The authorities should fish out and prosecute the culprits to have any hope of routing the crime

Early in February this year, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, told the nation that the federal government had yanked off 23,000 “ghosts” from its wage bill. A month later, his Ministry of Finance counterpart, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, announced that another 11,000 of such “workers” were being investigated. The February exercise, Mohammed said, would save the nation N2.29 billion in from the monthly wage bill. That is at the federal level.

In the last one year, virtually all the governors in the 36 states of the federation have since announced wholesale investigations into their huge salary bills that have left them with little or no funds for capital expenditure. With unpaid salaries running into months in about 27 states, many of the governors have also claimed to have unearthed thousands of “ghosts” posing as workers and drawing billions of naira as salaries from the treasuries of their states.

Without a doubt, the phenomenon of “ghost” workers eating deep into the revenues of the nation is worrisome. If the federal government now saves N2.29 billion monthly and still expects to save more when its wage list is finally cleaned up, the loss to these rampaging “ghosts” in the last one year alone must be baffling. But the pertinent question remains: how come not one of these powerful “ghosts”, who evidently operate bank accounts with which they steal public funds, has ever been apprehended let alone brought to justice?

It is indeed noteworthy that there is no administration, at least since we reverted to democratic rule in 1999, that has not alleged the contamination of its wage bill by these “ghost” workers. To eradicate the problem, the late President Umaru Yar’Adua administration enforced the biometric based Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information System, which was aimed at cleaning up the wage bill and ensuring that only genuine workers in its employment had access to its payroll. And as part of the efforts to achieve greater efficiency and transparency in government financial transactions, the administration also introduced the electronic transaction system whereby cash transactions were eliminated.

By the time President Goodluck Jonathan fully implemented these measures, his Minister of Finance, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, told the nation in July 2013 that the federal government had saved N153 billion. Of this, a whopping N119 billion, according to her, was from the elimination of 46,000 “ghosts” from the wage list. However, the bigger issue is why, in spite of all these fraud preventative measures, do we still continue to have these “ghosts” on our payroll at all levels of government?

It is simply because there is no force of sanction capable of deterring the fraudsters who have been milking the common till. If 46,000 “ghosts” were found on the federal government’s payroll in 2013 and no single arrest was reported, why would criminals not want to persist in this nefarious activity? Even President Muhammadu Buhari, whose administration has been waging no other war than anti-corruption, has taken all of one year to fish out another 23,000 “ghosts”. Meanwhile, and like in the past, there has been neither a report of an arrest made nor the prosecution of offenders contemplated.

Given the humongous amount involved in this obvious heist, and its extremely harmful impact on the national economy, there is no other time than now to stop this mindless haemorrhaging of the treasury by these fraudsters who should ordinarily not be too difficult to identify if the government is serious about apprehending them.

We, therefore, call on the federal government to lead the way by dealing squarely with this malady of the invasion of the wage bill by those who abuse public trust but are let off quite easily in the name of “ghosts”. A first step would be to identify the perpetrators, arrest and prosecute them. Then it should plug the loopholes that have made this heinous crime very lucrative in spite of the billions of naira spent on biometric systems.