Nigeria: Haunted by Corruption

7 03 2012

Removing fraudulent ‘ghost workers’ from government payrolls will not be achieved without dealing with Nigeria’s deeper problems.

Anti-corruption sign in Jos. Photograph by Mike Blyth.

The last few months of 2011 saw quite a number of publications on ghost workers in the Nigerian public sector. Some of these ghost workers have “served” long enough to become pensioners. Many analyses have revealed amazing figures which portray the Nigerian public sector as a haven for phantom workers. There are allegations that many rural local government secretariats are ghost towns except at the end of the month when salaries are due for payment. With Local Government Chairmen presiding over their constituencies by proxy, claims abound that “workers” travel from as far as Lagos to Kebbi (a thousand mile round-trip) to pick up there pay cheques.

In 2003, the Federal Ministry of Defence discovered 24, 000 forged names on its payroll. In that same year, a personnel screening exercise revealed that there was a difference of 40,000 names in the government’s official records.  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. 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.

Apparently, the scourge of ghost workers is an additional financial burden on Nigeria’s fiscal budget. These phantom workers cost the Nigerian government some N84billion annually($530 million). In order to cut the wastage, the federal and some state governments embarked on an auditing exercise of the civil service—in some cases, collecting biometric data to identify existing ghost workers and to deter potential ones. This is a plausible effort and has yielded some result. However, it is not enough in itself. In January 2012, it was reported that 2,000 more ghost workers were discovered in Zamfara State—many of them were housewives and underage children, suggesting that there are socio-economic factors sustaining the prevalent existence of ghost workers in Nigeria.

To begin with, the Nigerian public sector, presumably until the signing into law the Freedom of information Bill, was grossly inundated with secrecy and eventual unaccountability and inefficiency. Due to corruption in the public sector, it is not difficult for whoever has connection in government to get names on government payroll. However, socio-political factors such as the criteria for revenue allocation, Nigeria’s political culture, and government social safety nets are crucial to understanding and tackling ghost workers.

Since 1967, one of the criteria for oil revenue allocation has been population size. Consequently, head counts in Nigeria, historically, have 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 only half true but good enough to make indigenes migrate to their villages to be enumerated during censuses and to vote during elections. While bogus population figures may make more money available to the local government of the migration-gain areas, the 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.

Appallingly, the situation degenerates further. Nigeria’s pay-out culture sustained since independence is one that has caused hopelessness and 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 “just create a desk” for their girlfriends in the instances where there were no available vacancies.  In the face of such open and depressive political manipulations, many Nigerians have attuned themselves to the mentality of “share the national cake”. Effectively, the level of corruption and its dynamics in the country have unwittingly become an integral part of our national orientation such that some people find legitimacy in the nation’s socio-political ills to “eat” from the government by being or 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 poor or lacking, and many pensioners continue to wait many years, often in vain, to receive their pensions. Some have even died in queues due to rigorous verification procedures. On October 2011, a pensioner died while waiting to be screened. Worst still, some corrupt officials continue to receive the pensions of dead pensioners. Watching such social repulsion, some civil servants are pressed to desperately device means to earn more, secure their old age and future 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 be successful,  the government must also cut 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.

First Published on Think Africa Press


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27 03 2012
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21 03 2012
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24 03 2012
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19 03 2012
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24 03 2012
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10 04 2012
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