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Welcome, AES-SONEL: Please, Go Back Home! 

By Charly Ndi Chia

CameroonPostline.com — On Thursday, August 19, 2004, this Reporter carried out an in-depth report, titled: “Groping In The Darkness Of AES-SONEL”. The said report was a presentation and critical analysis of the promise, performance, problems and challenges of the sole producers and distributors of electrical energy in Cameroon. AES-SONEL had, three years earlier, pompously announced how they were committed to producing clean, cheap and affordable energy for Cameroonians.

Elsewhere in this edition, respondents to our question as to whether AES-SONEL should be shown the door or not, are unanimous that the handing over of the energy sector to this American company has been the bane of this very primordial aspect of the nation’s developmental option. At the very hint that AES-SONEL is about throwing in the towel and packing out, it has been like, good riddance to bad rubbish. Virtually all the respondents that we sampled would want to see the back of the company. And for very good reason.
 

Within the AES-SONEL family, a combination of corruption, idleness, inefficiency and ineptitude is the law that the workers must obey. There are known cases whereby candidates performed exceptionally well at recruitment interviews but were “politely” asked to pay bribe money of a million francs each, before they could be legally engaged…

It is also no secret that one could pay up all connectivity charges and still go for years without light, if one doesn’t grease the required palms. Plus, the company has a penchant for not paying her bills, especially those accruing from advertisement in the media. The evidence is palpable.
 

Small wonder, therefore, that through AES-SONEL, an intriguing paradox is presented: a nation blessed with some of the most suitable natural rivers and falls in the world for electrical energy generation, but which have only been harnessed in ritualistic speeches by “apostles of the grandstands”. Our original August 19, 2004 in-depth report has only been slightly edited to reflect present day reality. It is still as compelling as it was when it was first published nearly 10 years back. The “Dark Complexion” Of AES-SONEL
 

In-depth Report

Rampant power outages have, over time, practically rendered consumers of electrical energy helpless. Blackouts have, in certain cases and localities, lasted for hours, weeks and months in some of the nation’s major towns. A day hardly goes by, without there being power cuts in practically every part of the nation.
 

Perishables in refrigerators and mortuaries decay very speedily. Electrical and electronic appliances function epileptically; in some cases, they simply pack up, providing jobs for repairers, markets for spare parts, electronic and electrical gadgets dealers, but hardly any litigation for the law courts.
 

Some years back, when we checked out the business of power generating plants, it was thriving. It was being patronised by the upper and business classes. We also discovered at certain pump stations that kerosene was selling in relative competition with petrol. The Chinese had taken advantage of a bad situation, to flood the place with hurricane lamps and low grade power generating sets. Candles sold by the millions. The torch business had also become brisk business. So too, other rechargeable electric lamps.
 

It was an irritating momentary state. The population thought the nation was systematically drifting into permanent darkness. Pitch darkness. Some politicians decided that AES-SONEl, with a mission, with a brief, to light the nation, had taken on a dark complexion of sorts. It could as well have been called an exploitable economic or political dark complexion. The power-generating corporation gave reasons, excuses and apologies. AES-SOEL made projections and promises.
 

Street-wise politicians asked the public not to believe them. They practically urged the masses to short-circuit AES-SONEL’s tenure and put the Americans on the next plane. But the public stayed desperately tolerant, hopeful if you will. Within the AES-SONEL house itself, there was a simmering implosion. Certain workers were spoiling for a fight with their Americana management. Their grouse?
 

Niat Njifendji was a better boss than his AES “Chop-Chairs”. He did not retrench; he did not demote Chiefs and Directors, to have their secretaries and other lowly personnel replace them; the AES people did not, and were/are yet to increase salaries after taking over some years back, and so on. Then, AES-SONEL authorities announced with palpable relief, that the hiccups where over, thanks to successful repair work on an interconnection grid, on the 225/90KV Bekoko substation.
 

