Payroll clean-up: Oyo-Ita, make the difference – Punch

It is curious that the verification of the federal payroll to fish out ghost workers is a never-ending undertaking. A new phase of it began on July 16 to further winnow the 300,000 staff strength of the 486 Ministries, Departments and Agencies already enrolled on the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Information System.

The Head of Civil Service of the Federation, Winifred Oyo-Ita, whose office is in charge of the task, says it is part of the eight priority areas of the Federal Civil Strategy and Implementation Plan spanning 2017 to 2020. Since April 2017, employees had been directed to update their profile on the online verification portal. Ministries of Information, Health, Defence and Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation have completed their own, going by the July 20 deadline for them. The screening was scheduled to be completed on August 3.

As of 2016, workers monthly salaries gulped N165 billion, according to the Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, which she added was not sustainable. The staggering figure exists, despite the over 120,000 ghost workers that have been purged from the payroll through the IPPIS system. The initiative is a product of the World Bank, introduced in 2007 in order to have a comprehensive database for public sector reform. The then Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, said in October 2014 that  60,000 “ghost workers” had been weeded out, which translated to a N160 billion saving for the public treasury.

Ironically, as hard as government tries to block the leakage, the harder the syndicates perfect their entrenchment strategies. Within the first year in office, the Muhammadu Buhari administration had discovered additional 60,395 “ghost workers”. Adeosun told the Senate Committee on Finance in 2016 that 23,000 of them were discovered through the Bank Verification Number, while the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission stated in April the same year that it uncovered 37,395 of such anomalies.

The minister explained that the scourge prevailed because the IPPIS of the last administration was compromised. Many government establishments were not captured then. This explains why a near-moribund Nigeria Railway Corporation still had 10,000 workers on its payroll as of 2016.

Through the Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit of the MDAs in collaboration with the EFCC, N208.4 billion was saved in 2016 and 2017, from “ghost workers” syndrome. On the progress PICA has made, its secretary, Mohammed Dikwa, said in April this year that the panel’s focus was not only on personnel leakage, but also on breaches covering overhead costs, capital supplementation, pension and gratuity and statutory transfers. Payroll fraud, Dikwa said, “Involves many people and, most times, they operate in a syndicate. An individual cannot just go and insert somebody’s name on the payroll; it requires the connivance of officers from different places.”

Such a caravan of fraudsters in a government department can easily be burst, if those in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy are not involved. The civil service has to adopt a private sector approach in dealing with wage fraud, where  personnel heads and accounts officers who prepare salary vouchers are held responsible for any foul play. It is by so doing that the right message is passed that there are consequences for bad behaviour. Again, the EFCC probe of the 37,395 cases reported two years ago should be fast-tracked so that those found culpable would face the full weight of the law. The snail’s pace of the bureaucracy which slows the enforcement of punitive sanctions deserves a second look.

Government should stop treating this matter with kid gloves. Oyo-Ita should ensure that the verification this time is comprehensive and those found wanting are thrown out of service and prosecuted. Lack of this is why the phenomenon has become intractable. Fraudsters or criminals in the garb of civil servants should not be labelled as “ghost workers” and then left alone.

The police force is a serious case. Data from the Accountant-General’s office showed that its much-vaunted workforce of 371,800 is a farce. The IPPIS in February this year revealed 291,685 personnel as its staff strength, requiring N22.3 billion monthly wages, and not N23.4 billion paid prior to the verification. This was not the first; police payroll screening in 2010 exposed 20,000 fake workers and the swindling of N6 billion.

A bureaucracy that is notorious for plundering the treasury cannot be service-delivery oriented. Transparency International, in its 2013 corruption perceptions index, had rated Nigeria’s public officials/civil servants as the third most corrupt, next to police and political parties. Its earlier report on “Bribe Payers Index” was spot-on when it noted, “Corrupt civil servants in the oil-rich Nigeria pocketed some $3.2 billion in bribes in 2010/2012 financial years alone.” Under Buhari, this incredible and disgraceful national narrative should change.

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