Exposing corruption

World News Day: Protests, bloodshed over electricity in Nigerian city

Disco officials and soldiers in one of the communities. Residents in Benin said the officials, soldiers and Caucasians cut their power supply when they did not pay their bills, which they said were inflated.
Disco officials and soldiers in one of the communities. Residents in Benin said the officials, soldiers and Caucasians cut their power supply when they did not pay their bills, which they said were inflated.PHOTO: NEW TELEGRAPH, NIGERIA

Mr Innocent Okparah recounted his bloody encounter with the Americans and military men, saying: "I was beaten with guns, boots and fists. It was just too much for me. I couldn't fight back. They overpowered me."

He may have forgotten many unpleasant events, but he will never forget the day armed soldiers - allegedly working for the Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC) - gave him the beating of his life.

The assault intensified after Mr Okparah attempted to use his smartphone to take snapshots of the soldiers and BEDC officials. For his temerity, he had to spend weeks in the hospital fighting to live.

Aside from Mr Okparah, other victims have also claimed to have experienced the same encounter with soldiers and Caucasians. BEDC officials also tried to disconnect the power supply to their homes.

For many Nigerians, it was abnormal to see Disco officials, armed soldiers and Caucasians coming to disconnect power supplies, but residents of Benin, Edo State, alleged that it was an everyday occurrence, which they had now got used to.

The acronym Disco refers to electricity distribution companies in Nigeria.

Recalling the encounter, Mr Okparah said: "We had been hearing about it, but that day was my first experience. The BEDC officials came with military men and Caucasians! After disconnecting the light, we told them that we wouldn't allow them to go with our wires."

He disclosed that the fight with BEDC started in 2017 after a court case, where Discos were instructed to stop disconnecting consumers' power supply until further notice.

He said BEDC failed to recognise and respect the judiciary, so consumers decided not to obey or respect the company.

BEDC was doing illegal billing, he said, with consumers billed as much as six times their actual usage. He claimed some bills even surpassed the consumer's rent.

After he walked out of hospital, he embarked on a quest for justice, supported by the Edo Civil Society Organisation (Edocso).

He reported the situation to the Nigerian army, police and Nigerian Immigration Service (NIS).

It was discovered that the Caucasians were working closely with some Disco officials in three different states. The soldiers were attached to the Caucasians.

Mr Okparah also learnt that the Caucasians were in Nigeria under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), under the Power Africa project.

"When the army called me about the matter, they asked me if I wanted the soldiers to be sacked, I responded that they were my brothers. I expected the soldiers to realise that as Nigerians, we are all brothers," he said.

Shaking his head in disbelief, the man said that despite everything, BEDC's crazy billings have not stopped.

The New Telegraph learnt that because of BEDC violations, human rights activists in the state teamed up and embarked on a series of protests, often staged at the front of BEDC's head office in Benin, demanding that the firm and its managing director and chief executive, Mr Funke Osibudu, should go.

The coordinator-general of Edocso, leftist Omobude Agho, also had an encounter with the soldiers, Caucasians and BEDC officials.

He said: "I was in the middle of the meeting when I received a call that some Caucasians and soldiers were at my house and wanted to disconnect my light. They said that I owed (for unpaid) electricity bills.

  • BEHIND THE STORY

  • Caucasians, gun-wielding soldiers and Benin Electricity Distribution Company (BEDC) officials brutalising customers for not settling their bills and energy theft. It sounds stranger than fiction, but the bizarre allegation is true, according to New Telegraph crime editor Juliana Francis, who went to Edo State to speak with the people involved. The saga began after a court case in 2017, where Discos (electricity distribution companies in Nigeria) were told to stop disconnecting consumers' power supply until further notice. The BEDC failed to recognise and respect the judiciary, so consumers also decided not to obey or respect the company. Thereafter, military personnel working with the BEDC harassed citizens and pulled down their electric wires. Electricity bills were also hiked.

"I went to meet the sales manager of BEDC, later identified as Mr Ayiayi, who was also there.

"I was still speaking with him when one of the soldiers pointed his rifle at me... The next thing I knew, the soldier placed the nozzle of his rifle at my chest and ordered me to sit on the ground."

According to Mr Agho, when he started writing petitions against the military men and reached the Department of State Services (DSS) office, the DSS boss said his men were not attached to BEDC.

He petitioned the police, DSS and NIS to thoroughly investigate the activities of the Caucasians.

Mr Agho said customers' encounters with BEDC had not improved, with everyone angry and the atmosphere tensed. According to him, Edo State locals no longer want to renew their BEDC contracts.

The Edocso public relations officer, Comrade Osazee Edigin, said the fight against the rights violations by BEDC had been going on for years.

He said that on Dec 25, 2015, BEDC officials with soldiers went to a community in Country Home Road, off Sapele Road, in Benin, and tried to disconnect the community's transformer because some people had not paid their electricity bills.

On Aug 15 last year, New Telegraph correspondent Julia Francis went to the BEDC headquarters to see Mr Osibudu, but the effort was futile. She was directed to the assistant general manager of corporate affairs.

 
 
 
 

BEDC's head of public affairs, Mr Tayo Adekunle, was not around, so Mr Ibeh Odoh, his assistant, attended to Ms Francis.

Reacting to allegations that their company uses soldiers to harass, intimidate and brutalise energy consumers, among other atrocities, Mr Odoh said they were a pack of lies.

He said that the Caucasians were "USAID members working with BEDC. They are not our staff; they are more like technical partners, under USAID Power Africa project."

On soldiers brutalising customers, Mr Odoh said: "If there are victims, let them come to our office to complain and we shall carry out investigations."

The New Telegraph's correspondent also contacted the US consulate in Lagos to question it about the allegations of the human rights violations.

On Sept 5 last year, she contacted Mr Sani Mohammed, the senior information specialist at the US Embassy in the capital, Abuja.

He replied the following day, asking for further information, which was e-mailed to him.

At the time of this report's filing, no response has been provided.

• This story is a compilation of reports from Oct 18 to 25 last year.

Find out more about World News Day.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2019, with the headline 'Protests, bloodshed over electricity in Nigerian city'. Print Edition | Subscribe