Does A Public Notice Without More Constitute Sufficient Notice To A Customer In Order For A Disco To Disconnect Debtor Customers?

Recently, a number of newspapers contained advertorials by electricity distribution companies (“Discos”) titled “Notice of Disconnection of Electricity Supply” where the general public and customers were advised that the companies were about to embark on a disconnection process of long-standing debtor customers who have refused to pay for their electricity consumption over the last two years, from their networks. A couple of the Discos further stated that the Notice serves as a notice in compliance with NERC’s Connection and Disconnection Procedures.

By way of background, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (“NERC”) Connection and Disconnection Procedure for Electricity Services, 2007 (the Regulations”) provides in Regulation 5(1) that a Distribution Company may only disconnect supply to a customer’s address when the customer has not paid the amount correctly billed to the customer by the indicated payment date after a period of not less than three months from the payment due date. Prior to the disconnection, Regulation 5(1)(f) specifically states that the Distribution Company must have given the customer a written warning that the electricity supply shall be disconnected if payment is not made by the payment date.

Our question is, whether the newspaper publications referenced above is sufficient compliance with NERC Connection and Disconnection Procedure. Based on the information contained in the publications, we can surmise that the target customers are those which have persistently owed the Discos payment in respect of bills for up to a period of two years, thus exceeding the minimum period of three months stipulated by NERC. However, do these publications, without more constitute sufficient notice to the consumers? NERC’s Regulations mandates that the customer must be given a written warning, which contains the date of its delivery to the supply address or any other address provided by the customer and a telephone number or address where the customer can request assistance for paying the outstanding bill. This is of course to give the customer the opportunity to make the payment before the disconnection takes place. The failure to fulfill any of the three prerequisites would mean that any disconnection which follows would be invalid.

In our view, it would be stretching the interpretation of this provision to accept that these newspaper publications serve as the notice required by NERC before a disconnection can take place as posited by some of the Discos. Nevertheless, if we are to go by the information contained in the publications, there may be a likelihood that the letters stated to have been written to these customers would have been in form of a warning requesting them to make the outstanding payments or risk disconnection, inasmuch as they contain the stipulated date and contact details required by the Regulations. In that case, these publications would only then serve as further notice to the affected customers and the general public about the action about to be embarked upon by these Discos.

Where NERC finds that a Disco disconnects a customer contrary to the provisions of the Regulations, the Disco may face criminal charges and upon conviction would be liable to pay penalty to the wrongfully disconnected customer in the amount stipulated in the Regulations.