By Oji Odu
With Ministries, Departments and Agencies of government, and the highly placed in the society found to be the greatest power thieves, many see recent plans by the Federal Government to arrest and prosecute power thieves as laughable, because this is not the first time it has made such moves which did not make any impact.
However, another group which believes that such laudable move may be misdirected and targeted at the poor masses who form the bulk of electricity consumers in the country. These are forced to live most of each day in darkness, and at the end of each month, forced to pay exorbitant monthly electricity bills.
In anger, most of them are alleged to engage in illegal acts to enjoy electricity at little or no cost which are termed electricity theft, while the Distribution Companies (DISCOs) who rip-off these consumers seem to enjoy both government patronage and protection.
Who then is the thief? Is it the consumers that engage in said illegal means to enjoy electricity at little or no cost, or the DISCOs who use the umbrella of distributing electricity to steal the people’s hard earned money?
Following increased protests on the poor electricity supply in the country, especially in the South-east zone, the Federal Government had last week constituted an 18-man special panel to investigate and prosecute electricity offences within the South- east geopolitical zone. The panel, government said, was set-up in-line with provisions of the Electric Power Sector Reform Act, 2005. It was inaugurated at the Federal Ministry of Justice Headquarters in Abuja by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) of the Federation, Mohammed Etsu.
The DPP said the Special Investigation and Prosecution Task-Force on Electricity Offences (SIPTEO) was a product of the collaboration between the Federal Ministry of Justice, Enugu Electricity Distribution Company Plc (EEDC) and the Nigeria Police Force. He specifically tasked the panel to “deal with the menace of electricity theft and vandalism in the South East zone” which has gone on unchecked for so long.
“The growing theft of electricity and vandalism of electricity distribution assets in the area of coverage of the EEDC has contributed immensely to the economic challenges that the power sector has faced over time in the South-east Zone, thus affecting effective delivery to legitimate customers”.
Commending the Inspector General of Police for releasing additional team of “14 seasoned investigators” to serve on the Special Task-Force, it said: “Electricity theft and vandalism has gone on unchecked for too long across this country, today marks a new era for the South East and you, as members of this Special Task-Force have a herculean task on your hands and it is a pressing national duty.
“Your job from today is to work assiduously in collaboration with Enugu Electricity Distribution Company to investigate and prosecute call cases of electricity theft within the area of coverage of EEDC. Although SIPTEO is charged with the responsibility of investigating and prosecuting all electricity theft cases, you are also enjoined to make other recommendations to me and the management of the EEDC and make use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms in appropriate cases. Bear in mind that the overall objective of your mandate is to prevent electricity theft, prosecute cases and recover lost revenue. As part of your mandate, you are to carry out intensive campaigns in the South East to create public awareness on the adverse effects of electricity theft on the Nigerian economy.
“I am convinced that your commitment in carrying out this assignment will not only bring to book the offenders, it will boost power supply and economic activities within the area of coverage of EEDC and eventually the work of this Task-Force will spread nationwide”, the DPP added.
In his remarks, Chairman of the panel, Emeka Offor, said his team would handle the assignment with dedication, but regretted that influential and educated Nigerians engage in illegal consumption and theft of electricity assets.
In the same vein, the Managing Director of EEDC, Paul Okeke, said he was perturbed that top government officials also engage in electricity theft. Therefore, how will this prosecution of offenders, some of whom are said to had ordered officials of some DISCOs who came to disconnect their lines to be either harassed or beaten up and nothing done about it?
Is theft only the stealing and vandalisation of electricity assets? What about the DISCOs that fleece money from innocent and helpless Nigerian electricity consumers, is that not theft?
In a chat with the Magazine, Ezekiel Okenwa, an energy expert said that the plan to check these electricity thieves, whether vandals or those that manipulate meters is laudable, and supposed to be pursued religiously.
“ But does government have the political will to carry out the prosecution? This is because they are the greatest culprits, and this is not the first time they want to engage in such wild goose chase. The MDAs are worse offenders. Top government officials and the well to do in the society are neck deep in the problem.”
Okenwa however expressed fears that government may end up arresting and prosecuting the masses who form the bulk of electricity consumers. He also regretted that the DISCOs who force people to pay for light they don’t consume go scot free.
“ How can you give someone a monthly electricity bill of between N8,000 and N12,000 or more when you don’t provide electricity to him of less than 90 hours in a month, that is three hour daily? Is that not theft? Is it not theft when DISCOs deliberately decide not to meter their customers, just to rip them off through estimated bills? Let all the thieves whether consumers or DISCOs be arrested and prosecuted for the sector to move forward,” he added.