Revealed: How counties paid Sh35 billion to ghost workers

The internal staff and payroll audits have become a routine undertaking by every new county administration that usually reveals how billions of shillings are being looted through non-existent staff.

Photo credit: Andrew Anini | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • At least 25 governors have pledged to audit staff and exorcise ghost workers who are illegally drawing salaries from counties.

As weary taxpayers complain about poor services in counties — hospitals without drugs and patients sharing beds are pet peeves — audit reports show that more than Sh35 billion has been looted over the years through ghost workers as the theft continues.

The internal staff and payroll audits have become a routine undertaking by every new county administration that usually reveals how billions of shillings are being looted through non-existent staff.

However, the new sheriffs in town hardly seal the loopholes. Subsequent probes have often reveal growing theft blamed for the runaway wage bill that has seen counties violate the statutory ceiling on spending on salaries.

On September 30, 2016, then Migori Governor Okoth Obado publicly revealed findings of an internal staff and payroll audit that exposed ghost workers.

Mr Obado said the staff headcount, done between August 4 and 5, 2016, had identified 46 ghost workers whom the county had been paying Sh2.7 million each month. The admission meant that Migori County may have lost Sh110.7 million to ghost workers in the 41 months that Mr Obado was in office.

“However, my government will ensure money irregularly paid out is recovered,” the governor said. Two months later, Auditor-General Edward Ouko released his report on Migori for the 2014-2015 financial year, and the document showed that the county may have lost Sh355 million by paying non-existent staff.

For the 2013-2014 financial year, Mr Obado’s first in charge, the Auditor-General had reported a loss of Sh116,000 each month to 29 ghost workers. Fast-forward to July 11, 2018 and Mr Obado was nearly one year into his second term. He had ordered yet another staff and payroll audit.

This time, the audit report revealed that Migori had 267 ghost workers and taxpayers were parting with Sh7.5 million each month. A 64 per cent increase in ghost payments and an 82 per cent rise in non-existent workers.

In May, 2021, Mr Obado had barely one year left before expiry of his second, and final, gubernatorial term.

His administration, through County Public Service Board chair Jared Kopiyo, admitted that Migori was still struggling to exorcise ghost workers and that another staff and payroll audit was on the cards.

Former Senator Ochillo Ayacko has taken over and made a similar vow, joining a growing list of county chiefs who are suffering the same pandemic.

At least 25 governors sworn in after the August 9, 2022 elections have sung the same chorus — to audit staff and exorcise ghost workers illegitimately drawing salaries from counties.

Past records show that taxpayers could be parting with as much as half a billion shillings every month to non-existent staff, despite continuous promises by county bosses to streamline their payrolls.

Investigations by some counties and the Auditor General show that Kenyans could have paid more than Sh35 billion to non-existent staffers since counties were born by the 2010 Constitution.

In 2014, a biometric headcount of the civil servants exposed 12,000 ghost workers — those who did not physically present themselves at registration centres — and they were subsequently removed from the payroll.

Of the county chiefs voted in August, Vihiga Governor Wilber Ottichilo is the only one who has completed and made public findings of a staff and payroll audit.

Vihiga County has been losing Sh2.1 million to 48 fake workers every month. They have no personnel files, no work stations or any evidence that they are employed by Vihiga County. But somehow, each has been pocketing an average of Sh43,750 at the expense of taxpayers.

Mr Ottichilo, in June 2021, told Vihiga MCAs that the county had spent Sh69.5 million on staff audits, an indicator of just how expensive the exorcism can get.

The 2022 audit will have pushed Vihiga’s staff audit costs past the Sh70 million mark.

In Machakos, Governor Wavinya Ndeti last week revealed that there are at least 37 ghost workers, amid thousands of cases involving plunder through irregular salary and allowance schemes.

A recent Auditor-General report on Machakos County found that 229 officers received dubious salary arrears twice, while a further 237 were paid both basic and special salaries without supporting documents.

