Nigeria can’t trace sponsors of ghost workers that defraud government of N100bn, Okonjo-Iweala says

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

Government wants Nigerians to come up with ideas on how to fish out ghost workers on its pay roll.

The Nigerian government has been unable to trace any of its officials responsible for introducing about 45,000 ghost workers into the government’s payroll that cost the nation over N100 billion, the Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has said.

Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala said this in Abuja on Thursday during a media briefing on the 2013 budget.

Her colleague, Yerima Ngama, the Minister of State for Finance, had said last month that the federal government discovered over 45,000 ghost workers on its payroll after auditing 153,019 government workers.

The audit was executed in January on 215 Ministries, Departments, and Agencies, MDAs, of the Federal Government.

“What we have done so far, we have covered 215 MDAs and we have discovered 45,000 ghost workers and that has reduced the total bill by about N100 billion,’’ Mr. Ngama said.

A month after Mr. Ngama made the statement, no official has been held responsible for the fraud.

Unable to catch fraudsters

While responding to a PREMIUM TIMES enquiry during the media briefing, the finance minister said the government was still trying to identify the culprits.

“We haven’t caught anybody. I can’t tell you that today we have one person yet,” Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala said. “But, it is something that is exercising our minds that if we are getting this, we must try to trace how some of these things are entering. If we don’t, they may enter again.”

The Minister appealed to journalists and Nigerians to suggest ways of identifying the officials responsible for the fraud.

“It’s something we have been thinking about how to get to. So, if you have any ideas of how people do this, please share with us. We are open to information,” Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala said.

She said the government was baffled about how the names of the ghost workers always manage to get into the pay systems of the MDAs.

“It may be a little difficult to identify who has actually put the names of the ghost workers in the system,” Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala said. “We (federal government) cannot verify the details of the person, because there is no biometric information. What is obvious is that there is someone there who is not real. But how their names got into the system, from which MDA (ministry, department or agency) they came is a little more difficult to trace.”

The minister said the federal government “hears stories of certain officers in the ministries slotting in names for themselves.”

“But how to ascertain that is something that is not very easy. What we have been asking ourselves is: How do we figure out who put in those names, so that they can be dealt with? It is a task that government has,” she said.

She explained that the government was working with some forensic auditors to find ways of resolving the problem; adding that periodic forensic audits and checks would continue to rid the system of the ghost workers.

Wage bill, a challenge

In his presentation at the briefing, the Director General of the Budget Office, Bright Okogu, said that one of the challenges of the 2013 budget was the huge wage bill, which doubled from about N800 billion in 2009 to N1.69 trillion this year; while the share of personnel cost as a percentage of aggregate expenditure increased from 27 per cent in 2005 to 35 per cent in 2013.

He identified infrastructure development, security, agriculture, education, and health as priority areas government plans to focus attention on to attain the transformation agenda of the present administration; primarily to create jobs and create the enabling environment for economic diversification.

On how government will cope with a higher crude oil price benchmark following the upward revision of the $75 per barrel proposed by the executive to $79 per barrel in the Appropriation Act, Mrs. Okonjo-Iweala said government has no option than to accept the situation and work with it to move the country forward.

The minister said that though she and members of the National Economic management Team, had opposed a crude price benchmark above $75 per barrel, in view of the growing uncertainty in the global economy and the need for prudence as a mono-commodity dependent country, government would take steps to evolve policies to mitigate the risks, by looking at ways to strengthen the economic system in the event of decline in prices.

“We were opposed to a higher benchmark price because of the need to build a buffer for the future when prices are high. But for the sake of moving the budget and Nigerians forward, we have decided to pick our fights and agreed to live with this benchmark, and next year we will have another more collaborative way of setting a benchmark that would work for all Nigerians,” she said.

She said government may be considering the adoption of the Chilean model, where an independent group, outside the executive and parliament, is established to set benchmarks in a professional manner for their export commodity, copper.

She denied that the budget was deliberately delayed to enable politicians scoop money for the 2015 elections, saying there was transparency in the budget process.

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