Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Femke Becomes Funke: Crazy bills, By Femke van Zeijl

Published:

Femke van Zeiji

“What if PHCN, as the president has promised, manages to provide Nigerians with stable power?

I thought I had outsmarted them. When my first light bill came, I asked my friend Sola to go to the PHCN office to pay. If I and my white face showed up, the amount on my PHCN invoices would rise mysteriously, so I had been told. The first electricity bill for my doll’s house was very reasonable: N500 only. I reckoned two fans, a laptop and some energy saver bulbs could hardly guzzle up more than 500 naira worth of energy, and so I congratulated myself that my cunning strategy to avoid crazy bills had worked, and thereafter travelled off to the Netherlands with a sense of relief. What an utter fool I was.

When I returned to Lagos a new light bill was waiting for me. For the month of October, of which I had spent three and a half weeks abroad, I was charged 8,000 naira; sixteen times more than the month before.

Assuming the secret was out anyway that an oyinbo woman had moved into the block, this time I went to the PHCN office myself; me and my passport with the visa stamps to prove my absence for most of the month. Such overwhelming evidence would even make the marketer of the power company see my point and lower my bill, I assured myself. Another foolishness of mine.

I fumed, I begged, I pleaded and I pouted, I reasoned and I raised my voice. All in all I spent a good hour at the desk of the stoic admin official. He did ask me for my phone number and wanted to know if I was married. Strictly for the evaluation of my electricity consumption needs, he added. And he more or less admitted the amount I owed was based on the vivid imagination of a power company employee, since not a single person had come over to check my meter. He assured me that the next month, a NEPA official (yes, he categorically called it NEPA, as still do the majority of Nigerians) would come and note down how many kWhs I had actually used. But the standing 8,000 naira bill remained as it was. Feeling defeated, I dragged myself to the cashier’s window to pay up, hoping next month would be better. I was an idiot.

My next bill arrived just before Christmas. It was a handwritten one, and there wasn’t much more on it than my address and the amount due. There it was, this month’s NEPA verdict in hardly legible scrawls: 6,000 naira.

Again no one had come to check my meter.

After the 8k disaster, I had spent some time doing research. I found a brilliant electricity tariff calculator online; I inquired after light bills of neighbours with similar households; I added up the total wattage of my doll’s house electrical apparatus. Even if I would go overboard and leave all lights and appliances on 24/7, my electricity use would still not run up to N3, 000 per month.

So on December 24, I visited NEPA again.

‘I’m holding you hostage till after Christmas if you don’t solve this issue,’ I told the marketer, only half mocking. He looked up from his laptop with amusement. But I was still there an hour later, and he no longer looked amused. I argued I did not mind paying, but that all I wanted was a transparent bill for the electricity I actually used, not some concocted one. He eventually agreed to accompany me to my compound to check the meter.

The tacky jazz CD he put into his car stereo should have forewarned me about his intentions. When we reached my compound, he checked the meter and then hinted that my bill would be considerably reduced if he could come visit me over Christmas. I politely declined, but took his offer as an indication there was some bargaining space, and so kept insisting there was no way I was going to pay the original bill.

I don’t know if it was the thought of missing his wife’s jollof rice or seeing his Christmas spoiled by a stubborn tantrum-throwing Dutch woman, but finally, right in front of me, he tore up the old bill and wrote me a new one of half the amount, N3, 000 naira. I am not so foolish to believe my relationship with PHCN has changed for the better. I might have won this battle, but come next month I fear the power company will still win the war.

The words of President Goodluck Jonathan—in his recent CNN interview—have only heightened my anxiety. When Christiane Amanpour put to him that 60 percent of Nigerians lack regular power, President Goodluck Jonathan promised that ‘power will be reasonably stable in Nigeria before the end of the year.’ NEPA takes light in my area every evening between 6.30 and 7, like clockwork; and during the day, as a rule, electricity is on stammer mode. At least these power cuts keep my energy consumption down. What if PHCN, as the president has promised, manages to provide Nigerians with stable power? Given the way NEPA has been billing me, I suspect I cannot afford constant electricity.

Talk to Femke on Twitter: @femkevanzeijl

GTBank SME MarketHub campaign