By John Aku Ambi, Esq
The Open Government Partnership (OGP)(a renowned global organisation which helps governments and civil society advance access to justice at national and local levels) describes access to justice as a component of the rule of law, which consists of a number of elements that, at its core, ensures that individuals and communities with legal needs know where to go for help, obtain the help they need and move through a system that offers procedural, substantive and expeditious justice.
By extrapolating this definition into the realm of the Nigeria’s electricity sector, we shall argue that the procedures and processes for resolution of consumer grievances or complaints embodied in the relevant laws and regulations rarely ensure justice delivery to the average electricity consumer in Nigeria.
Rights which inure to electricity consumers in Nigeria are aptly captured in the Electric Power Reform Sector Act 2005, Federal Competition and Consumer Protection (FCCP) Act 2018 and in several Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) regulations. Consumers are often pitted against electricity distribution companies (Discos) when any of these rights are impugned; the right to a properly installed functional metre, right to transparent billing, right to be issued with electricity bills strictly based on NERC’s estimated billing methodology where the customer is unmetered and right to a refund when over billed, etcetera.
The NERC’s Customer Complaints Handling: Standards and Procedures provides to an aggrieved consumer three avenues to ventilate a complaint; the Customer Complaints Unit of the Disco, the Commission’s Customer Complaints Forum located within the Disco’s operational area and an Appellate platform to be handled by the Commission. Where a consumer decides to go through these three avenues, it takes approximately 50 days to resolve such a complaint. By analogy and through joint reading of sections 17(h) and 47(b) of the FCCP Act, the point can be taken that an electricity consumer who is unsatisfied with the decision of the NERC sitting as an appellate body has the liberty of forwarding his complaint or grievance to the FCCP. If the consumer is further unsatisfied with the FCCP’s decision, then recourse would be made to the Competition and Consumer Protection Tribunal. Subsequently, a consumer can, within 30 days, appeal to the Court of Appeal, if the decision of the Tribunal remains unsatisfactory.
The intention of highlighting step by step, the grievance procedures available to an aggrieved electricity consumer, is not to bore the reader, but to accentuate the fact that in the light of the essentiality of electricity to households and businesses, these steps are not only cumbersome but also constitute barriers to quick resolution of consumer grievances. To start with, a great number of Nigeria’s electricity consumers are unaware of the existence of the grievance avenues through which their complaints could be channelled. This could partly be attributed to the literacy level of a percentage of the electricity consumers, which limits their ability to access such information. The inefficiency of the regulatory bodies and distribution companies in disseminating information as to the existence of grievance channels also plays a part.
Where an enlightened consumer tries to seek redress and is compelled to exhaust all the available grievance and complaint mechanisms, such a consumer would certainly expend considerable amount of time and would no doubt encounter bureaucratic bottlenecks symptomatic of our public bodies. Under-going this tedious voyage discourages future attempts at seeking redress while also becoming a disincentive to other consumers who become aware of the experiences and ordeals of others in the grievance resolution system.
A considerable number of consumers may lack the resources required to pursue the course of such complaints to the apex level, either personally or through professional representatives like lawyers. Certainly, pursuing complaints to the latter point as provided in the cited regulation and law comes at a cost which may not be readily approximated until such steps are concluded. Such cost would then certainly be beyond the reach of average Nigerians struggling with everyday challenges, further aggravated by the prevailing socio-economic downturn.
The above enumerated bottlenecks inherent in the complaint and grievance system available to the Nigerian electricity consumer, no doubt, negate the very ideals of the concept – access to justice. It is, therefore, recommended that concerted efforts be made by the Discos and the regulatory body to simplify the processes available for resolving consumers’ complaints. This could be achieved through harmonising all laws and regulations (which provide avenues for electricity consumers to ventilate their grievances) into a holistic Electricity Consumer/Service Provider Dispute Resolution Legal Framework that would provide several dispute resolution mechanisms like arbitration, mediation and litigation.
Both the service providers and the regulator should also do more in the area of enlightening consumers (particularly those in the rural areas) of the rights available to them and the medium through which they can seek redress and even enforce such rights. Yours truly is aware of situations where Discos have denied consumers electricity services for months without any form of explanation and such communities remained aloof because they were unaware of the avenues available to ventilate their grievances.
There has long been a clamour for a Special Court to try electricity offenders, methinks, if such a court is established, it should equally have the exclusive jurisdiction to hear complaints of electricity consumers.
- John Aku Ambi, Esq, is a Legal Practitioner resident in Kaduna