By ABAH ADAH,
There are indications that the 11 electricity distribution companies (DisCos) may be compelled to refund money paid by consumers for prepaid meters under the Meter Access Providers (MAP) programme and are yet to be supplied the meters.
The special assistant to President Muhammadu Buhari on critical infrastructure and lead coordinator of the metering programme, Ahmed Zakari, who disclosed this to LEADERSHIP Sunday, said a new regulation would soon be out after due consultations to compel DisCos to refund those who paid for meters earlier by way of giving them credits over a period, depending on the agreement established, and to move all customers under MAP to the current National Mass Metering Programme (NMMP).
In a move to expressly bridge the huge metering gap, the federal government had in November last year launched the mass metering programme with a target of providing six million smart meters for the yet unmetered electricity customers in phases within 12 to 18 months, the first and current phase of which targets one million meters across the 11 DisCos, each according to its allocation, to be installed under three months.
Prior to that, a programme tagged Meter Access Providers (MAP) scheme was launched by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) which allowed willing customers to pay to the concerned DisCo to get metered. It was packed because, like other previous schemes before it, it was seen not to be succeeding.
The presidential aide said, “But a regulation may be out soon, which would have been out already but due consultations and public sensitisation are required, it will clearly state that if anybody paid for MAP, return their money either through credit over the next five years or immediately, depending on your agreement with them, and move them to NMMP and give meters to them for free.”
He said the labour-government committee set up look to into the issue of electricity tariff and other related issues of which he is a member was working round the clock, monitoring situations closely to ensure that all knotty issues were resolved to the satisfaction of all parties, adding that President Buhari was so concerned about providing meters for Nigerians that he had continued to charge them to ensure that everybody gets metered under the new arrangement.
On allegations that some DisCos were using NMMP meters to settle MAP customers from who they had collected money earlier, the presidential aide said while they were aware that there were some customers who paid the DisCos for meter under MAP, the meter asset providers had not been discovered to have used the current National Mass Metering Programme (NMMP) meters for their MAP customers.
“We gave the DisCos two options; that you can either fulfil your MAP obligations before embarking on NMMP or do the mass metering while settling your MAP liabilities separately, that is on money they have already collected under MAP, even as we have told them not to collect any new money.
“We are monitoring them, and will go after any DisCo that errs in that regard. But for the new programme, all of it is free. I think over the next few months you will see all arrears of map cleared, and the delivery of prepaid meters will only be for NMMP,” he said, assuring that they would continue to check to ensure that all such allegations of sharp practices levelled against some DisCos do not have a place in the system any longer.
This is even as Alphonsus Jogo, a customer resident in Mararaba town of Nasarawa State which borders the FCT, narrated his experience in the process of trying to acquire the new meter, alleging that an official of the Abuja Electricity Distribution Company (AEDC) who spoke to him on phone directed him to an office where he was asked to pay N5,000.
But in a swift reaction to this, AEDC spokesman, Oyebode Fadipe, said his company gives out the meters to applicants free of charge and does not collect any kind of fee on it, neither is any official allowed to do so.
“As you can see, nobody sells a meter for N5,000 anywhere, and AEDC does not charge any fee for giving out the meters.
“I think what happened is that while processing the form, there is a place for the Network of Electricity Consumers Advocacy of Nigeria (NECAN) or any other relevant authority to sign and I think it is done for a small fee. That is what that person must be referring to. But even at that, it is not AEDC officials that are in charge of such collections,” he said.
Fadipe advised members of the public to be vigilant and report any AEDC official found demanding anything from them before giving them a meter.
Earlier, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) accused the federal government of failing in its promise to force DisCos to mass deploy meters to electricity consumers, alleging that the meters were still being hoarded by DisCos and sold at exorbitant rates to frustrated consumers.
Speaking during the NEC meeting of the congress, NLC president Ayuba Wabba said NLC had always maintained its position that the major factors behind the incessant electricity tariff hike in Nigeria were combinations of pressure from neo-liberal global market forces, poor policy choices, dereliction of duties by the power sector regulator and investors and general inefficiencies in the system.
In the same vein, NECAN had alleged earlier that the entire metering process and figures being fed to the public in terms of meters supplied and installed in recent times were questionable.
