Thursday, 25 August 2016

Workers’ N293b benefit claims

Written by the Editorial Board of the Guardian newspaper

The confirmation by the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, Mrs. Winifred Oyo-Ita the other day that the Federal Government was owing civil servants N293 billion worth of benefit claims leaves a sour taste in the mouth and shows the level of irresponsibility in the public service. In fact, the revelation is provocative as no serious nation plays ducks and drakes with public officers’ benefit claims as Nigeria has done. A country where civil servants and pensioners are not regularly paid their salaries and wages needs to have its entire machinery of government re-examined and re-tooled.

Whenever there is a lamentation about unpaid salaries, allowances, benefits and pensions, there will also be a concomitant alibi, in this regard: ghost workers. That is the case in this saga of unpaid claims. It would be recalled that the Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun was recently locked out of her office by angry workers of the ministry who complained about a similar issue: failure to pay accumulated overtime allowances.

At the civil service week celebration where the Head of Service disclosed the plight of the affected civil servants, she also added that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had actually begun interrogation of some unnamed civil servants over allegation that they might be ghost workers after all.

According to the Head of Service, the service-wide unpaid benefits included death benefits, repatriation allowances, promotion arrears, first 28 days for transferees, and so on, totaling N293 billion. She said the issue, which had received presidential attention had been referred to the Finance Minister who had been hampered too by scarcity of funds.
While acknowledging the effects of economic recession, the lamentation of the Head of Service and the so-called presidential attention on the workers’ unpaid claims should be disregarded. The pertinent question should be: What happened to the budgetary allocations for the allowances to the affected workers? As the Finance Minister hinted when she was held hostage in her office over the same issue, why did the system create allowances that were not budgeted for? Besides, what happened to the concept of supplementary budget for this kind of exigency as has been conventional? Who audited the authenticity of all the claims submitted by various agencies to the

Head of Service? Is this not reminiscent of the regular dubious claims?

Even when the federal ministry of finance paid such claims there have been no published audited reports showing authenticity of claims and payments. There have been so many similar cases service-wide, in a system that does not have a central data base where all claims can be easily verified.

In October 2005, Nigeria and the Paris Club of creditors announced a final agreement for debt relief worth $18 billion and an overall reduction of Nigeria’s debt stock by $30 billion. The deal was completed on April 21, 2006 when Nigeria made its final payment and its books were cleared of any Paris Club debt. In the same vein, the people never got details of how the debts Nigeria got reliefs for were accumulated by various governments in the federation.

This is why it is imperative for citizens to demand detailed accounts of transactions or payments of any hue. In this age there should be transparency in public service business.

Meanwhile, it is high time Nigerians were spared the embarrassment of stories of ghost workers when software for e-payments to workers and capture of biometric features of workers are available. The pilot scheme for this e-payment system began during the Obasanjo administration (1999-2007). For whatever it is worth, the e-payment platform should have been perfected to remove all the ghost workers about 10 years after the pilot scheme began.

Again, the National Information Technology Department Agency (NITDA) was created in April 2001 to implement the Nigerian Information Technology Policy and coordinate the general IT development in the country. It was mandated by the National Information Technology Development Act (2007) to create a framework for the planning, research, development, standardization, application, coordination, monitoring, evaluation and regulation of Information Technology practices, activities and systems in Nigeria. But sadly, the impact of this agency has hardly been felt in any significant way. If NITDA cannot develop software for public service electronic records and even payment system, what is its relevance? Besides, what is the relevance of NITDA set up since 2001, legalised since 2007 if it cannot collaborate with the operators of telecoms systems in the country to develop electronic budget documents that will enable the Budget Offices even in the federation to detect padding and other impurities in the appropriation legal documents? Why has it been possible to eliminate ‘ghost workers’ in the private sector with the aid of technology and same has been impossible in the public sector in 21st Century? No doubt, some of the so-called challenges of Nigeria indeed advertise the country as a joke.

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