Enriching ghosts and rotten bones

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The existence of ghosts, or other paranormal entities, is a topic that generates lively debates. However, the existence of, and damage caused by ghost employees has been well documented worldwide.

Nonexistent employees who fraudulently show up on payrolls, more often than not to fund a crooked senior manager’s habits, can take a huge chunk of money out of an institution.

In 2012, former prime minister Citizen Katusha Nahas Angula called on government ministries to establish the actual number of staff they employ. This came on the heels of revelations that there were 600 ghost workers on the payroll of two ministries.
In February 2013, the Anti-Corruption Commission confirmed that it had concluded yet another investigation into claims of ghost employees at the Ministry of Works and Transport.

In that year, official figures indicated that government employed about 80 000 public servants. That figure remains disputed in the wake of the unaddressed mushrooming of ghost employees in the civil service and parastatals.

Towards the end of 2012, the ministry of education suspended several officials over the ghost employee syndrome. The ministries of works, agriculture and home affairs said at the time they were battling with the same challenges.

To date, no statistics have been provided as to how many ghost workers and how many deceased continue to receive monthly salaries. There is also no indication as to how this challenge is being addressed.

Ghost employee fraud takes many forms, such as a payroll clerk who sets up a bank account for a nonexistent employee and deposits the pay-cheques into an account for his or her own use, or an accounting staffer (or manager) who leaves a terminated employee on payroll so he can collect the former employee’s paycheck for personal use.

Technically speaking a ghost worker, or ghost employee, is someone recorded on the payroll system, but who does not work for the institution. The ghost worker can be a real person, who with or without their knowledge, is placed on the payroll, or a fictitious person invented by the dishonest staff.

A major consideration is whether you have to look for real people to be your ghost workers, or if you are able to enroll ghosts with fictitious identities. Real people come with high costs and risks. They will want to profit from their participation in the scheme and each additional individual, who is aware of the scam increases the risk that the wrong people will find out.
This further increases costs to keep things quiet or even put an end to the scam entirely.

While individuals in various positions can be well positioned to organise such a scheme and to influence those with the necessary authority, a ghost worker programme relies heavily on the participation of the person authorising the periodic salary payments.
Even though this fraudulent system has been exposed many times, it is sad to note that it has been embraced and maintained by highly-placed civil servants. Equally sadly, it is lamentable that no meaningful and tangible deterrence has been applied to eradicate this cancerous scheme. On the contrary, the scheme seems to be growing, as corruption reaches unprecedented levels.

In the absence of a comprehensive report on how this fraudulent activity has been dealt with, it is safe to say that the menace of ghost workers has taken on a dangerous dimension over the years.

Muted voices in the corridors of government keep whispering about how large, pervasive and menacing this scourge has become, affecting not only ministries, but schools, construction and other industries, and contracts, tenders, including ghost pensioners, retirees and the dead.

All these drain the State’s coffers, thereby weakening government’s efforts to fulfil its basic responsibilities of providing infrastructure, basic necessities, and maintaining law and order. The ghost worker syndrome constitutes one of the drainpipes of public funds.

An army of unemployed Namibians, most of whom possess the required skills and experience, is growing annually as vacancies are taken over by ghosts.

As a direct consequence of this fraud, qualified Namibians often find it difficult to get employment in government, private establishments and parastatals, whose nominal roles are brimming with fictitious characters, who nonetheless get paid humongous monthly salaries.

The widespread occurrence of ghost employees furthermore exacerbates poverty, as the rich and the corrupt get richer, while the unemployed and poor become poorer.

The only way the welfare of genuine civil servants and other workers can be improved and jobs created is to ensure that all government institutions are free of ghost workers. The spirit and practice of ghost workers must be exorcised.

Basic controls can discourage and limit opportunities for ghost worker fraud. Segregation of authorities and duties, substantive reviews of the payroll at multiple levels, and informed management and executives can go a long way in addressing this menace.

* Dr Charles Mubita holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Southern California.

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