Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Musings on ‘ghost workers’ and pensioners

There are many evils bedeviling Nigeria’s civil service. They range from lack of professionalism, inefficiency, indolence to truancy. Towering above these is corruption. I hasten to concede that there is a sizeable number of conscientious, dedicated and highly professional employees in the service. However, like the saying goes, “The true rule in determining to embrace or reject a thing is not whether it has any evil in it but whether it has more evil than good.”

For quite some time now, the incidence of ‘ghost workers’ and pensioners has been plaguing the Nigerian civil service. Many staff and pensioner audits conducted by both the federal and the state governments have substantiated the claim that accounts and pension departments of many ministries, departments and agencies are a cesspool of corruption. A few examples will suffice.

A news medium, Daily Times, in its December 19, 2011 edition quoted the Commissioner for Local Government Affairs in Niger State, Garba Tagwai, as saying, “No fewer than 20,000 ‘ghost workers’ have been detected on the payroll of the 25 local government areas in Niger State.” He said the ‘ghost workers’ were discovered during the screening of local government staff and teachers, which began in November 2011.

Tagwai said, “We have a case of an account number that has seven names linked to it for the payment of salaries and no cogent explanation could be given for this criminal act. The preliminary report on the screening shows that only 40,000 workers were cleared from the 60,000 workforce in the 25 councils, clearly showing that 20,000 could not be verified; what you call ‘ghost workers’.”

While hosting members of the Nigeria Union of Journalists Kogi Correspondents Chapel in his office in August 2009, a former state Commissioner for Information, Science and Technology, Prof. Aaron Baba, said it was discovered that the state was losing about N700m to ‘ghost workers’ every month. According to him, the state government decided to screen its workforce because it discovered that the staff salaries that had been fluctuating between N1.2bn and N1.3bn jumped to N2bn, before deciding on salary relativity.

“At the end of the exercise, we discovered that we had a staff strength of about 27,000. Out of this number, over 4,000 staffers were employed since 2004 till date without government’s approval. Some were ‘ghost workers’, while others were fraudulently employed and receiving salaries that were not commensurate with their levels and qualifications,” he explained.

My father, Deacon Isaac Oyeniyi Ojo, was a teacher all his life and retired as a headmaster from the Osun State Teaching Service in 1995, after a meritorious service. He died in 1998 still waiting for his pension and gratuity. Prior to his death, he was sick and was placed on medication but he was too poor to afford the drugs for his ailment. Some of us, his children were out of school then but jobless; hence could not help out financially. Each time I reflect on my dad’s life and times, I shudder at the neglect and the inhuman conditions that the Nigerian state subjects her senior citizens to, especially her pensioners. My father’s fate is similar to those of many retirees in Nigeria.

The Chairman of the Delta Steel Company Pensioners Association, Mr. I. M. Akpotheghor, revealed recently that no fewer than 171 pensioners of the company at Ovwian-Aladja died between 2005 and 2009 while waiting for the payment of their 45 months’ pension arrears by the Federal Government. Over 86 senior pensioners of the Central Bank of Nigeria died between 2001 and 2010, while waiting for the bank to implement the Federal Government’s policy on harmonisation of pension scheme for civil servants. In the same vein, the Nigerian Ports Authority Pensioners’ Welfare Association, in 2010, petitioned President Goodluck Jonathan, urging him to prevail on the management of the NPA to settle 11 years’ unpaid pension arrears and other benefits. It lamented that about 1,000 of its members had died while waiting for their entitlements. The same fate befell many pensioners of the defunct Nigerian Airways and armed forces, to mention but a few.

While several lives are being lost prematurely as a result of non-payment of pension to Nigerian retirees, few unscrupulous elements in Nigeria’s pension offices nationwide are living in opulence through the diversion of pension fraud. The Chairman of the Nigerian Pension Reform Task Team, Alhaji Abdulrasheed Maina, recently disclosed that his team, after a successful nationwide biometric verification of pensioners, detected 71, 133 fake pensioners. Furthermore, N151bn fraud was also uncovered with the assistance of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission in pension offices across the country.

“Of the N151bn, the task team in conjunction with the EFCC traced and recovered a total of about N24bn and N15bn worth of property from some corrupt government officials in the Office of the Head of Service Pension Department. Sixty-six illegal bank accounts with N180m were also discovered,” he declared.

Maina attributed the plight of pensioners before his team was inaugurated in June 2010 to the following factors: “large scale corruption through diversion and mismanagement of pension fund; manipulation and falsification of data; non-improvement in the pension administrative structure; bureaucracy with poor, unreliable and inefficient accounting system.”

Recently, information attributed to the Finance Minster, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, also revealed that after the biometric capturing of the data of police pensioners, a fraud of over N1bn was also uncovered as the monthly pension of police pensioners had reduced considerably from N1.5bn to N500m.

It is quite unfortunate that in spite of the coming into force of a contributory pension scheme in 2004, many of the ills bedevilling the old order have not been wiped out, about eight years after. Apart from the embezzlement of pension funds, there are also complaints such as discrepancies in deductions from employee salaries; incorrect or outright non-remittances by some employers; non-disclosure of deductions to contributors by some Pension Fund Administrators; as well as the non-enrolment of staff of some public and private organisations in the contributory pension scheme even though such organisations have more than the prescribed minimum of five staff.

These twin evil of ‘ghost workers’ and pensioners must be halted. Out of the purported N151bn fraud discovered by the Pension Reform Task Team, only a paltry N39bn cash and property have been recovered. This is a far cry and has further underscored the imperative of a special tribunal or court to speedily try economic crimes in the country, as the regular courts would be too constrained to offer speedy justice delivery. Additionally, there is the need to name and shame all those found to have been involved in this crime against humanity.