The NEPA people came the other day. Actually, their official name has changed, but NEPA — an acronym for the utility formally known as the National Electric Power Authority — is easier to say and jibes so well with our expectations: Never Expect Power Always.
Though the organization is now called the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, the new name doesn’t work as an acronym, though its initials, P.H.C.N., are popularly agreed to stand for: Problem Has Changed Name.
I had been expecting them. They come about once a month, a van containing a crew of four or five guys, going from house to house, ready to cut off your power if you lack proof that your payments are up to date — and turn it back on for an $8 reconnection fee, or any reasonable under-the-table amount. Alas, I was in arrears.
I owed several months for the electricity they had barely been providing. Even though about 85 percent of Nigeria’s urban areas and 30 percent of rural areas are on the power grid — the result of years of government monopoly and its attendant corruption — the supply is intermittent at best. I’ve been getting about three hours a day, if lucky, and even then rarely at a stretch. Sometimes you don’t get any power for three or four days. Like many people here, I rely on a private generator to bridge the gaps.
Things were supposed to get better since the government announced with great fanfare (almost a year ago now) that it had privatized the power-distribution network. But one didn’t need to be an engineer to understand that decades of neglect, in this as in other areas of national life, can hardly be fixed in a few months.
It’s difficult for nonprofessionals to work out the complicated structures involved, but generally speaking the government now generates electricity and private companies distribute it. These companies tend to be much more aggressive than the government had been because they need to repay bank loans and recoup other start-up costs. Their employees, like all workers in Nigeria, are paid very poorly. It is therefore understood that a man must augment his income any way he can.
The affable crew boss who confronted me was sincerely understanding as I explained to him how my problem had begun six months ago, when my monthly bill jumped from $30 to nearly $185. But arguing was pointless. After my power was cut, pending payment of past bills and the reconnection fee, he suggested that perhaps it would be best for me to go state my case at my local P.H.C.N. office. I should have known better.
The official I was directed to wait for was calm, considering the confusion and mass irritation swirling around him. When my turn finally came, he looked over my latest bill, frowned, and began to tap away on his keyboard. Finally, he looked up at me and explained that my previous bills had been too low; they had been adjusted upward based upon estimates of my power consumption.
In any case, he added, my meter was obsolete. I tried to explain that my meter still functioned, but he cut me short, demanding to know why I hadn’t applied for one of the new prepayment cards, which deduct money automatically as electricity is used. I explained I had been told that none were available — to put my name on a waiting list. (Payment cards may be more efficient, but they offer less opportunity for the state to collect cash payments, or impose fines.) He shrugged and called the next customer.
I decided to take my case up a notch. But the senior manager I appealed to at the head office the next day shook his head. There was nothing he could do but demand payment in full. However, he added, I was in luck. The card meter was now available. For “just” $275, and they could fix one for me — after I had settled the outstanding bill.
So now I was looking at fees of around $525. I went home and discussed the problem with my wife, but in truth there was nothing to discuss and we both knew it. We already paid $215 a month to run our generator, which is not powerful enough to draw water from the well I had dug when the state water authority, equally comatose, finally stopped supplying us many years ago.
To say that this couldn’t have happened at a worse time assumes that there is ever a good time to be hit with an outrageous bill. We had just embarked on major renovations, and a newspaper that had hired me to write a weekly column suddenly and without explanation stopped paying.
Then there was always “the Nigerian factor,” which is to say the uncertainties of life in a country where even the power of the government itself is something of a fiction. This is most obviously demonstrated by the fact that none of the more than 200 schoolgirls who were abducted over three months ago by Boko Haram terrorists have been rescued (although a few of them managed to escape).
So time passed, the next monthly bill appeared, and hard on its heels came the men with their ladders to disconnect defaulters.
This time I fudged the truth, explaining that I had met with the senior manager, and that we had worked out a payment plan. No use. They cut the power line to my house.
I went to my local office and paid something on account, and got a stern warning to settle up once and for all as quickly as possible — or else.
And yet, even as I write this, I’m not as perturbed as perhaps I should be. Cutting corners has become a way of life for all Nigerians, great and small. We don’t expect anything better, which is why we are so quiescent under conditions that should ordinarily make people rise up and say, enough is enough.
But power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and, in their own small way, so do power shortages.
Written by Adewale Maja-Pearce
New York Times
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