Exorcise the ‘ghosts’ behind county ghost workers to end the menace


Civil servants queue in Molo during a headcount. The exercise was meant to kick-out ghost workers. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Ghosts were once people who became spirits but, in Kenya, particularly in the counties, they are still alive.

During this transition after the August 9 general election, the new governors have decried the existence of ‘ghost’ workers and bloated workforce consuming the better part of their counties’ budget.

Kisii Governor Simba Arati shocked the country with the news of 256 drivers against 82 functioning vehicles, leading up to the much publicised drivers’ headcount at Gusii Stadium. There, he discovered a whole 861 ghost workers without doing a formal audit.

Several other governors have followed suit.

The Auditor-General’s report published this month shows the country has lost more than Sh35 billion through ghost workers since 2013.

In what has now become routine for newly elected governors, internal staff and payroll audits reveal loss of billions through non-existent staff but hardly seal the loopholes.

Two questions arise: Who are the ghost workers and who profits from them?

Technically speaking, a ghost worker, or ghost employee, is somebody who is recorded on the payroll system but 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 dishonest staff.

In Kenya, and possibly elsewhere, ghost workers are special purpose vehicles created by unscrupulous and overzealous government officials on a mission to siphon public resources for their own gratification.

The ‘ghosts’ behind the ghost workers menace is a vicious organised criminal enterprise that could involve the most powerful figures in government. They exist by design.

Various categories

Human resource and payroll audits have revealed various categories of ghost workers. The most prominent of them is where corrupt officials recruit real people and enter them in the payroll. Real people, though, come at a high cost and risk.

They will want to profit from their participation in the scheme and every additional individual aware of the scam increases the risk of being found out. That could increase costs to keep things quiet or even put an end to the scam.

To cure the issue of cost and minimise the risk of exposure, officials in some counties have become very creative. They have established layers: The levels of conspiracy begin from the top-level management, the approvers. The ghost workers will need to be hired and, in most cases, given personnel numbers.

Quite likely, authorisation for payment will be required for every pay period and they will need to somehow access their pay. Thus, the cooperation of the management is required. Even when only rudimentary processes are in place, the authority for the following decisions is typically segregated: Authorisation to hire, authorisation of periodic salary payments and payment of salaries.

Level two: Identification of the ‘ghosts’. The officials identify intermediaries, mostly politically exposed persons (PEPs), whose role is to recruit the ‘ghosts’. A PEP, for starters, is an individual who is or has been entrusted with a prominent function in a scheme, loosely known as a ‘broker’. They get their hands dirty and will protect the interest of their masters with their lives. They are beneficiaries of either that particular scheme or many others orchestrated by their benefactors.

Level three: The ‘ghosts’. These are the main characters in the scheme; the ultimate ‘beneficiaries’. They appear in various formations. One is the actual ‘ghosts’—dead workers still present in the payroll and who, we have agreed, are not worth the effort. Two, real people who are recruited knowingly and have agreed to the terms of engagement, including the percentages and mode of conveying the money to the officials. Lastly, real people unknowingly in the payroll but whose identities are used to process payments only accessible to the ultimate beneficiaries.

What to do? The zeal with which the incoming governors have approached the issue is commendable. But it’s difficult to tell genuine efforts from manipulative conjectures by politicians. The governors could, for all intents and purposes, be giving their predecessors’ notice that, hey, I know your people are here, I will clear them up and replace them with my own.

For the new governors, however, it’s a call to responsibility. To institute basic controls to discourage and limit opportunities for ghost worker fraud. To identify and take action against technical staff who have perpetuated the fraud (they are the ‘ghosts’ that should be exorcised first). To automate human resource and payroll systems; adopt and implement the Integrated Personnel and Payroll Database (IPPD) as a comprehensive pay reform strategy for counties.

Mr Mbiti is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and anti-corruption expert. [email protected]


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