Nigeria’s public sector is a haven for ghost workers. Names appear mysteriously on government payrolls, and salaries are paid out without anyone ever really seeing these phantom workers.
In 2003, the Ministry of Defence discovered 24,000 forged names on its payroll. In that same year, a personnel screening exercise revealed there to be an extra 40,000 names in the government’s official records. And in states like Niger, Lagos, Bauchi, and Zamfara, the number of discovered ghost workers ranged from 608 to 20,000 in the fourth quarter of 2011 alone.
Many rural local government secretariats are considered to be “ghost towns” in more than one sense; they remain largely empty for long periods before filling out at the end of the month when salaries are due for payment. And with local government chairmen presiding over their constituencies by proxy, rumours abound about workers who travel from as far as Lagos to Kebbi (a thousand mile round-trip) to pick up their pay cheques.
The reported case of a month-old infant on the government payroll – earning an easy $150 a month – shows the ingenuity with which fraudsters manage to exploit the system.
Ghost workers are a financial burden on Nigeria’s fiscal budget, costing the Nigerian government some N84 billion annually ($530 million). In order to tackle the problem, the federal and some state governments have embarked on an audit of the civil service. In some cases, this involves collecting biometric data to identify those extra names and to hopefully deter fraudsters. This is effort has yielded some positive results but has not yet proved enough in itself. In January 2012, it was reported that 2,000 more ghost workers were discovered in Zamfara State.
Especially before the Freedom of Information Bill was signed into law last year, the Nigerian public sector suffered from secrecy, a lack of accountability and inefficiency. Due to corruption in the public sector, it is not difficult for those with government connections to get names on the government payroll.
However, socio-political factors such as the criteria for revenue allocation, Nigeria’s political culture, and government social safety nets are also crucial to understanding and tackling ghost workers.
Since 1967, one of the criteria for oil revenue allocation has been population size. Consequently, censuses in Nigeria have historically been politically controversial and there is a widespread belief, which some politicians have propagated, that a larger population means more money for the state. This is not entirely accurate but true enough to make Nigerians migrate to their home villages to be counted during censuses and vote during elections.
While bogus population figures may make more money available to the local government of the migration-gain areas, migrant-voters can also be used to distort electoral figures. Many politicians try to exploit this. In return for contributing towards electoral victories, politicians or senior civil servants allegedly sign up migrants or their relatives on government payrolls.
Recently, the situation has degenerated further. Nigeria’s pay-out culture, sustained since independence, has caused hopelessness and a lack of trust in the government. Furious headlines inform Nigerians of how their political leaders simply help themselves to public funds. In some cases, political mandates have been hijacked with impunity.
It was a common joke in the 1980s and 1990s that politicians had the power to call on the head of a government department to create a desk for their girlfriends in the instances where there were no available vacancies. In the face of such open political manipulations, many Nigerians have themselves adopted a similar mentality.
Effectively, the level of corruption and its dynamics within the country have become an integral part of our national orientation, to the extent that some people find in the nation’s endemic corruption justification to extract money from the government by creating ghost workers.
The political class has pushed Nigerians to their very limits. High unemployment combined with the lack of a social safety net leaves the electorate vulnerable and forced to seek economic security through any means possible. Similarly, primary health care services are lacking, and many pensioners wait for years, often in vain, to receive their pensions. Worse still, some corrupt officials continue to receive the pensions of dead pensioners. Added to this, civil servants are increasingly pressured into trying to earn more while in power, so as to gather enough resources to last through their old age and secure the futures of their children before they retire.
Increasingly, inventing ghost workers is seen as a viable pipeline to the national oil revenue.
The problem will not vanish simply through biometric data collection or personnel vetting as these initiatives do not tackle the root of the problem. To fight corruption, Nigeria must also change the environment in which it thrives.
The government must also cut off ghost workers’ lifelines. There needs to be more transparency, accountability and patriotism in governance. It is also necessary to create more jobs to absorb the mental and physical energies of unemployed Nigerians. Furthermore, Nigerians need a social safety net. Such safety nets can be guaranteed by designing a sustainable social welfare system which would cater for the temporarily unemployed, the disabled, the aged and orphans. Together, these measures will help Nigerians find the dignity in earning a legitimate living.
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