INVESTIGATION: How PHEDC Coerces, Extorts Customers in Akwa Ibom (Part I)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Amidst worsening power supply and widespread allegations of bullying and extortion of customers in Akwa Ibom, The NEXT EDITION had commissioned an undercover investigation into the activities of the power distribution company in the state. The result of the investigation will be presented in a series beginning with this report where customers recount nasty experiences and where the PHEDC’s Managing Director, Matthew Edebvie, taunts Akwa Ibom people as vandals and criminals.

The sad story of harassment and extortion

The Port Harcourt Electricity Distribution Company (PHEDC) has made extortion and harassment parts of its operational strategy in Akwa Ibom State, the NEXT EDITION can authoritatively report today.

This follows weeks of undercover tracking, direct contact with officials and interviews with consumers in the state.

Our correspondents uncovered shocking details of underhand practices and brazen acts of corruption perpetrated by PHEDC officials in the state.

The situation is so disturbing that every customer contacted had one bad story or more to tell about the operations of the company.

But the PHEDC’s Managing Director, Matthew Edevbie does not see anything wrong with the way the company is treating its customers.

In fact, Mr. Edevbie blames the people for the company’s poor service delivery in Akwa Ibom State.

This is in spite of the fact that stakeholders, including the state officials, consumers and civil society actors insist PHEDC has been shortchanging the state.

While power supply has dipped over time, shylock PHEDC officials have continued to bully and extort electricity consumers.

The investigation further shows how the company forces consumers who have lived in darkness for months and or power their homes and business centres with generators; to pay for the power they never consumed.

Equally shocking and funny is the fact those who fail to pay for the services PHEDC never offered face outright disconnection.

Helpless consumers must pay just so electricity cables remain connected from supply polls to their homes and offices.

But a top government official who spoke with this newspaper said the PHEDC is reaping where it did not sow.

The official who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak on the issue, said Akwa Ibom State Government has invested billions in the power sector.

“Right from Victor Attah who initiated the Ibom Power project and every other administration that came; we have bought thousands of transformers, built power sub-stations and provide other consumables.

“The PHEDC has invested little or nothing in building power infrastructure in Akwa Ibom. They are busy ripping off our people through estimated billing,” the source said.

A typical example of how the company is ripping off Akwa Ibom people can be found in Afaha Ofot, a community within Uyo Metropolis.

The area has not enjoyed electricity for the most part of the year.

The problem started when the transformer serving the community malfunctioned and the entire area was thrown into darkness.

It is important to note the damaged transformer was procured and its installation paid for by members of the community.

But when it packed up several months back, the community requested PHEDC to repair or replace it.

Months elapsed and the electricity firm never repaired or replaced the transformer.

While languishing in darkness, PHEDC officials still distributed estimated bills to Afaha Ofot residents with threats to disconnect those who fail to pay.

However, the matter got to its head in August when the youth of the community protested the action.

The Chairman of the village council, Mike Sam, narrated how PHEDC officials consistently bullied and extorted his community when they were hardly supplied with power.

According to him, instead of selling prepaid metres to consumers, it would rather share estimated bills to them in the face of worsening power supply.

“From January this year, the power supply has worsened. There was a period we had no electricity for months but they were still sending us bills and disconnecting households.

“Again, around May and June, our transformer was vandalised. After we contributed money for them to fix it, they (PHEDC) gave us bills for the two months we did not have supply and called it estimated bill,” Mr. Sam said.

He said PHEDC repeatedly ignores the community whenever they have issues and report to relevant officials.

Instead of addressing the issues, the company would wait till month end when it deploys armed policemen to bully and force the people to pay outrageous estimated bills.

The community never enjoys power supply for straight 15 minutes except towards month-end when officials come to distribute estimated bills.

Mr. Sam speaking to one of our correspondents

Another consumer in Uyo who gave his name as Akpan Luke recounted how wires on their street bridged causing life-threatening sparks.

He said the problem was promptly reported to PHEDC but they refused to take action.

“When PHEDC failed to fix the problem, we contributed money and got the village’s electricity committee to install separators on the affected power lines.

“One day, PHEDC officials who were driving through the community saw the separators, stopped and brought out a ladder in an attempt to remove the separators.