They also announced the completion of the Limbe Thermal Plant that should act as a support breast, or feeding-bottle to the statutory ones. Another announcement to the effect that rainy season tariffs would be rebated, soothed many tested and tried nerves used to enjoying basic public utilities in Presidential speeches and promises. Otherwise, before these timely palliatives, things had practically gotten to a stage whereby, a running tap or shining bulb or tube in the average household was, to say the least, celebrated with wine and beer.
 

In The Beginning…
 

One fact stands out. The electricity company Niat handed over to the AES people was a well-packaged, well-programmed festival of blackouts, waiting to happen. It was a poisoned gift by any other name. And from their own pronouncements, AES-SONEL, knew that it was just a matter of time, for the daunting problems to start manifesting for the cookies to start crumbling, as it were.
 

On Wednesday, August 29, 2001, the pioneer AES-SONEL Managing Director, Mark Miller, during his first ever meeting with the press, referred to significant difficulties with quality and availability of electrical supply. He then noted: “We are developing plans to address those problems, but ask for your patience and understanding, as many of these improvements take time to evaluate and procure the necessary equipment and parts”.
 

Referring to the customer as king, Miller said to attain the objectives of AES-SONEL… “We have endeavoured to acquaint ourselves with the realities in the field, as well as with your difficulties, such as the numerous untimely power cuts, voltage drops, long periods of waiting for intervention, and the delay in connections”.
 

He still proceeded to take a tall order, by promising that AES-SONEL would become the best electricity company in Africa and the benchmark for all future privatisations. One recurring decimal in the early days of AES-SONEL speeches was the promise to improve in all facets of business and to provide clean, safe, reliable and fairly priced electricity to Cameroon. This did not quite come to pass; as a matter of fact, it hasn’t come to pass. Shortly after these and other promises bordering on the welfare of inherited staff were made, the said staff began agitating.
 

They confronted Miller with a July 11, 2001 minutes of the 73rd edition of SONEL board meeting, purporting to have allocated special bonuses to workers, amounting to FCFA 1.2 billion. Miller replied that such gratification had no justification, as the same SONEL BOD, had indicated a net deficit of FCFA 3.987 billion. Added to this, he had indicated, if short and long-term debts were included, the company deficit would stand at FCFA 23.455 billion.
 

Next was an August 15, 2001 deadline, given to AES-SONEL, to pay up the said bonuses and August 30, of the same year, to define social status or face the ire of the workers. And the company’s response … all workers have to operate as a team, under the supervision of one leader. Workers, not contended with the AES modus operandi, were advised to call it quits and be paid juicy benefits.
 

Sabotage?
 

While the festival of blackouts, and power rationing persisted and while AES-SONEL management bickered with some of their personnel, consumers bore the brunt; in most cases, very silently. The Post newspaper euphemistically, branded the AES-SONEL team as lazy schoolboys, who had failed their exams. Others thought the company a swindling outfit, with a wicked mission to loot, throw sand in the eyes of Cameroonians and take off.
 

On the other hand, there were those who thought some disgruntled elements, operating from within, were out to sabotage the Americans, in order to resort to the status quo ante, from which they were used to thriving. AES-SONEL very corporately ruled out any hint of sabotage.
Contrary to the thinking that privatisation of the company was going to curtail waste and generate prudence in Government circles, the situation is even worse off, even as we write.

One only needs to take a walk around Yaounde, at night, to hear the humming of air-conditioners and see electric bulbs and fluorescent tubes burning in Government offices. The Post was told that most Government institutions, whether in the capital city or in the Regions, hardly pay utility bills. They are like the proverbial sacred cows – untouchable or better still un-billable.
 

Rampant theft of electrical energy, in most cases, with the connivance of company workers, is a practice that was very rampant during the Niat-Njifendji era. It is still in vogue, in the AES dispensation. This is a practice that begets faulty connections, over-loading and the consequent short-circuits.
 

Reckless tree felling that has often severed electric lines has also been partly responsible for the woes of the company, whether in the Niat or these AES days. Not to talk of the anachronistic equipment that AES inherited from SONEL, the rise in the cost of generating power, higher demand of electrical energy and a disgruntled and lethargic work force.
 

