It has been over a year now since government announced that the process of importing fuel was going to be left to the private sector. After making so much noise about the ‘ingenious’ idea, they backtracked and started saying the Cabinet decision needed the backing of the law.
Meanwhile, government has not been calling for bids of fuel supply. The last time that the public heard of fuel supply tenders, there were hotels and non-aligned dealers winning bids to supply the commodity. After the public raised an alarm, the contracts were cancelled. Since then, it has been silent, but fuel is coming into the country. The cheap Saudi Arabia fuel has been aborted, but fuel keeps coming. So who is supplying fuel to Zambia? When did they get the contract? How long was it and under which process is it renewed?
We find it strange that the process of awarding contracts of fuel supply is never interrogated; yet people are surprised to hear that the price for the commodity keeps going up. We strongly think that there is no way Zambia’s fuel can be cheap if there is no transparency around the procurement process. Our government has intentionally accepted to pay more for fuel supply so that they can push the excess cost on the poor consumer.
Sometimes we sit and wonder if the Energy Regulation Board is truly oblivious to these happenings. If the ERB has no mandate to interrogate and demand transparency in the importation process of fuel, of what value is the regulatory body to the people of Zambia?
We ask this because we find it very difficult for ordinary Zambians to appreciate the relevance of the Energy Regulation Board. The only time the public hears of the ERB is during announcements of fuel pump price adjustments or increases in electricity tariffs.
The activities of Energy Regulation Board and its perception in the eyes of the public is a danger to the prosperity of the country given that it’s an institution that the majority of citizens only associate with misery. The ERB is merely a conduit for announcing increase to the cost of living for Zambians and the cost of doing business for entrepreneurs.
The handling of the recent historical increase in fuel pump prices leaves much to be desired. The Energy Regulation Board came guns blazing when alert and informed media sensed an imminent fuel price increase. We asked them about it and they insisted that people were just glossing over unjustified rumours.
Before the ink on which the consolation statement was written could even dry, the Energy Regulation Board chairman went ahead to announce a big upward adjustment to the cost of fuel. Who was ERB honestly fooling? This is an institution that does nothing to educate the public on its mandate. It is an institution with a lot of resources at its disposal, which it fails to use to help work out a mechanism to make energy more affordable for Zambians. The Board and Directors of Energy Regulation Board seem like qualified and competent people but they have nothing to show for their qualifications.
It is unacceptable that Zambia has the most expensive fuel in the region as if it is the only landlocked country on the continent. Some countries with a much smaller GDPs are able to provide cheaper fuel to their people. Even Zimbabwe with its deep economic woes has cheaper fuel. What is wrong with us? The answer is simple – Energy Regulation Board is toothless.
Actually, it is not toothless. It has many sharp teeth, tailor made to bite energy consumers. But the energy regulator has no energy to interrogate the processes under which energy and fuel in particular is supplied to Zambia. In our view, Zambia can have the cheapest fuel because we have a crude refinery plant, which if revamped and expanded, can meet the market demand of the commodity.
Instead of investing in Indeni Petroleum Refinery plant and making it more beneficial to citizens, our government is selling the company to foreigners and giving staggering contracts to the same foreigners to supply finished products. Where is the logic?
This is why, every now and then, we ask the question, in whose interest the ERB operates. On face value, one would believe that the role of the regulatory body is that of balancing the interests of the energy providers with the needs of energy consumers. But in reality, it is clear that the main beneficiary from ERB services are the energy suppliers and other private investors in the energy sector, most of whom are non- Zambians.
We are sorry to say that in our view, the ERB is a disgrace to this country as it has failed to provide sound policy support to government to ensure that energy, particularly fuel could be made affordable for Zambian consumers.
Just like the Zambia Information Communication Telecommunications Authority has failed to protect Zambian consumers from exploitation and poor quality service by telecommunications companies particularly mobile and data service providers, ERB needs an overhaul.
We think these are some of the issues that our Members of Parliament should be debating. There is need to revisit the Acts that establish these good for nothing regulatory institutions. We demand that the Energy Regulation Board focuses on working out a mechanism that can reduce the price of fuel.