Speaking during an exclusive interview recently with LEADERSHIP Sunday, the national secretary of NECAN, Uket Obanga, said, “The metering itself has a question mark on it. If you go to some DisCos’ areas, particularly in the South-South and South-West, majority of the so called metered customers are on these old analogue NEPA meters which are not functional.
“Take a state like Cross River for instance, our findings showed that out of the 18 LGAS, about 15 have not seen a prepaid meter. In most of the places where they claimed to have metered, the people are on the dysfunctional analogue device that is not being read by anybody, meaning those customers are still on estimated billing. Same thing in Delta and some few other states there,” he said.
But the spokesman of the 11 DisCos, Chief Sunday Oduntan, in his response, told LEADERSHIP Sunday that there was no iota of truth in any of the allegations because the DisCos never counted those who had the old analogue meters, most of which had been in use for about 10 years and beyond, among those that have been metered anywhere in the country.
“The DisCos each have a record of such people who have analogue meters and count them as customers without meters and that is why they are on estimated billing pending when they would be given the smart meters. So when you hear that this population of customers have been metered in a particular place, it is those who have prepaid meters installed for them,” he said.
According to him, the ongoing mass metering is an initiative of the federal government, and the DisCos would be short changing themselves by allowing those on analogue to continue paying estimated bills, claiming they have metered them, so such allegations are unfounded.
Talking about how much has been disbursed so far under the ongoing National Mass Metering Programme, Zakari said the federal government had disbursed N30 billion to the 11 DisCos out of the N69 billion earmarked for the provision of one million meters for electricity customers in the first phase.
He said however that only two of them, namely Abuja and Yola DisCos, were not given anything substantial as they have some pending technical issues that affected their meter rollout, adding that the committee was on top of the situation and resolved most of the issues.
According to him, the federal government started releasing money through the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) late December 2020 instead of the November earlier fixed, and the delay was as a result of some technical issues.
“Actually, we said three months, which people would think started from November 1, but we didn’t release any money by then until the end of the year, and that was the time the roll out of meters began. As at today, we have released about N30 billion, and you know that phase one is about N69 billion,” he said.
He said the clear difference between the new programme (NMMP) and any other one before it is that the money is made readily available while it is being run in the most transparent manner.
According to Zakari, the N30 billion was for the meter providers to acquire about 400,000 meters for the DisCos to install, and the roll out began immediately.
He said the early monies disbursed were mainly for three-phase meters, adding that in order to avoid misuse of funds, they are not placed in the hands of the DisCos directly, but the Meter Asset Provider (MAP) who must procure the meters for the DisCos.
“They (DisCos) send their request and we pay the meter asset provider (MAP) who must ensure that the meters are delivered if he has on ground, or buy from local retail manufacturers if he does not.
“What we are doing is to ensure that this money does not go into importation because it will harm our job in a very difficult economic environment,” he said.
Zakari, who disclosed that another tranche of the fund would soon be released, said by the end of March, they would have released all the money while the rollout continued, adding that the process is being closely monitored by the committee to ensure that the needful is done by each of the DisCos.
“If we find out by the end of March that any meter provider collected money and did not deliver, he will pay back our money. Amidst all this, we are in the field, monitoring this metering,” he said.
Responding to fears that the metering programme is not likely to meet its time target, Zakari said, “This is how we are going to arrive at the six million in good time. We are going to run the phases in a parallel manner, we are not waiting until the first phase is over before commencing the next.
“The next phase is supposed to be four million meters. We are going to launch a bulk procurement process whereby all local manufacturers with the capacity would come and bid for the four million.
“After carefully selecting those that have the required capacity, a procurement of N100 to N120 billion will be done from local banks and the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for disbursement,” he said.
He said the mass deployment of meters could not take off on November 1, 2020 as scheduled due to late disbursement of funds caused by the court cases against the federal government by virtually all the DisCos and the confrontation with organised labour over tariff, among other factors.
“For most of the DisCos we started disbursing money even in the last week of December. Actually, we said three months, which people would think started from November 1 according to schedule, but we didn’t release any money by then until the end of the year, and that was the time the role out of meters began,” he said, assuring that they were still on course and would meet up.
According to him, only the last one million meters will be funded with the money made available by the World Bank.
According to him, they were being careful not to take too much of what was offered by the bank in order not to be distracted from the focus of sourcing the meters within the local market.