By Daniel Alabrah
Timi is about 27 years and hails from a rustic community in Southern Ijaw Local Government Area of Bayelsa State. He is not a lazy Nigerian youth (if you catch my drift).
Since he left secondary school, he has fended for himself, having lost his parents early in life. He is a decent young man, who abhors cultism, drug abuse or some of the anti-societal idiosyncrasies found among youths in Yenagoa, the capital city. Currently, he is a part-time student at the Niger Delta University (NDU) and engages in menial jobs to be able to acquire university education.
But his story would have been different. A few months ago, he shockingly discovered that his name was on the payroll of the Bayelsa State Civil Service. Unknown to him, his uncle, a civil servant and who is supposed to be his benefactor, had applied and secured a job for him. But he collected the employment letter, kept it away from him and had been secretly receiving his salary for some years.
Late last year, the bubble burst courtesy of the staff audit and verification exercise in the state public service. After futile attempts to penetrate the committee set up by Governor Henry Seriake Dickson on the implementation of the public service reforms, Timi’s uncle reluctantly produced his employment letter and admitted that he had been collecting the nephew’s salary for about four years. This was because he now wanted Timi to appear before the reforms committee to validate his employment, a task that was not only difficult but had dire consequences for the young man. Of course, he refused.
Timi’s ordeal is just a sad reflection on the numerous discoveries in the ghost worker syndrome, payroll fraud, certificate racketing and falsified grade levels scam that had ravaged the Bayelsa civil service and local government system for years. It was discovered recently that about N12 billion is lost annually to the payroll and employment racketeers in the state.
On assumption of office in February 2012, Governor Dickson identified this cankerworm alongside some of the ills plaguing the public service and vowed to clean up the malfeasance. Without mincing words, he said: “We shall undertake fundamental reforms of the governance culture to emphasise transparency, accountability, due process and value orientation by all institutions and functionaries of government beginning with my humble self.
“There shall be zero tolerance of corruption under my administration. The days of enrichment without labour and funding the greed and avarice of a few at the expense of the development of our state are over. I will work hard to plug all leakages and sources of corruption, which have been the bane of our development. I will rather use our commonwealth to fund the construction of good roads, enhance education, promote tourism, generate wealth and develop agriculture than fund corruption and greed.”
The talk-and-do governor is known to match words with action. So he promptly signed the Bayelsa State Salary Fraud and Related Offences Act 2012. Unfortunately, the rot was more entrenched than envisaged and just a piece of legislation could not comprehensively address it even though his Restoration Administration succeeded in reducing the civil service wage bill from N6 billion that it inherited to about N4 billion.
In October 2017, Governor Dickson courageously revisited the matter with the ardour and zest to comprehensively reform the system. Since then, not a few have been rattled just as the figures emanating from the different sectors in the state have been equally mind-boggling.
In its editorial of October 3, 2017, under the headline: “Bayelsa’s payroll mess: A hurricane across states,” The Punch noted: “The rot is monumental that Dickson did not express his concerns through a statement by his Chief Press Secretary but via a broadcast. The festering payroll fraud five years after a penal measure was put in place shows how flawed its enforcement has been…
“Having inherited the mess, it is, however, heartwarming that he has vowed to reform the system so that his successor will not be likewise encumbered by the scourge. How rooted the cleansing eventually becomes will be determined by the courage he brings to bear on the crusade. To get it right, it is important that he critically examines why the 2012 Act failed to arrest this bureaucratic fiscal recklessness.”
Indubitably, the civil service is the engine room of government. For any government to be effective and result-oriented, it must have an efficient, professionalised and productive civil service. Not one bogged down by waste, redundancy and sharp practices. The purpose of the ongoing reforms, therefore, is to reposition the service for greater productivity and efficiency.
Among other benefits, the reforms will eliminate fraud and insulate the public service from the cankerworm of certificate and age falsification. It will equally promote excellence as civil servants will be made to work in their areas of core competence just as it will preserve the honour and integrity of the public service.
Governor Dickson has left no one in doubt about his singular determination to clear the Augean stables and the filth of corruption in the state public service.
