Ghost workers, pensioners as economic fleece

by Gbenga Kayode

For decades now, Nigeria as a sovereign nation has been battling with the disturbing issue of phantom names in Government personnel payroll and in pensions audit results.

During his appearance before the Senate Committee on Finance and Appropriation way back in 2003, Chief Joseph Naiyeju, a former Accountant-General of the Federation, had disclosed that following a manpower verification exercise conducted by the Federal Government, personnel in the employ of the government were “found to be 215,000 not the 255,000 which were in the official records at the inception of the (President Olusegun) Obasanjo administration in May 1999.”

This figure invariably translated into a difference of about 40,000 non-existent names on the Federal Government’s payroll at the time. The Government was said to be losing no less N84billion annually to ghost workers, with the pensions backlog, genuine or otherwise, standing at N2trillion in arrears then.

Similarly, a former Minister for Finance in the era reportedly complained of “difficulties being experienced in the payment of salaries to government workers because “ministries do not have accurate figures of the staff strength of their departments.” Shame of a nation, one would rather say? Even the Lagos State Government, the acclaimed Centre of Excellence and economic capital of the nation yet, announced the “discovery of 4,000 ghosts” in its employ at the time.

However, in the same election year in Nigeria, the Federal Ministry of Defence, comprising the Military, Paramilitary and Police, the assumedly least expected of Government’s ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) to be enmeshed in this untoward and economically damaging act, perhaps because of their comparative discipline, also recorded more than 24, 000 fake names, sequel to a pension audit purportedly carried to reduce cost for the government and enable the ministry concentrate more on staff welfare” afterwards.

Yet, year-on-year, this evil custom of ripping the nation off its economic wealth has never abated across the country since then. In recent times, according to an Associated Press (AP) report, a-month-old baby in Nigeria even got added to a government payroll, earning about “$150 a month for the last two or three years”. The news medium described heart-rending tale as “a discovery indicative of the widespread corruption starving the oil-rich West African nation of much needed funds….”

The Government’s baby worker’s episode was largely considered by observers as one of many so-called ghost workers discovered to be receiving free money from the treasury as salaries without performing any official responsibilities.

In respect of the pension payment as well, the sour story of corruption is not different. For example, the recent results of the audit carried out by the Office of the Head of Civil Service of the Federation (OHCSF) in 2011, allegedly revealed “71,135 ghost pensioners on the government payroll,” leading to the recovery of over N1.5billion hitherto being deliberately or carelessly paid the said ghost pensioners. However, this figure has been challenged by a pensioners’ association, moments after the revelation.

Despite this “obvious feat” purportedly accomplished by the OHCSF, the affected genuine pensioners under the aegis of the Association of Retired Federal Senior Public Officers of Nigeria (ARFESPON) have alleged that it has not translated into pensioners’ being paid their monies as and when due. In other words, many of them are still being owed for several months or years while groaning in pains, lack and poverty in many cases.

Thus, as serious as the twin evils of ghost workers and pensioners are in the country due to their devastating socio-economic effects on the overall development of the country today, many Nigerians have continued to ask germane questions as: Who actually smuggles into payrolls these fictitious workers’ and pensioners’ names?

Other relevant posers include: Is this criminal act being perpetrated by some irresponsible Civil Servants in the Accounts Department in the case of ghost workers; or the aged and helpless pensioners who are outside the system; or corrupt, serving staff of the OHCSF? In this age of technological innovations with improved accounting software being used by the deposit banks, from which banks or other financial institutions do these fake personnel and pensioners collect the free money?

Being an attitudinal thing as it pertains to anything related to Government in this part of the world, the unfortunate observation in the unsavoury stories of ghost workers and pensioners in the Nigerian Government ministries, agencies and parastatals is that the practice hurts the economy badly. Money meant for development purposes is being paid out to certain individuals, for jobs not done by their corrupt collaborators in the largely corrupt Civil Service system.

In view of the pervasiveness of the cankerworm across the board, an analyst commented in Lagos recently, that there is no state in Nigeria that doesn’t have ghost workers, and that these “ghost workers collect salaries and eventually qualify for pensions” as well. The money is supposedly paid into the accounts of the people who created the identities, while some morally deficient Government officials even allegedly continue to collect the pensions of dead people, whereas the bona fide living but distressed pensioners get tossed around pension payment data verification centres in most instances.

Just as the Edo State Government was reported to have adopted the measure lately, the Federal Government in particular needs to employ appropriate accounting/auditing software technologies to curtail the excesses of these seemingly unrepentant “managers” of ghost workers and pensioners in its MDAs at all levels of governance, and subsequently block all the loopholes being exploited by such official burglars and economic saboteurs.

Following its negligent, inefficient and crude methods and procedures of ascertaining legitimate pensioners mired in intense corruption over time, continued physical, endless parades of predominantly senile senior citizens at designated centres across the Federation, must be discouraged. It is unhealthy, shameful and unacceptable to behold many of these aged, retired Nigerians spending days and oftentimes sleeping in on open fields, due to the Government’s decade-long negligence to do just what is right in this regard.

Proper deployment of requisite information technology tools promises to abolish the ghost-worker and pensioner scourge currently plaguing the country. Any Government officials found to be aiding and abetting this wickedness and fiscal damage against the country must be prosecuted by appropriate anti-corruption agencies for economic sabotage. As the nation’s economy continues to gasp under inflation, youth unemployment and collapsed infrastructure, the time to effect this much-needed positive change in the system is just now.

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