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Official 419 in Nigeria: PHCN as a case study.

By: Chris Onyishi
Published October 14th, 2009

I am writing this peace with kerosene lantern. This is because my little “All neighbors are equal” generator has just stopped. You remember one Steve Nwosu , an Editor with The Sun newspaper, was the person who gave these brand of generators this baptismal name. It used to answer “I pass my neighbor”. But Steve argued that power situation had become so unbearable that almost every family has had to acquire one and as such it should be referred to, and known, as “All neighbors are equal”.

And since I have been firing this machine for over 24 hours, I have spent so much on fuel and continuing further may mean delving into the money meant for other things – maybe the children’s meal the following morning. Secondly, my little mechanical sense tells me that this machine may break down if I continue to use it without breaking.

I had written severally in the past where I bemoaned the poor power situation in Nigeria. And this erratic power situation in Nigeria has become so malignantly normal that writing anything about it is like singing one old song over and over again. People are no longer interested talking about it. And remembering that one of our past power Ministers - and now a second termer Governor - had promised that this situation will take fifty years to normalize, it has become more absurd to dwell on it. By the Power Minister turned governor’s account, we still have about forty two years to go before normal power supply is restored in Nigeria - the giant of Africa. So, one may then ask, what then do I want to say here? And what is official 419 got to do with it?

I do not intend to go technical about the definition of 419 - whether official or not – because one, I am not very competent as I am not a lawyer. Two, a copy of the constitution of the Federal Republic has just been smeared with kerosene when I was trying to refill the lantern when my “All neighbors are equal” generator went off. Opening it near this lantern may prove more dangerous than anything else. So I cannot even look up what EFCC act has to say about obtaining money by pretence - OBT. So permit me to give a lame man’s meaning of 419 and later show you how official it is.

419, they told us, relates to the Interpol code representing the action of and punishment for obtaining money fraudulently from an unsuspecting person. Let us for now leave it at this and later on we will see how, at official level in Nigeria, money is obtained fraudulently from unsuspecting Nigerians by government agencies at the nose of our President and his “biggest Party” in Africa; the PDP - a party that will rule Nigeria for fifty years.

I had gathered my kids to educate them on the e-this and e-that syndrome which one of them had asked me the meaning the other day. I had narrated to them how, in the past, we used to go to Festac and queue up, for minutes, to pay for NITEL bill. I then asked them to compare that situation with the prevalent situation where I just ask them to run out and bye me recharge card across the road and I would recharge my phone and continue to make my calls. I told them that I do not know where the operator of the company whose SIM card I use is located. And the operator did not have to know that a man like me, their father, exists and yet we are doing business together. I was trying to teach them about e-payment system.

I then followed it with the issue of getting money on a Sunday night when no bank is open let alone a bank official anywhere around. We were talking about e-payment with ATM – Automatic Teller Machine.

I also gave them the picture of what happened in the past when one wanted to communicate with his relation far away. It was either a telegram or telex or a letter. If one is to be told about his father’s death - say James - and date of burial, a telex or telegram is sent thus: “James father died bury next tomorrow”. They were amused but they had also been taught about this in school and they were told that it was because every word costs so much in those media that statements are abridged to the barest intuitive minimum. I told them that a letter posted from one part of Nigeria to the other may take about two weeks to get to its destination. I was trying to show them how email has made things easier because I got them around my computer and showed them an email sent to me and how I just replied it and the person at the other end has received it as well, all within a twinkle of an eye.

We also talked about e-trade where, from Nigeria, I can order and pay for cars in Japan and it will be shipped to me without me being in Japan physically.

And I told them that, with e-education and e-learning, it is now possible for people to take lectures and pay for same from the comfort of their homes or offices and the teacher might just be at the other end of the world. I narrated to them how, in the past, one had to come to a street in Ikoyi Lagos - from far away East - to check his or her JME result. Today results can be checked from anywhere, tanks to the e-infrastructure. And students can fill their class admit cards for their subjects from their homes.

