Counties struggle with huge wage bills due to ghost staff

Kisii County revenue officers line up to present their credentials during a staff audit at Gusii Stadium

Kisii County revenue officers line up to present their credentials during a staff audit at Gusii Stadium in September 2022. 

Photo credit: Fil | Nation Media Group

Once the water hyacinth invades, it is almost impossible to get rid of. The aquatic challenges presented by this invasive weed can be likened to the struggles counties have with the issue of ghost workers.

When governors reported to work after their inauguration in late August, more than half the lot promised to audit their staff payrolls and remove all non-existent workers. At least 25 governors promised to do the job within two weeks of assuming office.

This was music to taxpayers’ ears. But, nearly five months down the line, the tune has changed.

Only eight governors have audited their payrolls and made the findings public. In the eight counties whose audit findings Nation has seen, at least Sh4.3 billion was lost to ghost workers whose names were in payrolls overseen by governors who were sworn in after the 2017 General Election.

The Senate has also dragged its feet in investigating governors whose administrations have overseen the loss of over Sh35 billion since the start of devolution.

On November 8, 2022, the Senate’s County Public Accounts Committee directed some past and current governors to file responses to its investigation and gave them 14 days to provide the documents.

No response

But, over two months later, not a single response has been filed in the Senate, which is now on recess. As senators rest, overburdened taxpayers continue to line the pockets of rogue county government workers who are exploiting weak controls to pocket millions through ghost workers.

Of the eight counties that have made public the findings of their staff audits, Kiambu (Sh1.495 billion) and West Pokot (Sh1 billion) lost the highest amounts of money to ghost workers.

Narok lost the lowest (Sh7.8 million) to the sole ghost worker unearthed during an audit by a task force appointed by Governor Patrick Ntutu. Narok paid Sh130,000 to the ghost worker each month for five years. While this amount is the lowest lost, it is nearly eight times the salary of the average employed Kenyan. Kenya’s average monthly salary as of December 2022 was Sh20,123. This means that, over a five-year period, the average Kenyan would earn Sh1.2 million at that salary.

“The wage bill in Kiambu is about Sh600 million per month, which is not sustainable. That’s why I sanctioned a staff audit. Preliminary investigations have revealed fraudulent activities. There are workers who left and went to other jobs but are still drawing salaries from the county government,” Governor Kimani Wamatangi told Nation.

“We have a case of someone who is a long-distance truck driver but was still getting a salary from the county. Another one left and went into business at the coast but was still drawing a salary,” Mr Wamatangi added.

Of the counties that made audit findings public, Kiambu (2,299) and West Pokot (2,300) also had the highest number of non-existent workers.

Other counties that have revealed the amounts they lost to the ghost workers are Murang’a (Sh977.8 million), Nyandarua (Sh404.4 million), Migori (Sh300 million) and Vihiga (Sh130.7 million). Busia County revealed that it had found 116 non-existent workers, but did not state how much the theft costs taxpayers.

5,953 ghost workers

In total, the eight counties had 5,953 ghost workers. To find the irregular payments, auditors checked the number of workers with files in county human resource departments against those in the payrolls.

The payroll had more people than the human resource departments, which indicated the possibility of ghost workers.

Counties whose audits are still ongoing include Homa Bay, Kilifi, Taita Taveta, Lamu, Siaya and Kitui.

In Uasin Gishu, the audit promised by Governor Jonathan Bii went cold following accusations that associates of his predecessor Jackson Mandago were being targeted for removal through the staff headcount. Of the 25 governors that promised to deal with ghost workers, three — Nandi’s Stephen Sang, Vihiga’s Wilber Ottichilo and Marsabit’s Mohamud Ali — were sworn in for their second terms.

Mr Ottichilo is the only one of the three who has completed his audit and made public the findings.

Interestingly, Mr Sang had also in 2017 promised to rid his county of ghost workers. Auditor-General Nancy Gathungu last year revealed that Nandi County spends 53 per cent of its budget on salaries and allowances, which is in violation of the law that caps remuneration at 35 per cent. In Vihiga, 48 people were paid monthly salaries amounting to Sh130.7 million for five years despite not being county government employees.

Migori, which has recorded consistent growth in paying non-existent staff, had 607 ghost workers who drew Sh300 million in salaries over five years. The irony in Migori’s troubles is that most of the non-existent staff were recorded in its revenue collection department. This means that the department tasked with collecting funds has been burning a hole through Migori’s pockets.

In Kisii County, Governor Simba Arati started his term with a headcount that revealed 861 ghost workers. But the staff audit has since been relegated to the back burner.

In Garissa, Governor Nathif Jama removed 3,000 people from the payroll, terming them ghost workers, but some of them have gone to court and obtained orders retaining their salaries pending the conclusion of their case. Some of those removed from the payroll were religious leaders who could not state which department they work in when probed.

Bungoma County completed its audit but did not expressly state if there were ghost workers despite finding numerous irregularities in the workforce. Two people were hired while still underage, while three did not meet the minimum academic requirements. Five others had certificates suspected to be forged, while four only presented academic transcripts.

Reporting by Brian Wasuna, Waikwa Maina, Simon Ciuri, Maureen Ongala, Lucy Mkanyika, Onyango K’onyango, Oscar Kakai, Robert Kiplagat, Okong’o Oduya, Rushdie Oudia and George Odiwuor