Imo state until recently has been a safe haven for Fraud Syndicates in the Imo State Civil Service. The state governor, Hope Uzodinma, highlighted this in a recent broadcast to mark his first 100 days in office, claiming that his administration had discovered 4,800 ghost workers since assuming office.
This has resulted in Imo saving a whopping ₦2 billion monthly. This amount, viewed against the backdrop of the ₦1.2 billion generated internally monthly, is a rip-off that epitomises the failure of governance.
For 10 years, 30,000 retirees have been on the pension payroll, implying that no pensioner died and no fresh retiree enrolled within the period under review. This is unlikely, suggesting fraud and manipulation of the roll. A typical civil service state, Imo has 27 local government areas with a combined workforce of 57,000 employees. Out of this figure, only 17,000 persons are captured in the income tax payment.
The payroll heist, according to Uzodinma, was perpetrated with the use of the Bank Verification Number scheme. He said, “Quite instructively, most of the infractions were committed through multiple entries of the same BVN for different names on the payroll. It is incredible to discover that some people earned salaries as civil servants and also earned pension as retirees.” Why have these crooks and their accomplices in the banking system not been identified and punished accordingly?
For Uzodinma to handle this fraud heist and nip the menace in its bud, he should focus his searchlight on permanent secretaries who are the chief accounting officers of ministries, directors in government departments and agencies, those who prepare salary vouchers and the officials that approve them each month.
The Secretary of the Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit of the MDAs, Mohammed Dikwa, was spot on when he averred that payroll fraud, “involves many people and, most times, they operate in a syndicate. An individual cannot just go and insert somebody’s name in the payroll; it requires the connivance of officers from different places.”
Indeed, it is impossible for such fraudsters to fleece the state treasury for more than a decade without the connivance of the upper echelon of the bureaucracy. The civil service has to adopt the private sector model in cleaning the Augean stables, where managers, sectional heads, and financial officers are held to account for the slightest breach.
The government does not exist only for paying salaries to an insignificant number of the citizenry.
This is against the background of other public necessities like education, health, roads, transport, water and environmental protection that require attention.
Bayelsa State offers Uzodinma a good example of how to decisively deal with payroll fraud. The immediate past governor, Seriake Dickson, inherited a ₦6 billion monthly wage bill when he assumed office in 2012, which he pruned to ₦3.5 billion in his first term in office. Sanity was finally restored to the system when the syndicates in the civil service were identified and some members prosecuted and jailed.
Emeka Ihedioha, governor for seven months before Uzodinma’s administration, discovered 8,000 ghost retirees through a rigorous verification of pensioners from which ₦500 million was saved monthly. He also ramped up the state’s IGR from ₦600 million to ₦1.18 billion, made public in a January 2020 broadcast. ‘
His predecessor, Rochas Okorocha, had also unravelled a ₦700 million fraud from the N1.3 billion monthly pension bill following an audit enquiry.
All this suggests that despite every government’s efforts to rid the public service of this vice, the felons would always dig in. The abuse of the BVN and the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System, point to the fact that they are not in themselves magic bullets, but must be complemented by hands-on governance with uncompromising fidelity to the application of the penal code. The IPPIS, a product of the World Bank, introduced in 2007 by the then Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as part of general public service reforms at the centre, has since then become an effective tool for states to weed out ghost workers.
Reforms focussing on improving financial management and strengthening the role of auditing agencies should be carried out. Uzodinma, therefore, should initiate ever-evolving anti-fraud practices and employ cutting-edge technology to end the heist.
Effective law enforcement, as Transparency International says, is essential to ensure the corrupt are punished and break the cycle of impunity, or freedom from punishment or loss.
THE EASTERN UPDATES