Living Under Wires

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Recently, a wire that snapped from one of the transformers in Lugbe area of Abuja killed three people and injured more than five persons. Chineme Okafor who was at the community, reports that the danger is palpable yet the residents remain unconcerned

Experts in health and safety professions often said that two factors are habitually linked to unsafe acts and accidents in the use of electricity – the ability to know better but intentionally use electricity carelessly; and not knowing at all and still incurring the rage of electricity.

Either way, an indigenous community in the Lugbe area of Abuja where about 5000 people live and partly undertake their businesses was recently made to pay heavily for either its ignorance of the immense danger that its careless management of the use of electricity has, or its decision to ignore such irrespective of its foreknowledge of such danger.

The community, Tudun Wada is a poorly planned settlement which resides right under the right of way of two 330KV/132KV high voltage electricity transmission lines. It takes a ride of about 10 minutes on a regular motorcycle (Okada) from the Lugbe Federal Housing area to get to the community through a rough and meandering road network.

It was in this community which also has very poorly wired electricity connections into its houses that a 22-year-old adult, Joseph Terver and two other persons died two weeks ago when an energised electricity transformer snapped and conducted naked; unsafe to use; and dangerous electricity currents into their homes. More than five others people were also burnt or seriously injured from that incident.

From THISDAY’s observation when it visited the community, the electrical accident was almost unavoidable because the community was badly wired. The paper learnt that most of the wiring were allegedly done by unprofessional electricians who are not under the employ of the electricity distribution company that serves the community.
With cluttered electrical wires on zinc-coated rooftops, the thoughts that Tudun Wada may have been lucky to escape a colossal electrical accident was so obvious.

Zinc according to electrical engineers is a reasonable conductor of electricity because it has a density of 7.140 gram per millilitre (g/ml), yet homes in Tudun Wada which also do not have earthing systems to protect or minimise them from accidental discharge of electricity, have their electrical wires hanging carelessly on their roofs and walls.

Walking through the tight neighbourhood of Tudun Wada also reminds one of the danger communities that live under high voltage electricity lines and with poor wirings keep with them, and just like Tudun Wada, they are found everywhere in the country.

The accident also brings to the fore the need for clear and strong emphasis on proper connections and wirings in Nigerian electricity network, as well as education of electricity users on the danger that irresponsible relationship with electricity portends.

As stated by experts, the risks that wrong management of electricity constitute include shocks; psychological damage; physical burns; neurological damage; and ventricular fibrillation which often result to death. Tudun Wada got most of these in the recent electricity accident.

Indeed, electricity even with its prized use to mankind, will when not properly controlled or harnessed, result in serious danger to those who use it just the way it played out in Tudun Wada.
In addition to Tudun Wada’s poor electrical infrastructures, THISDAY observed that the community, which gets electricity supply from the Abuja Electricity Distribution Company (AEDC) may have added to its irresponsible management of electricity through the widespread illegal connections which the Disco claims.

With such development, getting Abuja Disco to be exclusively accountable and charged for improper management of its network could be quite a task for the regulator, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC). As observed, both the Disco and community may be collectively responsible for the accident in that while the community allegedly connected to the network through substandard practices with its attendant dangers, the Disco perhaps failed to recognise this as a legitimate ground to discontinue supplies to it and guarantee safety.

Abuja Disco as was learnt even continued to send bills for monthly consumptions to the community to suggest that it kept the lights on irrespective of the danger it portend.

It was gathered that most of the connections in the Tudun Wada were reportedly done by none staff of Abuja Disco, a prevalent longstanding practice that characterises Nigeria’s power sector, and which many of the electricity accidents in the country have been traced to.

Often referred to as ‘NEPA 2’, the practice is usually perpetrated by quack electricians who for the gains of free electric supply to homes, illegally hook them on to the mains with little or no safety measures.
When Sunny Adu, a resident of Tudun Wada narrated to THISDAY how the accident happened, he said that it started with an unexpected snapping of a conductor to one of the community’s transformers, from which a fire started out.

“We were just around the transformer when the conductor at the pole snapped and went up in flames. A house behind it was affected and my neighbour, Peter Haruna’s child sustained burns in the process.
“Three persons, including a 22-year-old boy known as Joseph Terver, died while over five others sustained serious burns,” said Adu.

He explained that all the injured persons, except one, had been treated and discharged from the hospital.
THISDAY further confirmed this from the family of Haruna when it visited the community again to discover that their young son who was injured in the accident had been discharged and gone back to school to continue with his terminal examinations.

