Liberia: Lack of LEC Meters Prompts Return to Power Theft


... As some Paynesville residents constrained to indulge into unorthodox means, yet again, to get connected  

Getting electricity into her home through an unorthodox means has never been an option for Esther Johnson, but she had to do so for years due to lapses with the operations of the utility supplier, Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC).

Johnson, however, reached a point where she had to put an end to the illegal practice, especially after the electricity provider set up a task force to crack down on power theft in Monrovia and its surroundings.  

In order to become a legitimate customer, she, in January, paid US$50 as a nominal fine to the corporation for all her years of power theft, with the hope of getting one of the new smart meters that the task force team was supplying. 

Unfortunately, she said, the meter is yet to arrive after two months, as her family has not had power into their home for nearly three months.

“I’m yet to get the meter since I paid for it in January,” she tells the Daily Observer in an exclusive interview.

Johnson and hundreds of residents like her in Paynesville, who were connected illegally, immediately rushed to the Du-port Baptist Field to pay for their meters to be connected legally.

However, she has returned to illegal connection, which she says is the only way out as LEC is not showing any sign of fulfilling its promise to them.

“I stood in the sun for hours just to pay for my meter, but since then I just got the receipt in my house,” she says. “I waited for February to end with no head or tail; I just asked somebody to connect me directly.”

Last year the electricity provider set up a task force to crack down on power theft in Monrovia and its surroundings.

Led by former Monrovia City Mayor, Mary Broh, the robust initiative of the task-force resulted in the generation of over US$1.35 million in revenue from issuing fines and reconnections, surpassing a benchmark that the team set for itself.

Folks were trooping in daily to pay the fines and get reconnected legally. Because of the fast speed of the exercise, the team received a lot of support and cooperation from residents. 

Now, with the delay in delivery of meters, desperate residents have begun connecting illegally, once again undermining LEC's effort to generate more revenue. 

“I tell you for free, nobody wants to get involved with power theft but, because of a lack of system and honesty,” said Timothy Messah. 

The standard meter fee is US$22 and in addition to paying for the meter, those who were illegally connected must also pay a power theft fine of US$50 for households, US$100 for small businesses and US$500 for large corporations. Additionally, they must purchase $30 worth of current after the installation of the new installation.

“We are now at US$1.35 million,” Adolphus Scott, LEC Senior Communications Manager told the Daily Observer in January 2023. 

“That's the good part of it — that we have gone beyond the one million [USD] benchmark just under the anti-power theft task force.”

The new campaign encourages residents to voluntarily walk on the Baptist Field and confess to the LEC team that they have had illegal power connections and that they have come to pay their fine, unlike before when residents found it difficult to obtain their meters, which was allegedly the main reason they claimed to engage in power theft.

But the unavailability of meters now appears to pose a serious threat to the success that the taskforce has been having — undercutting its effectiveness and efficiency as more residents are now contemplating returning to illegal connections, while blaming LEC in the process. 

Unconfirmed reports say that there are no meters currently in the country, a source at the corporation, who asked not to be named, said. “I think LEC just needs to be fair to its customers that there is a shortage of meters in the country.

There are just certain things you cannot hide because the people keep coming for their meter and they cannot get them,” the source said.  

“They don’t want to tell us that no meter is in the country, but they made me walk till I got tired, and reconnected directly,” Johnson said. 

But little did she know that it could take forever to get connected to the meter that forced her to reconnect illegally. “I walked, walked, I got tired. Every day I went they said the meter is here, but I couldn't see them.” 

"You can't be sleeping in darkness after paying US$50,” said John Kollie, a resident of Weaver Street, Paynesville. 

Allegedly, residents claimed they were advised by LEC staff to photocopy their receipts and post them on their homes so that, when the LEC power theft task force saw it, they would pass.

However, LEC Senior Communications Manager, Adolphus Scott, debunks reports of meter shortage, claiming that there are enough meters in the country. He said LEC would not focus only on power theft exercises. 

According to him there are other citizens who are not involved with power theft, and they would need meters. 

“We have enough meters in the country, but we have other programs for meters apart from the power exercise,” said Scott. 

That doesn’t solve the problem of Jonson and others, who believe LEC, having received their payments and not delivered on the goods, has treated them unfairly and should not blame any resident who relapses into power theft.

The formation of the task force and the subsequent crackdown were necessitated by rampant power theft in the country, with many illegally connecting to the national grid, robbing LEC of much-needed cash while simultaneously depriving others of current.

Prior to the establishment of the anti-power theft task force, LEC was losing about US$48 million to illegal connections each year, according to Monie Captan, Chief Executive Officer of LEC and head of the taskforce to combat power theft.

With the formation of the taskforce many had thought that power theft could be eliminated completely. 

Liberia is trying to rebuild its power sector, destroyed during a civil war that lasted from 1989 to 2003. 

The Mount Coffee hydroelectric plant, destroyed during the war and subsequently rebuilt with donor aid, generates a lot of electricity, but commercial losses (theft and unpaid bills) have been a thorn in the utility company's flesh while robbing the corporation of much-needed cash to expand.

The situation means that up to now less than 30% of Liberians have access to affordable electricity, one of the lowest access rates in the world.