Customers are not Always Kings: Looking Beyond Clients’ Language Used to Describe Lapses in the Provision of Utilities in Cameroon

Electricity and Water Supply in Cameroon

In the corporate world, business owners and suppliers work hard to satisfy and to please customers. Even as they may not necessarily treat the clients with the greatest respect, the business rhetoric is still encapsulated in the capitalist dictum ‘customer is king.’

Intended to capture the indispensability of customers in keeping businesses alive through their money, this expression of the clients being kings conveys the impression, as well as locates power, in the hands of consumers. It is a mistake – drawing from the ways some clients are treated – to assume this idea of the customer being king is universal.

In this article, I take a swipe at those utility corporations that enjoy monopoly power in Cameroon, where a cursory way to judge the relationship between clients and the corporations is through the customers’ language in times of dysfunctional service.

Electricity and Water Supply in Cameroon

So regular are electricity outages in some neighborhoods that you count yourself lucky if the power does not go off when you are ironing you clothes, watching the TV, doing your school assignment or reading. In another scenario, as a business person, your refrigeration system goes off and you worry if the fish, meat, and yogurt would remain frozen when the lights return. Even the barber may leave the customer’s hair halfway done.

The same goes to water supply which frustrates you in the middle of your unfinished work. And then, there is the all too common disappointing expressions ‘they have taken away the lights’ and ‘they have cut [the supply of] water.’ People dissect the reason for the outage and then speculate when the light or water would ‘come back.’ They as well direct obscenities and imprecations at the utility companies as though the corporations were humans.

The biting comments generated by clients in times of dysfunctional service, tend to suggest the utility firms act god-like when they exercise the unchallenged power to take away and to give back, the power to connect and to disconnect electricity and water at will. At the same time, the customers acknowledge their powerlessness and dejection, indicating they are at the mercy of the omnipotent utility companies.

On Neoliberalism

Talking about the omnipotence of corporations: this is a prevailing practice of neoliberal political economics principally fostered by decades of insensitive World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) conditionalities, the most prominent being the retreat of the state in favor of private corporations, believed to be more efficient at service delivery. In more concrete terms, the World Bank and IMF, acting as loaners of money to countries such as Cameroon, arm-twist the country into adopting neoliberal economic policies as a condition to receiving loans.

With the case of electricity supply in Cameroon, we witnessed the takeover with embellishing rebranding visible in the change of name from state-owned SONEL to American-owned Energy of Cameroon (ENEO). This change was to demonstrate new beginnings, fueling expectations of better days ahead for the clients. Water supply underwent similar changes from SNEC to Cameroon Water Utilities Corporation (CAMWATER). These companies enjoy monopolistic power and operate in a context where they do not find it obligatory to regularly account to their clients.

Critical Understanding of the Supplier-Client Relationship

How does one make sense of this unparalleled power of utility firms and the apparent desperation of their clients? Frantz Fanon, the Martinican psychiatrist and philosopher, offers an interesting perspective on how to dissect the treatment of customers in this period of neoliberalism. Fanon coined the concept of zone of being and zone of nonbeing to respectively describe a situation where human beings are either treated with respect or disdain, a condition where human life is valued as opposed to where people are treated with contempt.

People living in zones of being are treated with respect and dignity unlike those residing in zones of nonbeing. In line with this article, I focus on the zone of nonbeing, where the companies find it hard to treat clients respectfully.

The customers are aware of their location in the zone of nonbeing, the reason why they often invariably suspect the firms deliberately disrupt the services when electricity or water disconnect. This is particularly in relation to unannounced electricity or water cuts. But there is more to the mistrust. Rants circulating in the public sphere, particularly on the social media, often couched from the position of helplessness, tell how, for example, people could not execute functions that required electricity or lighting. Or in worst cases, when a flood of electric current short-circuits or burns people (the most recent case being a baby burnt in an incubator in Nkongsamba on March 10, 2023), appliances, neighborhoods, and markets as has happened in many places around the country.

For them, living in zones of nonbeing usually mean a corporation such as ENEO is not accountable for any mishaps caused by electricity in their homes, businesses or neighborhoods. The same goes to the harm done on their bodies. Ideally, the clients should be aware of when the service would be unavailable and the length of time they must wait to be reconnected. This way, they may turn off their sensitive devices, charge their phones and power banks, move their frozen food to those neighborhoods that are still connected, etc.

One must however acknowledge that ENEO sends out messages on social media and SMS in relation to when they may cut supply, but the regularity of the power seizures tremendously outnumber the information that the company sends out.

Way Forward

So, is it possible to tackle these monopolies as well as influence them to treat customers respectfully? The reason why they treat clients disrespectfully is simply because they have the power to do so. Reducing the monopoly power through increasing the utility suppliers surely gives consumers more options to choose from.

At the moment, individual alternatives to access energy and water are expensive. It is primarily thanks to this that the utility companies continue to enjoy their godly status as suppliers. Generators and solar panels are undoubtedly expensive and are beyond the reach of most Cameroonians, talk less of panels that can provide energy for refrigeration, the television, and the computer. Drilling a borehole for water costs millions of Francs CFA.

Aside from demonstrating that the customer is treated without respect, this article highlights a classic case of neoliberal functioning of corporations, where companies may at times be insensitive in their quest to maximize profit. How these firms disrespect their clients must be concerning for activists who campaign against corporate irresponsibility. Beyond their market or commodity value, water supply and electricity are essential services considered by some people as basic human rights. To say the least, the disenchantment is real.

Treating such basic services first as human rights and not necessarily as commodity, a label that invokes the market principle, can be a point of departure from where civil activism may gain popularity. In fact, as I write a political party in Cameroon has mobilized its militants to protest against ENEO, saying ‘enough is enough, give us our electricity.’

Dr. Primus Tazanu
Dr. Primus M. Tazanu
Research Fellow in Governance | + posts

Dr Primus M. Tazanu is a Research Fellow in Governance at the Nkafu Policy Institute .He is equally a lecturer at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Buea, Cameroon. Primus holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Freiburg, Germany

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