Officials in troubled Borno’s local governments have been defrauding the state of billions of naira for the past ten years, a report has shown.
Borno is the state most affected by the Boko Haram insurgency which has caused over 40,000 deaths since 2009 and displaced millions of Nigerians.
The details of the Borno local government fraud were contained in an interim report by a salary verification committee set up by the state government.
A PREMIUM TIMES reporter has seen a copy of the report submitted to the Borno State Governor, Babagana Zulum.
In the report, the committee said it has so far concluded the verification exercise in 19 of the 27 local governments in the state.
The committee reported that it recovered the total sum of N150 million in June alone as unclaimed monies after it insisted that every local government worker in the state appear before the committee to update their employment status.
The Commissioner for Local Government and Emirate Affairs, Sugun Mai-Mele, confirmed this to PREMIUM TIMES in an interview last week.
He said the N150 million was “a saving” the committee was able to make after paying workers salary in the 19 local government areas so far verified.
“This 150 million was what we were able to save for government, in one month, after a workers’ verification exercise was conducted in 19 local government areas,” he said.
The N150 million monthly in a 12-month calendar is about N1.8 billion annually which is precisely the amount the Borno government budgeted in 2012 to provide water projects in all the 27 local government areas.
Borno is one of the states in Nigeria that has not been able to implement the old N18,500 minimum wage (the new minimum wage is N30,000) due to what the government described as the lack of adequate funds to foot the bogus salary bills at the local government level.
But N1.8 billion would have been enough to pay N18,500 (old minimum wage) to 8,108 junior local government workers for 12 years.
Officials at the local government and chieftaincy affairs informed PREMIUM TIMES that the concerned 19 local government councils have been taking more than they require to pay their genuine workforce for over ten years.
This, therefore, implies that those 19 local government councils alone may have taken about N18 billion as payment for ghost workers in the last ten years.
The Borno State Government runs a joint state-local government account which has been described as illegal by the federal government. Also, even though the aim of the verification process is to check fraud and ensure transparency, its mode of operations puts the local governments at the total mercy of the state government for survival, something President Muhammadu Buhari and the federal government have repeatedly frowned at with the Nigeria Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) repeatedly warning state governments not to tamper with federal allocations meant for local governments.
However, the Borno government is proceeding with its method in its effort to check corruption in the local councils.
The committee is yet to conclude its job which has left many officials of the state government imagining the scale of such theft that they may have been perpetrated in all the 27 local government councils.
How the fraud was uncovered
According to the Commissioner for Local Government and Emirate Affairs, the screening committee had at the beginning of its assignment issued verification forms to all workers which required them to provide their complete biodata, photographs, year of appointment and qualification.
The commissioner said upon the issuance of the forms, many of those who collected the forms did not return them nor did they appear before the committee.
The workers were given three months to fill and return the forms, but many did not show up again.
“So in the 19 local governments that was concluded, a total sum of N150 million was saved as unclaimed salaries of workers,” he said.
“So, upon seeing the report and the money recovered, the state governor, Babagana Zulum, gave a directive that starting from June, monthly salaries of the concerned local governments should be released less N150 million.
“And after making payment of salaries for June, we did not receive any significant complaints from any of the 19 local councils concerning insufficiency of the fund to pay their workers, except some minor complaint bordering on the effect of gross deduction of the N150 million and net release of what they got. And this was mostly around the region of N1 million.”
The Shani LG Example
“We have a peculiar case in Shani local government council where officials lamented that the gross deduction of supposed ghost workers salaries had rendered them incapable of paying the workers.
“We had to travel to Shani Local government to find out why they were unable to pay salaries, and they informed us that there was a shortage of N4 million.
”But looking at our records, we saw that the verification committee had withheld the sum of N19 million as unclaimed salaries of suspected ghost workers,” the commissioner said
Ordinarily, the commissioner said, it would have been an easy thing just to give the local government the balance of N4 million since they still had their deducted N19 million saved in the salary account.
“But the officials could not explain to us where the balance of N15 million that the committee saved usually goes to every month.
“So we refused to give in to their demand. Instead, we demanded to see the pay vouchers of all department in Shani local government. After hours of scrutiny, we noticed that there was a shortfall of only N1.2 million, while they were claiming N4 million.
“It was then that we decided to set up an emergency salary payment committee that will make a table payment, and all workers had to go and get their pay in cash.
“The table payment had since been concluded, even though the committee is yet to present its report; but we have not received a single complaint so far about anyone not getting his or her salary.
“We are all bemused with the fact that N19 million was deducted from the salary bills of Shani local government and no single worker has complained about not receiving their salary.
“We have discovered that a total of 5,811 ghost workers including under-age and over-age staffers take the sum of N150 million monthly in the 19 local government councils.”
Mr Mai-Mele said that in Kukawa local government, the committee uncovered 146 ghost workers and saved over N3 million; while in Gubio, 182 ghost workers were defrauding the government of N3 million monthly. In Guzamala, 69 ghost workers were taking N1.6 million, and Damboa had 348 ghost workers taking N5.8 million monthly. Gwoza had 715 ghost workers taking over N11 million. In Shani, 674 ghost workers were discovered to be taking N10 million.
He said other categories of ghost workers include those that appeared before the committee but were found to be either under-age or over-age.
“We have persons who are yet to be 18 years old but have been on government payroll for the past six or seven years,” he said.
The National Union of Local Government Employees (NULGE) in Borno State has reacted to the interim report of the verification committee.
Speaking with PREMIUM TIMES in Maiduguri on Friday, the Borno State chairman of NULGE, Mustapha Bulama, said the union does not quarrel with the process “as long as it is genuinely meant to sanitise the system and bring better development to the grassroots”.
Mr Bulama noted that the verification of local government workers has recurred in almost all administrations that preceded the current government in the state.
“And each time government announced its intention of screening the local government workers, the NULGE gives its maximum cooperation,” he said.
“But the good intention of government is one thing and ensuring that that good intention is carried out to the letter is entirely another different ball game. We know that even in the committee verifying the local government’s workers, there are people who have vested interests and would do anything to frustrate a trustworthy and transparent verification process.
“When you are dealing with local government staffers, especially those in the lower cadre like cleaners, messengers or security men, you cannot treat with standard applicable to those of high or administrative cadre. For example, you cannot bring a cleaner before a committee and be speaking grammar to him; and when he fails to respond to you correctly, you immediately tag him as a ghost worker. Some staff of local government had never stood before a panel, and when you make them appear before a committee, they get agitated or disoriented. It is not fair to engage a labourer in English; when you know it was because he was not educated, that was why he opted to be a labourer.”
The NULGE chairman said the union would protest if such junior workers are included amongst the ghost workers.
On the funds recovered by the committee, Mr Bulama confirmed that a total of N150 million has been saved by the committee, which he said was a good development.
He, however, said the money also included those that were verified and found to be genuine workers of the local government but were erroneously listed among the ghost workers.
“Presently, there is a subcommittee that has been inaugurated to look into that issue and correct the mistakes made,” he said.
“We are aware that on the erroneous list, we have heads of departments, directors and senior staffers that appeared before the committee for the verification,” Mr Bulama said.
He said that the union has always warned the local government officials to desist from sneaking in underage persons into the payroll of government.
“We welcome the idea of flushing out ghost workers, at least it will even create opportunities for others to get employment especially if overage and underage workers are sieved out.
“But we will resist any unkind treatment of a genuine worker if we found out that he or she had not received fair treatment from the committee,” Mr Bulama said.