Machakos County also failed to deduct tax from 1,226 workers’ salaries.

Interestingly, the county’s employee records have been audited and edited multiple times by at least 10 members of staff who are not part of the human resources department.

The report also found 2,334 cases of both special and house allowances being paid in the same month without supporting documents.

Murang’a governor Irungu Kang’ata told Nation that his task force was in the final stages of a staff and payroll audit, and that the findings would be made public next Monday.

Kisii’s Simba Arati found 861 ghost workers in his county after doing a head count, but is yet to conduct a formal audit to establish how much the non-existent staff have been receiving every month.

In Bungoma, governor Ken Lusaka has found that the county could have employed at least 18 ghosts as village administrators.

The staff and payroll audit does not, however, indicate how much the county has been losing to ghost workers each month.

Governors Susan Kihika (Nakuru), Gideon Mung’aro (Kilifi), Andrew Mwadime (Taita Taveta), Paul Otuoma (Busia) and Ken Lusaka (Bungoma) said they were in the process of auditing their staff payrolls and doing headcounts to weed out ghost workers.

More than a decade after the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution that enabled legal structures for digitised government operations, many counties are still heavily reliant on manual registers for payment of salaries and employee records.

This has made it hard to get exact figures of genuinely hired employees and opened the door for mischief by rogue county staff. For just the cost of a forged letter of appointment, one can easily get on county government payrolls and mint millions for years without detection.

In 2014, the Capacity Assessment and Rationalisation of the Public Service (Carps) programme — a joint effort of national and county governments — found that counties had 126,998 workers.

But when the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) did an ethnic audit of counties, which was finished in August 2015, it recorded 116,852 workers in devolved units.

Owing to the growing needs of counties at the time, the number of employees might not have gone down. It also means a government institution was unable to find out exactly how many people are employed by counties.

Controller of Budget Margaret Nyakango told Nation that her office has been fruitlessly seeking to know how many county government workers are paid outside the digitised payroll system.

She added that the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) is currently doing several staff audits in different government institutions, a move that could weed out ghosts haunting payrolls across the board.

“The issue of the public sector wage bill has been an area of concern due to poor compliance with the PFM [Public Finance Management Act] limits. My office has been reporting on the wage bill levels each quarter.”

“Although we sought to know all wages outside the IPPD [Integrated Personnel and Payroll Database] and got the figures, the counties got worse towards the end of last financial year. Our findings were that election agents formed a substantial part of the ‘casuals’.”

“Currently, the SRC is carrying out various staff audits across the nation, starting with universities,” Ms Nyakango said.

The Auditor-General’s office was yet to respond to our queries by the time of going to press. Council of Governors Chairperson Ann Waiguru had also not responded to our queries by press time.

Ms Waiguru was Devolution minister in 2014 when the office ordered for an audit of all counties to weed out ghost workers. The audit report was, however, never made public.

On May 1, 2015, Tharaka Nithi County hired Ms Callen Gatune Francis as its principal human resource officer and she was to earn Sh85,140 each month.

Aside from helping the county hire competent workers, Ms Francis was also serving in the County Public Service Board.

Everything seemed to be well until September 11, 2017 when she was sent on compulsory leave, and then arrested two days later alongside three colleagues — Kenneth Ntwiga Kanga, Lydia Wangui Gatheru and Jacinta Kathambi Kamwara — for defrauding Tharaka Nithi County through ghost workers.

This was barely a month after former MP Muthomi Njuki had clinched the governor’s seat in the General Election and one of his first executive orders was for a staff audit to weed out ghost workers.

The audit had found that a network of rogue staffers would sneak the county seal out of office on weekends and then use it to create letters of appointment for individuals who had not been hired by the government — ghost workers.

Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) officers told the Chief Magistrate’s court that Ms Francis was found in possession of the county seal during interrogation, a claim she denied.