Notwithstanding the profoundness of the danger the community was living with, Mai Ungwa, the traditional chief of the community appealed that victims of the accident and families of the deceased persons be duly compensated by Abuja Disco.

He made claims that the transformers used in the community to supply electricity to its homes were bought by residents and connected before the network was handed over to Abuja Disco through a 2013 government sale of power assets, the Disco could not confirm these claims.

The traditional head of the community also admitted that the network was badly configured and urged the Disco to help clean it up since they now operate the facilities, to forestall future occurrence.

THISDAY also gathered that the government had as part of an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the transmission line that passes through the community, paid to them amounts in compensation for the portion of their land that has the transmission gantries. The government also urged them to vacate the transmission right of way having paid them compensation, but they went back to build under the line.

Peter Ukoh, who said he has lived in Tudun Wada for close to nine years, explained to THISDAY that indiscriminate building of houses in the community means that even access roads to guarantee either escape or emergency call in any event of such accident is almost impossible because homes were built tightly against each other.

He said the Abuja Disco supplied them electricity and collected monthly income from bills issued to them despite the untidy installations. This he averred makes both parties guilty of negligence.
“Worst still, AEDC feeds power to the households and generates bills for the customers without cleaning up the network comprising poor cables and illegal connections,” Ukoh said.

Further from THISDAY’s study of the community’s network, it was discovered that for years, Tudun Wada like some communities across the country had lived and gotten away with such unhealthy use of electricity. The community had for reasons that cannot be explained, believed it was good for it to continue to live under such conditions.
Under one of the transmission towers, THISDAY met with a group of artisans who welded iron and cut woods without thoughts of what may become of them if the electric line above their workshop gave way. When asked if they knew the danger of what they were into, one of them simply waved off our reporter and said the tower was not energised and posed no risk.

His claims were quite untrue because further request on the status of the line from the transmission company indicated it was a live line that transmitted power from the recently completed Gwagwalada transmission substation which the government in 2014 inaugurated after the National Integrated Power Plant (NIPP) completed it.

Similarly, that Abuja Disco collected revenues from the community irrespective of its poor and questionable connections suggests that it may have deliberately ignored the dangers posed to its customers and operation in utter disregard to safety codes set up by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) to ensure safe use of electricity in the country.

This, from a regulatory perspective, requires that a thorough investigation be conducted by the NERC to determine which of the parties could be responsible for the obvious negligence – the community which daily risked its existence with substandard and often illegal practices, or the Disco which perhaps played along with the community for reasons other than revenue collection.

In this regard, the acting chairman of NERC, Dr. Anthony Akah who also visited the community, said an investigative team from the commission would undertake a detailed investigation to establish how the incident happened as well as come up with hands-on strategies against a possible repeat of such accident.
The Abuja Disco also indicated that without interference with NERC’s investigation, it was going to conduct its own as part of its legally mandated accident reporting requirement.
It said that it has collated information of the victims and taken over their medical bills, in addition to dispatching a team of eight men to investigate the accident.

The Disco said preliminary reports from this team showed that an 11 Kilovolt (Kv) wire from a transformer that supplied electricity to a section of the community snapped and fell on a metallic channel iron that sent high voltage to the residents who were electrocuted and injured.

The company also noted that the team had visited victims of the accident who were admitted at its referral hospital, Cedar Crest in Apo area of Abuja, and the families of the three dead persons in line with its work.
Its Director of Risk and Compliance, Mr. Collins Chabuka, said the team was also cooperating with the regulatory bodies – NERC and the Nigeria Electricity Management Services Agency (NEMSA) in its investigations.

“It is AEDC’s internal health and safety policy requirements that all accidents are investigated by independent internal competent persons with industry background, competence and knowledge. The purpose of the investigations is to highlight the shortcomings that may have led to the incident and also to recommend industry best practices and remedial measures to prevent a recurrence,” Chabuka said.

Living under high voltage transmission lines and constant disregard to requests for safe use of electricity just the way Tudun Wada does is a common practice across Nigeria irrespective of repeated deaths recorded from this.

Clearly, communities and consumers across Nigeria have overtime helped to aggravate incidences of electrical accidents either by failing to adhere strictly to warnings against unsafe use of electricity or malpractices in their connections to their networks, while Discos have on their parts often failed to effectively take the message to customers on the dangers of illegal connections; use of poor electrical equipment; and residing too close to electrical installations just the way Tudun Wada currently does, but until these measures are mutually practiced, instances of electrical accidents in Nigeria may sadly continue to occur.