You can trust the inquisitiveness of the children’s brain. One of them then asked me Daddy; can’t this e-payment system be applied to the NEPA or PHCN Bill? This question sent a goose pimple over all of my body. Six days earlier I was far away in the Eastern part of the country when I got a call back in Lagos from my kids that PHCN/NEPA officials are around and they are about to disconnect us from the pole. I quickly put a call through to the account officer who is in charge of our house PHCN/NEPA billing. I explained to him that we do not owe as he is aware of. As a matter of fact we had more than two hundred naira credit in our favor. He argued that he was there with his Oga who ordered that we should be disconnected because the other two flats in the compound owe. Our house is such that each flat has its own meter.

It is true that there is outstanding bill on the other two flats’ meters but this is partly because most times when there were no tenants in those flats, PHCN or NEPA kept bringing bills to the tune of N500, N800 and sometimes as much as N1,200 - as they wish - monthly. There was one case where a Chinese lived in one of those flats for 12 months without light connection but PHCN/NEPA kept bringing bills. So when new tenants pack in, it becomes illogical for them to pay for what they did not consume. I have discussed this with the account officer who had always advised that I should come to the office to write a paper for discontinuation of billing. My argument has always been that you come here to read consumption figures from these meters. Do I have to leave all I am doing to come to your office to begin to argue with some people who find it difficult to see that the right things are done? I told him that some of us make a living by our day to day genuine efforts and leaving our bit just to go to their office when he comes to our house to read the meters does not sound like a good harp music for me. And the bill keeps pilling because they know that they will intimidate us to paying for what we did not consume.
The point here is that when - for any reason – PHCN or NEPA disconnects you, they do not disconnect the bill. For as long as they keep you in darkness, you are still being billed. Isn’t this akin to obtaining money by pretence – OBT or 419 or still yahoo yahoo.

There was a time they mistakenly introduced the e-billing (prepaid) system in some roads in Festac Town. When PHCN/NEPA saw that their revenue nose dived because this system of billing is based on what you consume - and they are not supplying much – they stopped the system of payment. It was then a big problem because residents refused to pay their power bills until the prepaid device was installed for them. Till today PHCN/NEPA has refused to implement the prepaid system further. They choose, like they do in our case, to come physically to disconnect people, and keep billing them, whether they are supplying power or not. They drive big cars from the money they extort from us while we languish in darkness.

President Yar’ Dua who has been taunting us with 7 point agenda does not think that one of the best agenda is to make sure that Nigerian’s are billed for only the power they consumed. He does not consider that more Nigerian’s will be comfortable with prepaid billing system. He does not think it’s necessary to force PHCN/NEPA to implement the prepaid system just as it is done in other areas of life. He does not seem to be comfortable with policies that have human face. He is only more disposed to deregulating the oil sector because that will bring more hardship to the average Nigerian.

I would have expected that The President should have constituted a committee, the type he had when he was asking the militants to submit their weapons, to see that PHCN/NEPA implements a prepaid billing system for Nigeria and Nigerians. The only thing constant with Nigeria’s PHCN or NEPA is that it never supplies power constantly and you can image how terrible this can be when Prof. Okey Ndibe’s kids asked him whether NEPA has visited America recently.

I am one Nigerian who still thinks that Yar Dua’s PDP – the biggest party in Africa that says it will be in power for fifty years, as bequeathed by the Ota Engineer, does not have the mental capacity to facilitate any development in Nigeria. Now that they cannot even stabilize power until fifty years, can’t they even implement e-payment in this their PHCN/NEPA so that some of us, or all of us, will only be paying for what we consumed, even at a little exorbitant rate. At least, with prepaid billing, we will be spared some payments when we did not consume power and it will become obvious when they try to tan us. We are poor and we are still being made poorer by paying for what we did not consume. What is more 419 than this and is it not official enough to be seen as official 419 in Nigeria?

My laptop battery just notifies me that I am running out battery power and I may just have to stop here till some other time. Remain blessed my fellow Nigerians and let us keep praying that PDP will some day become the smallest party in Africa with the biggest idea as to how to solve Nigeria’s numerous problems so that there wont be 419 again in our mother land, whether official or private, and this way Prof. Dora’s rebranding would have become e-enabled and automated for maximum effect.

Chris Onyishi

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