A staff audit in 2016 to probe the payroll fraud in the local government system discovered 3,243 unauthorised employees in the Rural Development Authorities (RDAs) and another 3,037 in the eight constitutionally recognised local government areas in the state. No fewer than 500 administrative officers were also recently discovered in just one local government alone, Sagbama.
In the education sector, the figures are also unsettling. About 70 per cent of workers in the state primary schools are non-academic staff. In a school, for instance, you find just two or three teachers and 50 non-academic staff. Primary schools are constitutionally under the purview of the local governments.
The Commissioner for Information, Daniel Iworiso-Markson, said the bloated wage bill in the eight local government areas was responsible for the negative and false media reports that the Bayelsa State government was owing salaries of workers. He added that the fraud in the councils and the over-bloated wage bill made it difficult for the councils to pay staff and teachers salaries even when their monthly allocations are not tampered with by the state government as a matter of state policy.
The payroll fraud situation in the councils is not different from what obtains in the tertiary education sector as the verification exercise revealed that no fewer than 5,000 non-academic/administrative officers were engaged in the six state-owned tertiary institutions, a figure Iworiso-Markson describes as a classic case of people being put on the payroll without rendering the requisite services to justify their salaries.
Regardless, since the implementation of the reforms commenced in 2016, the facts and figures show an appreciable reduction in the wage bills of the councils. The sum of N3.912 billion is, for instance, saved annually in the eight local government areas alone. A breakdown shows that the wage bill for Southern Ijaw was N201 million monthly but currently is N131 million monthly. Ogbia, which was formerly N207m, is now N165m while Nembe that was N127m is now N99m and Brass N119m (now N101m).
Others are Ekeremor N192m (now N177m), Kolokuma/Opokuma N109m (now N77m), Sagbama N171m (now N130m) and Yenagoa N194m (now N147m).
The administration, which inherited a N1.3 billion primary school teachers wage bill, has also reduced it to N1.027 in the last two years.
But for implementation of the reforms, the local government system in the state would have experienced a total collapse as the councils are still grappling with arrears of their staff and primary schools teachers salaries.
Those who accuse the state government of embarking on an endless staff audit and verification exercise do so either out of ignorance or mischief. Frequent verification or staff audit is not peculiar to Bayelsa. A few examples will suffice.
As recent as February 2015, during the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan, the Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister of the Economy, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, revealed that with the introduction of biometrics 62,893 ghost workers whose salary amounted to N208.7 billion were discovered to be on the payroll of the federal government.
A year later, her successor under the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, Mrs Kemi Adeosun, equally disclosed that another 23,846 ghost workers had been eliminated from the federal civil service payroll, saving the government N2.29 billion between December 2015 and February 2016.
In April 2016, the acting chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Ibrahim Magu, said 37,395 ghost workers had been uncovered on the federal civil service payroll and that the government lost about N1 billion.
By December 2016, the president’s Senior Special Assistant on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, also said no fewer than 50,000 ghost workers had been rid off the federal government’s payroll, amounting to N200 billion that had been saved. He said N13 billion had been taken off the payroll monthly from February to December 2016.
In March 2018, data from the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation revealed that there were 80,115 ghost officers on the payroll of the Nigeria Police Force.
My investigation also revealed that the Lagos State government carries out a quarterly staff audit of its civil service in order to check fraud and eliminate corruption in payroll administration.
The Bayelsa helmsman has, however, assured that the reforms will have a human face as it is not a witch-hunt and that no individual regardless of political affiliation or preference is a target. He has equally allayed the fear of job loss, particularly by those whose names are on the redeployment list. There is therefore wisdom in empanelling the Justice Doris Adokeme-led judicial commission to give room for persons that are indicted or whose salaries were erroneously suspended to seek redress and clear their names.
Many concerned Bayelsans and commentators commend Governor Dickson for summoning the courage and political will to confront the hydra-headed monster. In their view, the big stick should have been wielded earlier as the state has lost humongous amount these past years. They say it would take the prosecution of all those involved in the payroll mess to be able to pacify patriotic indigenes of the state who want the fraudsters brought to book.
Alabrah is Special Adviser on Public Affairs to the Bayelsa State Governor, Hon. Seriake Dickson