All of this notwithstanding, consumers have all along, been only interested in AES-SONEL, supplying the clean, reliable and fairly priced electricity that was promised at the beginning. The public is also convinced that that company has been giving them more bills than services.
A Communications Leader of AES-SONEL told The Post back in 2004, that the billing tariff system AES was using up until then, was what was applicable, some 25 years before. He said most other countries had since changed their billing systems to reflect the realities on the ground.
 

The Post was told that Cameroon ought to have, long since, reviewed her electricity charges, given that the country depends mostly on rainfall, for power generation. It was hinted, then, that since it is costlier to produce electrical energy in the dry season, tariffs would henceforth be made to reflect this fact. Consequently, the dry season tariffs would run from January 1, to June 30, while those for the rainy reason, would be effective from July 1, to December 31. We were also told of the demand for electricity consumption by Cameroonians, having greatly increased.
 

Profit Against All Odds
 

Immediately after a February 24, 2004 meeting, AES-SONEL BOD Chairman, the Late Justin Ndioro, told reporters that in spite of heavy load-shedding, energy sales increased remarkably, from 2.582gwh in 2002, to 2.812gwh in 2003, representing an 8.9 percent growth.
 

In fiscal terms, the turnover stood at FCFA 108 billion, exceeding for the very first time, the symbolic FCFA 100 billion mark, to quote Ndioro. The then Chairman also talked of the BOD’s worry over the persistent low distribution (bellow 70 percent) efficiency. He blamed that on non-technical losses, leading to a shortfall of close to FCFA 25 billion yearly.
 

This situation was due to shortcomings in the billing process and massive fraud by certain customers, sometimes in collusion with company staff, Ndioro had noted. He said the BOD urged the in-coming General Manager, Jean David Bille, to mobilise the entire company staff, and where the need arises, not to hesitate in taking severe disciplinary action against any defaulters in the company, or legal action against fraudulent customers.
 

Business Operators Cry Out
 

Fraud aside, some consumers who depend largely on electrical energy to run their business, are rather very disappointed with AES-SONEL. They range from persons operating business centres, photo laboratories, corn mills and mortuaries. Others are bakery operators, saw-millers, off-license owners, restaurant operators, nightclub operators, and bankers.

Cases have been reported of patients, getting marooned on operating tables in hospitals, on account of power failures. All the above are wont to curse the day AES-SONEL came fidgeting with the Cameroonian energy sector. A Kumba business operator felt that the Government privatisation bid was generating rather than alleviating poverty. He particularly wanted Government to take back SONEL from the AES people.
 

Peter Tifang Njeck, Director General of the Bamenda-based Organisation for Consumer Sovereignty, OCOSO, thought that raising the unit price of electricity, while still subjecting consumers to frequent, unannounced power cuts, was a very unusual way of encouraging effectiveness. He sought to know why, after paying for a metre, a customer should continue paying an indefinite monthly rent on it, and why AES-SONEL had, so far, failed to reply to series of letters, urging them to stop exploiting their customers.
 

The Northwest Regional Secretary of the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedoms, NCHRF, Nelson Ndi, as he then was, said of electricity and water: “These are top commodities and it is the right of the citizens to have these resources at affordable prices, and not prices that will instead retard growth or kill the citizens”. Ndi quoted the authorities of the Cameroon Tea Estates, CTE, as partly tracing the infamous lay-offs in that company, to high production costs, with electricity bills contributing in no small way.
 

A careful study by The Post indicated that 60 percent of Government offices in the Northwest Region had their lights shining all night long. At the Delegation of National Education, the Stores Accountant said when bills are submitted, he cross-checks and certifies them in six copies. These copies, he said, are used to raise a voucher at the National Education Ministry in Yaounde, where the bills are paid.
 

He blamed the habit of leaving on lights in offices at the close of the day, on carelessness, but was quick to add: “I hold the keys to most offices and always ensure that lights are switched off, before I go home, since I am always the last person to leave, quite often, at night”. He wouldn’t comment much on air conditioners, as he said they were few and nearly all broken down.
Free Electricity For AES-SONEL Staff?
 

