Band A, Band B … Band F

Continual hikingof electricity tariffs by whatever strategies without service improvement is unacceptable, writes Monday Philips Ekpe

There is nothing Nigerians have not heard in what seems to be their never-ending, tortuous journey towardssocio-economic and political equilibrium.A new word in the lexicon is ‘band’, a technical term in the energy industry that has now taken the front seat in public discourse. Last week, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) and some other big players in the sector dropped what they considered a big, progressive bang: The elite consumers of electricity in Nigeria would henceforth pay much more than they do at the moment. To the uninitiated, that sounds like a means of redistributing the nation’s wealth and meeting the secret yearnings of the teeming underprivileged people in the country.

But then, the details of this unprecedented move which are generating disapproval and anger have also raised curiosities and posers. The subscribers of the prestigious Band A who constitute 15% of the total number of 12.12 million consumers, according to the 2023 National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) estimates, will now pay N225/kWh up from N68/kWh. That comes to a 231% increase. Perhaps for the first time, Nigerians are being told that the highfliers have been consuming 40% of the total electricity supply and that they do enjoy the scarce product for at least 20 hours daily. This supposed optimum treatment in a country that has grappled with mediocrity and underperformance within the sector for ages is being vehemently contested in many quarters.There are, of course, those who are ready to pay any rate if that would give them enhanced quality and quantity.

Unfortunately, equating higher receipts by the electricity distribution companies (DisCos) with better services is utopian and has no basis in experience. Where have the hikes in 2020, 2021, 2022 and the ones before led the nation? Certainly not anywhere close to a regional average. There is no country in West Africa today, as less-endowed as they are in comparison with Nigeria, that isn’t suppliedmore.And there’s no point narrating the chequered history of power generation, transmission and distribution and the overall toll on both individual and corporate consumers here. Suffice it to say, however, that when the government of former President Goodluck Jonathan fully privatised the generation and distribution components in 2013, it had hoped that adequate capital and expertise would flow into themand turn around their fortunes. Sadly, beginning from day one, even without giving Nigerians enough reasons to believe that a new dawn was underway, the DisCos went to town inhot chase of their grossly underserviced customers. More than a decade after that shaky start, the story hasn’t only remained unchanged, it’s actually set to get worse. All along, the companies either move up the tariffs quietly or break the monotony to announce once in a while. Labour unions have had to even threaten industrial actions to force some favourable concessions from them. The DisCos have so far carried on like landlords whose overriding interest is rent. It’s, therefore, hard to fault critics like human rights activist, Mr Femi Falana, SAN, who argue that the latest action of NERC is mainly aimed at putting more funds in the handsof the inefficient electricity distributors. The question is, to what end?

Electricity management in Nigeria has been a matter of “the more you look, the less you see” for too long. Anything that has a semblance of solutions either soon fizzles out or turns into a nightmare of its own. Two years ago, the Muhammadu Buhari administration told an elated nation that it had phased out subsidy since, according to it, it had achieved the harmonisation of the operating costs with the tariffs. Like many other policy issues that are often not well-articulated for the people, the timing of the decision to continue to subsidise power is a subject of conjectures. The amount allocated for the purpose in the current budgeting cycle is over three trillion naira or approximately 11% of the entire federal government budget of N28.77 trillion. Nigerians maysoon realise that petroleum subsidy removal could be a louder killjoy, compared to that of electricity, but probably not more lethal.

It shouldn’t be too difficult for anyone to grasp the critical position of energy in homes, public places, businesses, and the country generally. Only very few things like air, water and food can truly match its centrality. In modern life, even those three fundamental items depend substantially on power. The intricacy of their relationships should be a warning signal to any government that’s truly concerned about the welfare of its citizens to tread cautiously in resolving related matters. President Bola Tinubu has congratulated himself on a number of occasions since May 2023 when he assumed office for his courage in taking tough decisions to reposition the economy. Self-congratulation may not be a vice in itself butit can ensnare.

If the president cares to know, agitation is building around who the actual movers are and what their overriding motivation is. Like other weak Third World countries, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, especially,usually seize every opportunity to persuade Nigeria to remove subsidies on vital amenities. Since these institutions have been relentlessly prescribing these anti-people policies for decades without tangible, enduring, fruitful results, one wonders why they’ve remained on the same path. Their major argument is for the government to save money. What manner of reverse prudence! Save financial assets for what or who? Curiously, IMF and co have no ready answers for the animosities and upheavals that sometimes result from the application of their dangerous prescriptions.

Nigerians are, at present, under the twin yokes of oil subsidy removal and a muddled forex market that has weakened the naira, both of which have midwifed the hyper-inflation not seen in the country in decades. The recent resurgence of the local currency, though commendable, hasn’t yet really impacted the pricing of most goods and services. The entry of electricity into the theatre of pain, though targeted at the wealthy for now, is a rude reminder that the road to national recovery is indeed winding and dark. The people are not deceived by this strategic gradation. NERC’s ingenuity has rendered the minimum daily electricity supply requirements thus: Band A (20 hours); Band B (16 hours); Band C (12 hours); D (8 hours); E (4 hours).

Why did they stop at E? The universally accepted ranking for measuring performance usually includes F. Remember F9?I’m not sure if the regulatory agency and power providers have sufficiently explained the criteria upon which the categorisations are hinged. When they do, we may then discard any worries about these groupings being a roadmap for the maintenance of status quo, at best,or a deepening of the myriad of crises for which the industry is known. In marking schemes, F stands for failure and the other by-products of anti-success. I doubt if there is any other aspect of our national life that can compete favourably with electricity for perpetual, embarrassing inadequacy. This despicable profile makes it almost impossible for Nigerians to let go the longest serving name of its former minder, National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), many years after its unbundling.And this attitude goes beyond cynicism. It’s hard to figure out the demons that have been bedevilling the livewire of a nation desperate for self-expression and the optimal exploitation of its potentials.

The government, generating companies (GenCos) and DisCos should know that Nigerians are aware of the enormity and delicateness of their job descriptions; only that the people must not continue to be treated like cash cows, ready to be pounced upon anytime. Providing reliable electricity first isn’t too much to ask for. Everything has limits.

Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board

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