“It was our youth president who prevented them from removing the separators. But they didn’t just go away; they disconnected the entire area from the high tension feeding our transformer and later returned with armed policemen to remove the separators we had installed,” Mr. Luke lamented.

Angered by the rash treatment, the leadership of the community lodged a complaint at the regional headquarters of the electricity firm but got more than they bargained.

Instead of fishing out the errant officials who removed the separators bought and installed by the community, the regional manager scolded the community leaders.

Not done, he ordered them to sign an undertaking not to ever confront his officials and to pay all outstanding bills including the ones issued when power was not supplied to the area.

Helpless and defeated, the village had no option but to sign the evil undertaking. They also levied members of the community to defray the bill for services PHEDC never provided.

But that was not the end of the community’s ordeal as the regional manager forced them to sign away the transformer they got from the Niger Delta Development Commission to the corrupt electricity firm.

“There was a transformer our community received from NDDC because our former transformer packed-up. We went to PHEDC office to beg them to come and install the new transformer and promised to pay for the services,” Mr. Sam recalled.

“They insisted we must sign an undertaking to donate the transformer to them and also that we are going to pay the bills for the months there was no light.

“Without signing the undertaking the regional manager vowed the new transformer will not be installed. We signed but months after installation, we are yet to get electricity.”

Many frustrated customers in Uyo said PHEDC has disconnected their homes after they stopped paying outrageous estimated bills.

Some of them had approached the company and demanded prepaid metres.

After making payment, they said months have elapsed and PHCN is yet to install metres in their homes and business premises.

READ ALSO: A’Ibom: We’re committed to industrialisation, small, medium scale enterprises –Emmanuel

One of the affected customers along Aka Nung Udoe Road, David Okon said his home was disconnected several months back.

“But while the wires are still lying on the ground, they have been sending me bills of N18, 000 every month. I am laughing because I don’t need their services anymore,” he said.

A consumer in Ikot Ebak, Abak Local Government Area, Ekerete Victor said the power situation in the area is deplorable.

While power is rarely supplied to the area, he said PHEDC has been consistent in sharing estimated bills and coercing customers to pay.

“There was a time our transformer was faulty for months but bills were still coming in. When the accumulated bills became too much and it was impossible for me to pay, I went and complained in their office,” Mr. Victor said.

“I reminded them the transformer has been down for a long time and we were not having light. In the end, they wrote off N100, 000 from the accumulated estimated bills.

“They insisted I should have come to their office to complain that the transformer was bad. Since the problem affected the entire area, I wonder why they claimed they didn’t know.

“Even when we don’t have light for a whole month, they still bring estimated bills and ask us to pay because we don’t have prepared metres.”

In Eket Local Government Area, a former Minister of Lands, Housing and Urban Development, Nduese Essien lamented the poor treatment of consumers.

Mr. Essien who is an indigene of Ntaisip, Eket described the power situation in the area as “a nightmare.”

“The operations of PHEDC have been a nightmare to the people. Since they came on board we have had less power supply than ever before,” Mr. Essien said.

“Consumers in Eket are paying incredibly high bills because the PHEDC workers prefer estimated billing instead of supplying prepaid metres to consumers as required by law.

“Secondly, consumers are responsible for connecting the light to their homes by providing the poles, wires, transformers and every other material needed.”

The former South-south caucus leaders in the National Assembly said armoured cables are stolen at regular intervals and consumers forced to bear the cost of replacements.

“A more recent occurrence that has bothered the people is the arrangement where selected customers are given priority attention. They pay extra and power is supplied to them 24 hours while the rest of the people are not supplied.”

The former minister accused the electricity distribution firm of deliberately refusing to sell prepaid metres so they would continue to extort consumers.

Besides, he said whenever there is a fault; the PHEDC would wait for the community to resolve it and as soon as it is done, estimated bills are distributed and those who fail to pay are disconnected.

Mr. Essien speaking to one of our correspondent

Akwa Ibom, the land of criminals and vandals?

The Managing Director of PHCN, Matthew Edevbie, denied most of the allegations by the consumers and rather blamed criminals in the state for his company’s woes.

Managing Director of PHCN, Matthew Edevbie

While all the costumers contacted said they pay for replacement and repairs of damaged transformers, poles and other accessories, Mr. Edevbie swore the costumers lied, adding it is against PHEDC’s policy for costumers to pay for such replacements and repairs.

