DAR ES SALAAM (TrustLaw) - When the Tanzanian government realized that millions of dollars of state funds were being paid out to ‘ghost workers’ on the government payroll, it was quick to order action to stop the payments, not least because nearly one third of its budget was financed by watchful foreign donors.
Six years on, the ghost workers are still there, defying the authorities’ best efforts to eliminate them.
The several thousand ‘ghosts’, who exist only as names and bank accounts on the payroll, are concentrated in the education, health and judicial sectors, and have been looting billions of shillings a year since 2007, according to the ministry of public service management.
Measures taken by the government include ordering a nationwide audit of the employment system and ordering all civil servants to collect their salary cheques in person instead of having them transferred electronically into their bank accounts.
Law enforcement organs including the Prevention and Combating of Corruption bureau were ordered to institute criminal charges against any officers thought to have stolen public funds.
One of the world’s poorest countries, most of whose people live below the World Bank poverty line, Tanzania is losing more than nine billion Tanzanian shillings (over $6 million) a year in salaries and benefits paid to non-existent workers on the government payroll.
The authorities are still struggling to track down some 9,950 ghost workers who are still being paid, says Selina Kombani, the minister of state in the president’s office responsible for public service management. Official records show that no one behind the ghost workers has been brought to justice.
President Jakaya Kikwete, who has personally witnessed a case involving ghost workers being paid millions of shillings in salaries after someone infiltrated the names of imaginary employees into the public service payments system, admitted nearly two years ago that the problem was a tough one.
“We should not allow people who have stolen government money to continue working in government ministries as if nothing had happened. We must bring to an end this culture of impunity,” he was quoted as saying.
Zitto Kabwe, a government critic from the main opposition party CHADEMA, says the number of ghost workers is equivalent to the entire workforce of the country’s mining sector.
In 2007/8 about 3.4 billion shillings were paid to 1,413 ghost workers in the education sector, and a year later 4.2 billion shillings were paid to 1,545 non-existent workers in the health sector, reports from the Controller and Auditor General’s Office show.
Some insiders doubt whether the government has the political will to deal with the problem.
“The very officials who are expected to chase off ghost workers may actually be the ones who are perfecting the illegal network to facilitate looting,” a senior government employee, who declined to be identified, whispered to this reporter in the building housing the employment ministry.
The official, in his mid 50’s, said the ghost workers appeared to be the creation of a skilful, well organized syndicate in the salary payments system who put nothing in writing, making it difficult to catch them.
Donors, critical of the government’s handling of public accounts and the sluggish pace of reform, have in recent years slashed the support they give for the national budget through the General Budget Support scheme.
Foreign aid made up 33 percent of Tanzania’s budget in 2009/10 (July-June), but donors cut their aid by $220 million in 2010/11 to $534 million.
Minister Kombani remains adamant that the government will use every weapon in its arsenal to track down and defeat those behind the ghost workers.
Her latest tactic is to order civil servants to be at their duty stations at 7:30 am on pay day, normally the 25th of the month, with letters of employment, contracts, identity cards and copies of previous salary slips.
Will that be enough to defeat the ghost workers, or the mysterious syndicate behind them? Let’s wait and see.
Kizito Makoye is a journalist based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania