Last Tuesday in Makurdi, the Benue state capital, there was a gathering at the state house of assembly. It was an inquisition into an issue that should ordinarily not throw up any dust.
An exercise had been conducted by the state government that threw up a number of very shocking details about government payroll and there was concerted effort to distract from the facts that emerged.
Essentially, a committee set up by the state government investigated salary payment details between June 2015 and April 2017 and uncovered a fraud of N3.7billion. Of the N3.7billion, dead pensioners were said to have collected N619.6 million, N1.4 billion went to some workers in 60 MDAs illegally while other forms of payroll misappropriations made up the balance.
For a state like Benue that relies considerably on federal allocation, these numbers and discoveries were scandalous and would not have bubbled to the surface were it not that the Samuel Ortom led administration mustered the courage to set up the committee that probed the payroll.
An interesting aspect of the audit was the technology behind the entire process. A software, Remita, designed by an indigenous company was at the heart of the effort. As expected, the response of those that benefitted from the wanton fraud was to indict the software for the loss of their “cash cow.” This hoard of faceless individuals went to town with the tale that Remita had removed names of legitimate workers from the payroll; a clear case of falsehood. But the problem of payroll manipulation is not purely a Benue problem. Other states in Nigeria have faced the same ordeal.
The Bayelsa state government had to even set up a special court to address payroll fraud. In the case of Bayelsa, fraud valued at N322million was discovered in local government payroll in 2016. Some 4,204 workers were implicated.
Other states including Kaduna, Sokoto, and Kano have also experienced their fair share of all sorts of issues with payroll. In particular, a Kaduna State Pension Bureau consultant was indicted for smuggling names into the pension payroll and had charted away over N 38million in undeserved pension benefits by mid 2017. Some 9, 768 ghost workers were removed from the payroll in the Kaduna state for crimes committed between 2007 and 2013.
On 25, May 2017, Sokoto state government under the leadership of Aminu Tambuwal said it has expunged 13,415 ghost names from the payroll of its 23 local councils; a few months later, the government of Kano uncovered payroll fraud valued at N12.7million. This is a recurring decimal across Nigeria, especially where there is no political will to weed out the perpetuators.
In the case of Benue, the investigative committee removed from the payroll employees that got into the system through the backdoor, and demoted those that had been promoted without requisite professional and academic qualifications based on various illegal service schemes. The cleaned data, reviewed and approved by the Commissioner for Finance, was used for salary payment in January 2018 and all hell broke loose.
As the committee sat in Makurdi, on the morning of 27, February the damaging falsehood that the operators of the indigenous software that helped stop the fraud were to blame for changes in the payroll were still making the rounds. These rumours which were calculated to distract from the real issues were sadly adopted by some individuals. But the vast majority of Nigerians know that this is a blatant lie. They know that is just a case of corruption making a desperate effort to perpetuate itself.