The Northwest Sales Leader at the time, refuted allegations of unlimited free electricity supply to AES-SONEL staff. Hear him: “Every staff, depending on their category and marital status, is entitled to a limited number of units. If a staff consumes above his or her allotted units, he or she, is expected to pay up the balance”.
 

He blamed the prolonged power cuts experienced in the Region and elsewhere, on rampant and uncontrolled bushfires and loggers. Loggers, he said, fell trees, but that when electrical installations are destroyed in the process, they escape. “It becomes most difficult to trace the line where poor forest exploitations would have done damage to our installations, especially in the thick bushes of Mamfe”, he told The Post.

Trouble Within The House
 

When it was mooted, at the height of the recent power outages, that it could be the result of systematic sabotage from company workers, General Manager, Bille, was quick to say that it had nothing to do with dissatisfaction and frustration.
 

But some SONEL staff we spoke to, thought differently. Short of saying this was the case, they gave reason why sabotage can’t be totally ruled out. One of them (names withheld) said the Americans came to SONEL with bias minds. He said they were of the impression that management level staff was corrupt and, therefore, behaved as if their primordial role was to humiliate this category of workers, rather than do business.
 

He quoted the AES bosses as saying; “there are no more chiefs in the company. Academic qualifications and professional experience are of secondary importance. All that we want are people who can lead others. “Many of you who are senior grade workers shall not be senior grade workers tomorrow. People who are not happy with our working conditions shall be paid off”.
 

He said AES was incapable of paying off the workers when the time finally came. They could only afford to pay off about 400 workers, whereas they had promised paying off 2,200 of them. According to him, some workers, who had retired after AES took over SONEL, felt that all that the former had to do was to raise each worker by a category. This, he claimed, would have resulted in a three-fold increase in productivity.
 

But that instead of doing this, AES embarked on a senseless restructuring. There was anxiety among the workers, he noted, adding that those who felt they had not been treated well in the previous administration, were ready to put in their best. Instead of hitting the iron while it was hot, AES, brought work to a standstill. They came up with a rather strange hierarchy of Business Units, Teams, and Aerial Sales groups… Hundreds of millions were squandered, as people travelled from Region to Region, on missions, hunting for posts.
 

In the midst of this confusion, The Post was told, some workers succeeded in jumping from Category Five to 11 and even to 12. A 10 to 15 minutes interview, was all it took, he said, adding that Engineers and seasoned Managers soon found themselves under the leadership of Clerical Assistants and craftsmen they had recruited and trained, or were training, prior to the arrival of the Americans.
 

Three years after, The Post was told, some of those who jumped categories are virtually redundant, as they proved unqualified to handle such positions as they were promoted to handle. To this worker, AES has become a company where all the workers believe they should be in either category 10, 11 or 12, and nothing less.
 

This trend seems to be continuing, the disgruntled worker said, as the general management of AES-SONEL seems to be getting worse with the passage of time. “Mark Miller’s main error was that he trapped himself by saying that leaders would choose the people with whom they wanted to work.

He made no effort to understand why the procedure of academic qualifications, professional experience and regional planning were factors in placement in practically all major companies in the country”. He said by ignoring these criteria, Miller walked straight into a trap, where various leaders had the opportunity to show that it was only their relatives, tribesmen and friends, who were capable of managing people.
 

Helen Tarnoy, who took over from Miller, wasn’t spared either. Another worker said Tarnoy wasn’t so thoughtful when she took over. That she paid off some workers, who had barely four months to go on retirement, then turned around and reduced the salaries of others and asked them to continue working.
 

He said when Bille took over, workers’ hopes were raised. The belief was that as an insider who had been Departmental Manager in the defunct SONEL for over 24 years, he would live up to expectations. This was all the more, because as Assistant General Manager, he had written a letter, in which he rebuked the Americans for being incapable of organising the Corporation.
 

Another worker we spoke to, said when Bille took over as GM in January this year, he said the organisational chart of the company shall be out before long. But that this chart appeared now to be limited to Directors, middle level management and supervisory staff. Many months after, the operational staff upon which the workload lies, are still waiting, small wonder why there is so much disgruntlement.
 

First published in The Post print edition no 01438

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