By Azore Opio

September, 2010, Monday 13: a cold drizzly day in Buea on the slopes of Mt. Fako. Pius Awa locks up his store at Clerks’ Quarters and heads down to the offices of the lone purveyor of water, CamWater. It is last date of payment and he must pay or else he will pay the bill and a surcharge of FCFA 4,590. As he queues with a chit numbered 213, his anxiety grows as he has another queue chit number 401 to pay electricity bill at AES SONEL, just a stone throw away.

On the same cold drizzly day, Joseph Awunfack, an elderly man in his 60s, boards a bus from Ekona bound for Buea to pay electricity and water bills. His fare; FCFA 500. At CamWater, Awunfack is given number 187 and at AES SONEL, he gets number 309. When he submits a five thousand franc note at CamWater, the cashier tells him bluntly, "Go and bring change. If you don’t have change, I won’t accept your money."

Flabbergasted, the old man ambles out to the roadside, trudges up to Clerks’ Quarters on the hunt for the elusive change. Then just to check how near he is on the AES SONEL queue, he discovers a thick crowd milling in the courtyard. Only number 43 has crossed the "golden" line. With coins jingling in his pocket, Awunfack wanders back to CamWater.

And begins the long wait. When his turn comes, the cashier is no longer receiving payment because business has closed for the day. Back to AES SONEL, the electricity guys’ "network" has crashed because of a power cut. Awunfack finally does not pay his electric bill. He goes back to Ekona, FCFA 1000 poorer. He makes two or three of these trips before he can pay his bills.

You will love this problem from AES SONEL and CamWater. You pay a dear price for subscribing to the two utility companies. Hour after hour, waiting for your turn to come in the queue, anxiety builds up, contempt for electricity and water, however essential they may be, rise to the surface. Just like it beset some residents of Sandpit who felt they needed electricity. They bargained with AES SONEL agents who settled for FCFA 2 million, which money was quickly gathered and handed over to the agents. Weeks passed. No electricity. Disgruntled, the residents made contact and they were told the FCFA 2 million was a kind of deposit.

If the Sandpit guys were really serious about getting wired, as it were, they would have to buy the poles, cables and all that goes into getting connected to the power grid. They did just that. Weeks turned into months. It took another round of groveling before the bulbs lit up in that Sandpit area. And if you think you want to get employed at AES SONEL, prepare FCFA 1 million to heat the coils.

Since AES SONEL took over from SONEL, not a light bulb’s worth of electricity has been produced on the thousands of acres of promises the company made. Not one project to guarantee regular power supply has even broken ground. Instead, ten years after consumers have lost precious time and gained only damages on their electrical appliances because the power company suffers epileptic attacks with spasms occurring at unholy hours.

Getting piped water from CamWater is no easier. You buy all the PVC pipes, elbows, T-junctions, glue, the metre/rate counter, pay the labour to dig the trenches, lay the pipes and go down on your knees for CamWater to connect you. All the while, AES SONEL and CamWater continue to provide the most unreliable electric and water services in the country. Exorbitant utility rates and irregular supply of their services hit the poor hardest, but the middle class, small businesses, industry and government also suffer when power bills increase disproportionately to frequent power cuts.

"Everybody is affected by higher power and water bills," points out a magistrate, "medics, teachers, students, patients, soldiers, cart pushers…"A P&T School staff says it is all a farce having to spend days just to pay a bill which could be conveniently paid in a bank account, or as in East Africa now; by mobile phone transaction. Or at decentralised payment points.

We are writing, once again, for the forty-ten time, to say that AES SONEL and CamWater are rip-off companies. 50 years after independence, Cameroonians still trek long distances to find water and they are still starved of electricity. We live in an area where rain falls heavily for six months with nary a regular drop of water in the pipes.

Anyway, they are not interested in the well being of the customer as they read their own meters rather haphazardly half the time with unit rates fluctuating at will. The bills go up and down with regular carried-over extras from previous months no matter how much water or electricity you use. And most often, the payment dates and deadlines also fall on weekends. This is a nasty booby-trap intended to make you default so that you can pay the penalty.

These companies are very communistic in their practices and should be avoided at all costs! They rip you of one or several things all at the same time; your time, energy, resources (cash) and above all, dignity! And Government seems always to be looking the other way.

Says Charly Ndi Chia, The Post Editor-in-Chief: "From the look of things fifty years after independence, Government has no intention of providing potable water to Cameroonians. Many years back when I was growing up, water was served at a token rate of FCFA 50 to FCFA 100 a month. The same facilities were taken over by a thieving cabal going by the name SNEC and prohibitive taxes were imposed on consumers for a service even hardly rendered, and its quality in serious doubt. Consequently, bills flow more than the water."

As for AES SONEL, Ndi Chia says Cameroonians today are groping in the darkness of the so-called electricity out-fit, which, when it came, promised clean, regular, cheap and reliable energy. AES SONEL has failed worse than a lazy school boy who has failed his exams. Cameroon POSTline is particularly touched by the thieving nature of AES SONEL. It is on record that it owes the newspaper advertising bills since 2002 till date.

The media house has written dozens of letters and made umpteen pilgrimages with Photostat copies of bills, AIEs (Authority to Incur Expenditure) as well as hard copies of Cameroon POSTlines that carried the adverts as documentary proof. But for some ten years, AES SONEL has been conveniently dribbling the newspaper, and yet if you owe AES SONEL for a month, it is quick to cut you off the power grid.

Besides losing advertising money to the power company, the newspaper has on several occasions missed to go to press altogether, thanks to black-outs, its computers often going caput because of intermittent power failures. Radio programs, patients undergoing surgery, women under dryers in beauty saloons, as well as men wanting a hair-cut, have all suffered in the hand of AES SONEL. AES SONEL and CamWater are veritable liabilities to Cameroonians. Cameroonians can do without these two contraptions."

AES SONEL is surely courting trouble and waiting for a bolt of incense from the blue to shock it into respecting the customer, while CamWater is, without a doubt, opening the floodgates of consumer rage. It should care to recall how its predecessor was violently hounded out of Kumbo, Muyuka and Mutengene. And we know that law firms love to sue corporations. There is lots of money to be had especially since these companies have lots of money they have been ripping off from gullible consumers.

Cameroon, like other world nations, has failed to supply "Water for all by the Year 2000", a dream dreamt in the middle of the last century. There is a general lack of political interest in improving access to drinkable water. As soon as water was commoditized, its worth was drastically compromised and now there is an entrenched snobbery towards the sale of water. 
We conclude by quoting George Bansi Nebafube writing in Cameroon Tribune of February 19, 1986 (Courtesy National Archives, Buea) thus:

"This town with big muddy…
Linked with little lakes overflowing with water
Bamboo framed mudded houses, standing on water
Rotten tins and kitchen refuse dumped in water
Odour, heat and mosquitoes emerging from water
Ill-health and wealth gotton from people
Thirst and search for water

People seek for means of drawing water
People dig wells to draw out water, there’s so much
Need for water, but no need for water
There’s no source of water, there’s water
Yet, there’s no water"