Despite power outages that can last, in some cases, for months, the high bills have not stopped coming and consumers have often complained without redress about being short-changed by the power companies. Finding avenues through which to vent their complaints have often not been easy maybe because the consumers have not found a way to organise and mobilise themselves to fight for their rights.
One of the most glaring lacunae in the nation’s electricity market is the absence of knowledgeable, credible and broad-based consumer advocacy as can be found in other markets. The voice of the consumer is the least heard of all players in the electricity sector as they remain at the receiving end of decisions by other more organised stakeholders in the sector. The voices of the few individual consumers, neighbourhood and resident associations and their levels of engagement, are not enough to hold the electricity suppliers to account and in some cases, those who make up these informal consumer groups do not have the resilience to follow a matter through and see to it that the right thing is done in cases where the rights of consumers are violated. In most cases, the problem is that those directly affected, the lower class, believe that acting individually to sort out personal issues of that nature is the way to go. But we are of the opinion that with adequate sensitisation, the tendency to go solo in a matter that collective action is required, will be overcome and yield more positive result.
The industry regulator, Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), had to advise that to address, in a meaningful way, the complaints arising from electricity tariff setting, metering and billing by power firms, consumers should be organised to challenge the operators. The commission emphasised the need for consumers to be more engaged and eloquent in their deliberation about the future of electricity supply in the country.
It insisted on the need to have a consumer advocacy organisation that can easily build technical and political capability to effectively challenge other organised interests in the electricity market, even as the outcomes of its own endeavours are still obviously not fair to consumers.
We agree with the commission on this score even as we challenge it to sensitise the consuming public on their rights under the prevailing statutes. The apparent reticence on the part of the consumers, in our view, is easily attributable to years of suffering under a law that absolved the power operators, mainly government agencies, of legal obligations to their consumers. But with the unbundling of the humongous parastatal, we think it is time consumers spoke with one voice.
We are sufficiently persuaded to argue that an organised consumer advocacy group, as rightly pointed out by NERC, will not only focus on challenging operators on tariff setting and such other commercial activities like metering and billing, it will also step up, as a major contributor, to big debates about building smart grid, clean energy, privatisation and modernisation of the electricity grid and will also be involved in the debate about the constitutional framework for energy policy in Nigeria.
We, therefore, support the move to set up the Nigerian Electricity Consumer Advocacy Network (NECAN) and that the advocacy by the network must be vibrant and cohesive so as to have the desired impact.