On January 12, in a class action suit filed by lawyer Apollo Mboya and the Electricity Consumer Society of Kenya, the High Court ordered Kenya Power to cease issuing inflated bills to consumers.
I was thrilled with this ruling. My household had just received an electricity bill that was more than double what we normally pay per month, and so we hoped that the bill for the following month would be adjusted according to the court order and that we might even get a refund.
Little did we know that, two weeks later, we would be receiving another bill that was even higher than the previous one — in fact, more than three times what we normally pay.
Upon closer inspection, I found that about one-third of this bill was going towards paying for a fuel levy and taxes.
The fuel levy (a new tax that did not appear in previous bills) alone amounted to about a quarter of the bill.
I am not alone. The #switchoffkplc campaign started by Mboya on social media generated hundreds of responses from disgruntled consumers who have been saddled with inflated bills that are not just unfair, but border on the criminal.
However, it seems that the inflated bills are not applied to every consumer. Some consumers are paying what they have always paid.
Kenya Power tried to explain this discrepancy by saying that since it shifted to a new electronic billing system some bills may have been inadvertently inflated.
If they have identified the problem, why haven’t they fixed it?
Kenya Power says that the cost of electricity has gone up because the company has to recover Sh8.1 billion that it used to buy expensive diesel generators last year.
This is like a landlord telling a tenant that the rent has doubled because he put up a new roof — without warning the tenant that they would have to incur the cost of the roof and without giving adequate notice to allow them to look for alternative housing.
As the lawyers in the class action suit argued, Kenya Power has misled consumers on the price of electricity and engaged in unconscionable conduct.
To make matters worse, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which just five years ago declared that Kenya had a robust economy, is now pushing for a VAT levy on petroleum products.
That will make the cost of energy, including electricity, prohibitive.
(This was bound to happen. The IMF is notorious for making countries believe that they are economically healthy only to demand that austerity measures and punitive taxes be imposed when that economically unhealthy country approaches the IMF for a bail-out loan.)
Where is the Consumer Federation of Kenya? Why has it remained so silent?
In other countries, the high cost of basic services and staple foods is usually the reason for protests or boycotts.
But it seems Kenyans are a passive lot who just grin and bear every injustice that is heaped upon them.
When the price of unga went up, we adjusted by eating less ugali. When the cost of electricity goes up, we buy more candles. (A European expatriate told me that he has refused to pay inflated electricity bills and now relies on candles to light his apartment.)
Our “accept-and-move- on” mantra is now hurting businesses and households.
I predict that many small-scale businesses will shutdown because they simply will not be able to afford the higher electricity costs.
If this happens, Kenya Power should be charged with sabotaging the economy. Part of the problem is the suffocating monopoly of Kenya Power.
Monopolies tend to be bad for consumers. In the old days, for example, when you wanted a telephone line you approached the now-defunct Kenya Posts and Telecommunications Corporation.
People often waited months, if not years, to get a telephone line, and when they did, they often had to part with “kitu kidogo”.
Because it was a monopoly, the telephone company acted with impunity.
Employees of KPTC would often fiddle with bills so that one person would be paying someone else’s calls to London, New Delhi and elsewhere.
The KPTC did not survive when the telecom sector was opened to cheaper and more reliable mobile phone companies.
We need similar competition in the energy sector so that one company does not hold an entire country to ransom.