The staff audit had revealed that Tharaka Nithi had at least 108 ghost employees who were drawing millions from the county government.

Ghost worker number 108 in the list unearthed during the audit was Mr Simon Tigania Kamau, Ms Francis’ husband.

In court, Ms Francis insisted that she did not know that the man she vowed to spend the rest of her life with, in sickness and in health, was drawing a salary from Tharaka Nithi County despite never being employed by the devolved unit.

At work, she was interdicted and eventually demoted with a salary slash. Tharaka Nithi County, however, withheld the half pay Ms Francis was entitled to, and she sued over unfair suspension and demotion.

Tharaka Nithi filed a counter-claim seeking orders that Ms Francis pays the county an equivalent of what was paid to the 108 ghost workers.

Justice Nzioki wa Makau sitting in Meru refused to delve into the ghost worker claims, holding that the Employment and Labour Relations Court is only concerned with whether the county followed due process in suspending and demoting Ms Francis.

On September 18, 2018, Justice Makau ordered Tharaka Nithi to remit the half salary that was due to Ms Francis when she was suspended. The judge dismissed the county’s counter-claim, ruling that no figures or evidence was presented to warrant orders sought by Tharaka Nithi.

For Mr Josephat Kimutai Kemei, he was confirmed as West Pokot’s head of county human resource management on January 29, 2014.

He was suspended on November 18, 2015 after the county discovered that Mr Kemei was part of a syndicate hiring ghost workers. Mr Kemei had hired himself as a ghost worker by jumbling the order of his name to Dr Kemei Josephat Kimutai and presenting a separate bank account to earn a second salary.

His wife, Ms Roseline Chebet, was also on the list of county workers drawing a salary despite not being employed by the county government. Ms Chebet was paid Sh823,841 between November, 2014 and October, 2015, and earned Sh68,653 every month.

Another ghost worker, identified as Ms Debra Chepkorir, had received Sh915,483 in the same period. This translates to Sh76,290 every month without lifting a finger.

From Ms Chepkorir’s windfall, a total of Sh172,400 was kicked back to one of Mr Kemei’s bank accounts.

He also engineered fraudulent salary payments of Sh66,496 in October, 2014. Mr Kemei also fraudulently received a salary of Sh462,715 between September and October, 2015.

The former West Pokot human resources boss had also irregularly aided a Mr Simon Wafula, a clerical officer, to get a promotion. Mr Wafula was hired as a clerical officer with a monthly salary of Sh12,510.

Using a forged letter from the defunct Town Council of Cheparerie, Mr Kemei promoted Mr Wafula to chief clerical officer with a Sh43,700 monthly salary. Still, Mr Wafula received Sh305,674 between June and September, 2014.

Mr Wafula somehow found himself working as the West Pokot’s interim payroll manager, and he influenced the payment of five workers who were entered into the county systems using fake letters, a total of Sh556,291.

He also introduced eight ghost workers into the payroll and West Pokot County lost Sh2.5 million by paying the non-existent employees.

By the time Mr Kemei and Mr Wafula were suspended and later on sacked, West Pokot County had lost over Sh12 million to ghost workers.

The two sued the county government for unlawful termination, but lost the case.

“The first (Mr Kemei) and second (Mr Wafula) claimants engaged in irregular and fraudulent conduct as demonstrated by the evidence presented by the Respondents (West Pokot County). The county government lost in excess of Shs12 million as a result of the unlawful conduct by the two claimants.”

“Both the first and second claimants were guilty of gross misconduct and were validly dismissed from employment. They were both accorded a fair hearing and opportunity to appeal the adverse decisions and the two causes also fail on that score,” Justice Mathews Nduma Nderi said in his judgment.

- Additional reporting by Ruth Mbula, Brian Ojamaa, Okong'o Oduya, Geoffrey Ondieki, Robert Kiplagat, Brian Ojamaa, Oscar Kakai and Waikwa Maina