Two pictures published on the front page of this newspaper last Friday and reproduced below capture as grimly and hauntingly as anything that has gone before the thoughtlessness, the utter lack of empathy that has become ingrained in the drive to root out “ghost workers” from the public sector payroll.
One of them shows a young man carrying in his arms what appears to be the limp body of an elderly woman. The other shows another young man holding by the arm a woman bent with age and as she took what was obviously one difficult step after another.
The one was not ferrying his charge across a busy street, nor was the other piloting his through a treacherous patch. Both, officials of the Pension Transitional Arrangement Directorate (PTAD), were guiding the women to the venue of yet another Pension Verification exercise last Thursday, in the Edo State capital, Benin City.
Those pictures could have been taken in Abuja or in any state capital or local government headquarters, or indeed at any venue where officials are gathered to match former and current employees with the payroll for the purpose of weeding out those who do not belong there, otherwise called ghost workers.
The way it is conducted is often humiliating, dehumanizing even. If you do not show up for verification, you are presumed to be a ghost worker or retiree, and your name is expunged from the payroll. Extenuating factors hardly enter into the reckoning.
Verification was introduced in the 1980s to trim down the public payroll in keeping with the package of conditionalities stipulated by the International Monetary Fund for granting Nigeria a loan of $2.8 billion to carry out a Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). Like the programme itself, it took on a troubling aspect from the outset.
A family friend, a high school teacher who was due to put to bed any moment, had to be taken from the labor ward of the Ikeja General Hospital to the Surulere, Lagos, venue of verification, a profile in distress and discomfort. She had been given to understand that if she did not show up, she would have to find another job. She and her husband could not take the risk.
If her name was stricken off the payroll and her condition was later determined to be extenuating, getting it restored would be no easy task.
The women in the pictures were in all likelihood similarly circumstanced. The pension might be little more than a pittance in these recessionary times, but even it merely spelled the difference between starvation and hunger, it was something. It was theirs by right, something they had earned through public service in their more productive years, not a handout.
Tales abound of the wanton indignities that men and women who had spent their best years in public service suffer during verification. Men and women grappling with all kinds of infirmities are often kept standing under the open skies on long lines, at the mercy of officers who seem to be in no hurry to do what they are paid to do.
At almost every venue, there are reports of men and women collapsing, overcome by hunger, exhaustion, or by the stuffy environment. Retirees who survive this brutal ordeal have to go through it again the next year, and the next.
Physical presence alone is no guarantee that the mission will be accomplished. It must be backed by a formidable battery of documentation, from the original letter of appointment to the letter of retirement and everything between. It is almost as if the public service keeps no records and it is the employee who has to fill the breach, to the point of even furnishing the File Number to be used in searching for the records. Failure to produce any of the documents or to supply the almighty File Number could spell serious trouble.
Retirees resident abroad (Full disclosure: I never took the trouble to file claims) are also required to go through this ordeal, on pain of having their stipends stopped –stipends that will not even cover the fare for the domestic portion of their voyage, to say nothing of the cost of their sojourn in Nigeria for the one week they will spend at the minimum trying to sort matters out.
One foreign-based retiree tells me a verification official once suggested that if he sent a notarised picture showing him reading the local newspaper with its front page displayed prominently, it might with some luck be considered as an alternative to showing up in person.
An advance, to be sure. But this is the technotronic age. And yet, it is almost as if some officials have never heard of the Internet and its numerous applications that have reshaped and are reshaping communications at all levels.
As it is with retirees, so also it is with current public service employees, who are often required to go through verification at more frequent intervals. It is almost as if the procedure has been institutionalized as a mechanism for avoiding paying salaries, or to put off doing so for as long as possible.
In Kogi, verification has become a permanent exercise, an end in itself more or less. By one account, what has been paid by way of commission to outside consultants conducting personnel verification would have been more than enough to pay the outstanding salaries of everyone on the payroll, ghosts included. Yet, salaries for public service employees in Kogi have remained for unpaid for some six months.
It is most unfeeling, callous even, to subject public service retirees and current employees to the harsh regime of Nigeria-style personnel verification. Even beggars deserve better.
Those who subject retirees and employees to such wanton mistreatment: Have they no conscience? Has it ever crossed their minds that one day they might be at the receiving end if these indignities continued unchecked?
There are undoubtedly ghost workers in the system, spectral figures who perform no task whatsoever but show up dutifully on payday to collect or at the bank to take out what has been credited to their accounts.
But even the most artful scalper cannot function as a ghost worker entirely by himself or herself. The ghost worker must have at least one internal collaborator or patron, usually operating at some strategic point in the bureaucracy, most likely the personnel or finance department.
As much as N100 billion had been saved, officials claim, following the winnowing of some 45, 000 ghost workers from the personnel list of federal ministries, departments and agencies. Still, they insist, tens of thousands of ghost workers are still lurking within the system.
To my knowledge, however, not a single ghost worker has been prosecuted, if only to act as a deterrent to would-be imitators. The way they talk about it, they make it seem like rascally rather than criminal behavior, almost like a sport.
And of course, no personnel officer, no accounting officer, no auditor has been named as a collaborator in the nefarious enterprise. Yet, without them, the phenomenon would not have become the thriving business it is today.
The ghost worker is going to be with us until the trade is criminalised and its well-placed enablers are brought to justice.