity consumption.
“But this is not so. Rather, the companies smile to the banks at the expense of Nigerians. The businesses of workers in the informal sector have all been shut. We cannot continue this way,’’ he lamented, stating that the group would continue to mount pressure on all the distribution companies in the country, until adequate electricity supply was provided.
But in his reaction, Head, Public Communications of IKEDC, said that the company pulled out of the negotiation because it was not progressing as the issues raised by the civil society groups were not peculiar to the company because were national issues. He, however, gave an assurance that the company would soon resume discussion with the unions, to find lasting solutions on the problems, which they have failed.
Since the power assets were handed over to the new investors on November 1, 2013, some of the DISCOs have demonstrated lack of capacity to run these assets. This led the Minister of Power Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola advise that: “—those DISCOs who cannot run the business must be honest with themselves and begin to look for options either to raise capitals, to get more strategic partners in or to do whatever they consider appropriate within the framework of their contract in order to get on with this job.”
But rather than explore other funding and operational options, the DISCOs have resorted to manufacturing and employing more dubious means to rip-off their consumers through exorbitant estimated billings, concealment of their financial books from NERC, blackmailing government and flouting market rules.
The NERC has responded with appropriate sanctions against erring Discos on several instances of such breaches.
For instance, for refusing to provide customers with prepaid meters, IKEDC was the first DISCO to be sanctioned by NERC to the tune of N131.4 million for the company’s “flagrant breaches” of the Credited Advance Payment on Metering Initiative (CAPMI), an initiative of NERC to assist the companies close the wide metering gap.
NERC had also fined Benin and Port Harcourt electricity distribution companies N6.220 million over failure to comply with the decisions of Forum Offices rulings in complaints filed by their respective customers. Ibadan, Ikeja, Port Harcourt and Enugu DISCOs were fined millions of Naira for breaching the terms and conditions of their licences and the provisions of the Electric Power Sector Reform Act 2005, while Port Harcourt and Enugu Discos were sanctioned for their failure to submit quarterly reports on their key performance indicators. Ibadan and Ikeja were also fined over failure to attend to customers’ complaints severally referred to them.
Despite NERC’s sanctions, IKEDC and some other Discos have continued to flout the market rules by extorting customers through exorbitant estimated bills. It is however ironical that while Eko DISCO has embarked on massive rollout of free prepaid meters to its customers, Ikeja Disco, which operates under the same market, has been dragging feet on it while blackmailing both the consumers and government. This is after it suspended the provision of prepaid meters, citing high cost of forex.
In a chat with Kemi Banjo who operates a cold room at the Mile 12 area of Lagos, she said: “ I don’t sympathise with any of them, whether the workers that were sacked or their employers. The are both criminals, birds of the same feather.
“ They are ripping the electricity consumers off with their crazy and estimated bills without providing us with adequate light. The most annoying is the arrogance of these DISCOs officials, when they come to disconnect people who are managing to service the bills ranging from N8,000 to N20,000 monthly. One of the Managers on one of such occasions asked me when I was coming to pay a balance of N10,000 after I had paid N10,000.”
With the bill on outlawing estimated billing in the pipeline which will force the DISCOs to embark on massive prepaid metering of their customers, and threat by the DISCOs to descend their hammer on consumers through massive disconnection, only time will tell if this DISCO notorierity and arrogance will continue.