“We do not as a company policy, allow for customers to pay for materials to repair any transformer or sub-station,” he argued.

“We have encouraged consumers to report any staff who demands for money to repair a transformer. We have about 16 lines they can call to complain and that staff will be summarily dismissed.”

Adroit at shifting blames, Mr. Edevbie accused former NEPA staff of being responsible for all the bad things happening in his firm.

He said, “We inherited a lot of staff from NEPA who have this practice in their blood and no matter what we do, they continue to do things like that.

“Just like the state, federal and in the civil service, we have people in Nigeria who are inherently criminal and such people distort the company policy.”

However, Mr. Edevbie said where a substation or transformer develops a fault in an area with a backlog of debt; the company usually sets the policy aside.

Such faulty hardware would be repaired or replaced after defaulting customers defray 60 per cent of their indebtedness and present a payment plan for the outstanding debt.

“It is against our policy for our customers to buy or contribute to the process of repairs but we will not repair or replace a transformer that people owe money,” he continued.

“It is like running a restaurant and people come to eat without paying. Unfortunately, the plate you have been eating from gets broken, would you want us to buy a new plate so you continue to eat and owe. Of course, we would not allow that.”

When confronted about a case in Ewet Housing Extension in Uyo, where the transformer of prepaid customers was vandalised during an outage and PHEDC made the customers buy the stolen parts and pay for repairs, he said, “They should contribute that money. We told the Akwa Ibom State Government clearly that the state has the highest rate of vandalism in this country.

“If there is a transformer to serve the people and they encourage criminals to steal everything, we will not replace it. We are running a business. If you are the owner of the business will you replace it?”

Again reminded that the parameter fence around the transformer could be connected with live wires to scare off vandals, his response was acerbic.

“If a child goes to play near the transformer and he dies, you will be the first to flash the news, ‘PHEDC kills three children in Akwa Ibom’ and that time you will call me and say you are an investigative journalist and I should tell you why I wired the transformer.

“Akwa Ibom has the highest vandalism rate in the country and Akwa Ibom people should be ashamed that they allow every infrastructure to be destroyed and expect us to come and fix it.

“When there is a transformer in a community and the people cannot police it and then say oh, it is PHEDC transformer, I have over 14,000 transformers across the state and you put security me to put men everywhere, how much is the electricity bill?

“When there is a transformer is in your community and you allow it to be vandalized, you will suffer the consequences because we will not replace it. We will not. We will not.”

(A full transcript of Mr. Edevbie’s interview will be published in a separate part of this investigative report).

But the state’s Chairman of the Civil Liberties Organisation (CLO) Franklyn Isong expressed outrage at the rude comments made against Akwa Ibom people by the PHEDC boss.

“If it is true he said Akwa Ibom people are criminals, then the MD of PHEDC owes Akwa Ibom people an unreserved apology,” Mr. Isong said.

“It is an undeserved attack on Akwa Ibom people by a company that is fraudulently refusing to provide prepaid meters even after payments are made. PHEDC rather uses estimated billing system to rob the people of the state.”

The CLO boss said Mr. Edevbie has deliberately refused to invest in developing power infrastructure despite the millions his company is making from the state.

He challenged the PHEDC boss to show what he has added to the existing power infrastructure in the state since he took over.

Mr. Isong said the Governor, Mr. Udom Emmanuel has invested heavily in the power sector to strengthen his industrialisation programme.

Despite Mr. Udom’s huge investment, the CLO boss said Mr. Edevbie has deliberately refused to distribute power to consumers in Akwa Ibom.

Minister for Power, Saleh Mamman

“The government has built power stations and substations across the state, shared transformers and other consumables to many communities,” he said.

“The PHEDC has made no tangible contribution rather than to take over those assets as its properties and turn around to insult Akwa Ibom people.

“I am calling on the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly to investigate the activities of the power company and the statement he allegedly made and  if found to be true, make the MD of the company to use the same medium to tender an apology to the governor and people of the state.”

The Chairman, National Electricity Regulatory Council (NERC), James Momoh, told our correspondent he was on a field trip when contacted to speak on the story.