by Sylva Nze Ifedigbo
I encountered the term “Ghost Workers” first as a child. It was one of those terms – alongside “ritual killers”, “Palace Coup” and “Fuel Scarcity” that one heard on the NTA network news and knew immediately, even as a child that there was something weird and sinister about it.
I was lucky to have parents who were my todays’ google equivalent, who had to take countless questions and offer as best an explanation as they could, to satisfy my inquisitive mind without altogether confusing me. They did well I must say, but I don’t quite think their best effort was enough to fully demystify this rather strange term for me – Ghost Workers.
In many ways, today in my adult age, I am still fascinated by the term. Then, it had to do with the weirdness of it, this amazing idea of “workers” that were ghosts or “ghosts” that were workers. If you recall what big deal ghosts or spirits were for you as a child, you will appreciate my fascination.
Today however, it is the countless mind boggling discoveries of these ghosts, reported widely in our media to such extent that it is now clear that this absurdity has become institutionalized in the civil service at all levels of Government and our seeming inability – in 2013 – to deal with it, that amazes me.
I will attempt a simple definition of this term for the benefit of those who might not be very conversant with it. A Ghost worker is a fictitious employee in the payroll of an organization. If you follow Nigerian news keenly, you sure would have observed that hardly does a week go by without some amazing figures being published of non-existent people or better still, human beings in non-existent moulds, helping themselves to monthly salaries and allowances.
One of the latest theatres of this absurd revelation is Plateau state where the Governors Special Adviser on Special Duties who doubles as the Chairman of the States Biometric Data Capture Committee declared recently that no fewer than 5,000 of the 21,000 workers on its payroll are ghosts. In other words, twenty five percent of the workers in the state (one in four) are ghosts.
The revelation from Plateau state tells a tale of a rot that has lasted for so many years. Some of these ghosts have been in the state employ for over ten years. Some had personnel files, a majority did not. For the few that had, there was no activity whatsoever in them; no records of promotion, leave, step upgrades, annual performance evaluation forms etc, just blank files. But these people, these ghosts, have been on the State payroll all the while, monthly cashing their pay checks.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Plateau state tale is the discovery that “for quite a while now”, Governor Jonah Gang has had an extra (self-appointed) commissioner in his cabinet who has been drawing salaries and entitlements for that office in what can best be described as a disgusting and embarrassing scam.
ALSO ALSO READ: What Do Plateau State And Kenya Have In Common? Clue: It’s Fake
And so the story goes, each state with its own story. Just a month ago, Abia State Government who had also set up a biometrics data committee following the whooping wage bill it was recording, announced discovery of 1727 ghost workers on the pay roll of its 17 local government councils.
Zamfara state had earlier discovered 7000 ghosts in its work force including married women and children who never knew the way to any office but had been getting paid, monthly. That state according to the report of a probe panel loses over N2.3billion annually to corruption in the public service.
Last year, the Lagos State Government boasted of having frustrated an illegal payment of over N82m to ghost workers and dead pensioners in its local councils and local government education authorities.
Just last week, the Delta Government announced the suspension of e-payment of workers’ salaries with the governor, Dr Emmanuel Uduaghan, stating that it had become necessary to do so in order to check the problem of ghost workers in the public service of the state. Henceforth, Delta workers are to be paid physically. The irony is that the e-payment system was itself introduced to among other things, fix the issue of Ghost workers but the Ghosts, true to nature have found a way of compromising the system – with the aid of humans I must add.
A few years ago, the Federal Government, not certain of the real number of its work force and perplexed by its huge wage bill, implemented the first and second phases of an Integrated Personal Payroll Information System (IPPIS).
The reports of the pilot covering about 25 Ministries, Department and Agencies (MDAs) in relation to ghost workers has been described with such terms as “shocking” and ‘mind-boggling’. An obviously amazed President Goodluck Jonathan then requested for the full implementation across all MDAs. While this piece was being written, the committee submitted its report to the Federal Executive council revealing that 45,000 Ghost Workers existed in 251 MDAs. If those figures are not worrying, then nothing else should be.
As there are ghost workers, so also are there ghost pensioners.
Little wonder therefore that a huge chunk of the annual budgets both at the Federal and State government levels is spent on recurrent expenditure, paying salaries and allowances of civil servants, a great percentage of who do not even exist nor add any value to the system. We have monetised this inefficiency for too long. We have allowed non terrestrial beings in the form of impersonators and criminals to rob us of our common wealth.
Ghost workers exist because the system favours their existence. With poor leadership, weak institutions and an atmosphere that celebrates corruption, it should really be no surprise that we continue to habour this mess.
While the efforts by the federal and state governments, employing biometrics to verify their staff strength is highly commendable, it really is at best a short term solution. It is only a matter of time before they device other means of short changing the system. The real problem as I see it really is the abysmally poor data acquisition and identity management system in the country on one hand and our consistent failure to punish criminality of this sort on the other.
For as long as one can remember, this country has been mouthing the desire of having a comprehensive biometric database of all Nigerians. So much talk and very little action. Past efforts at providing National identity ended up in a fiasco and the recent advertised plans by the National Identity Management Commission to make another go at it is either half-hearted or still too early in the planning process to be taken seriously.
The irony of this our seemingly impossible journey to having a national identity and biometrics database is that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) successfully compiled a voters’ register of nearly 70 million Nigerians within one month. Why does it now seem impossible to compile a database of roughly twice that number even if it will take us six months to achieve?
On the other hand, many have argued that instead of heading into another millions of naira guzzling but ill-fated project, the government should collate all the data already in its hands through various agencies such as the Federal Road Safety Corp, INEC, CBN and the National Communications Commission and pull it into one single database and then register the few millions that will still not be captured from this existing record.
Also key to addressing this issue is the punishment of those involved in the rackets. As is common knowledge, one of the reasons why corruption continues to thrive is because most times, offenders are neither prosecuted nor jailed or as we have seen in recent time, escape with light punishment. It is not enough to reveal corruption or loopholes; we have to equally punish those indicted and plug the loopholes where they have been identified. It’s sickening, this near zero existence of punishment in the civil service for malfeasance.
In the private sector, people caught in such acts will not only be dismissed but also made to refund all they have stolen through the courts. We can do the same in the public sector; we must add a bite to the much talked about anti-corruption efforts to discourage repetition.
In the final analysis, there needs to be a meaningful public service reform that will articulate the critical issues militating against effective public service delivery in this country. Much of what we generally refer to as ‘government’ is the public service. It is the engine room for implementing government decisions and policies. We can never progress as a nation regardless of how saintly or competent the political office holders we elect are if we do not fix the public service. We must adopt more comprehensive and proactive approach that will restore fiscal discipline to public finances. The Integrated Personal Payroll Information System (IPPIS) is one idea that if deployed at all levels and if properly managed will go a long way in putting the ghosts out of work.