Reforms: Pulling Down a Multi Billion Naira Fraud Industry In Bayelsa, By Fidelis Soriwei
It is indeed a fact beyond contradiction that the ongoing reforms introduced by Governor Dickson signals the end of a cruel culture of entitlement and a regime of financial terror perpetrated by a greedy band of unscrupulous characters, to the detriment of Bayelsa and her citizens.
When taking over the baton of leadership in Bayelsa in 2012, Honourable Henry Seriake Dickson promised the citizenry a meticulous adherence to effective management of the resources of the State. He was firm in his declaration that the Restoration Administration would have no place for profligacy and a simmering culture of waste in the State. To show the magnitude and depth of his commitment to financial accountability and transparency, Dickson signed the Bayelsa State transparency bill into law. For him, the pursuit of transparency and accountability must flow from the Creek Haven seat of governance in the State. The law mandates the governor to brief the state on receipts from the Federation Account, internally generated revenue and expenditures.
In what was clearly a marked break away from an cruel tradition of the past, the governor affirmed his determination to ensure that revenue coming into the State were not shared to service the vast appetite of the elite political class to the detriment of development. Dickson vowed that funds coming into the State would be effectively utilised to address the challenge of development bedeviling the State entrusted into his care in 2012.
After four years of presiding over the affairs of Bayelsa State, Dickson took the route avoided by his predecessors to take on ingrained corruption in the civil service. He holds the view that the desired development of Bayelsa must be anchored on a civil service that is vibrant and productive. He was fired by a compelling desire to introduce reforms to reposition a civil service that was beholden to seemingly ineradicable rot and widespread fraud. Dickson was worried, and genuinely too, that Bayelsa State, which is rated as the least populated in the country, has the largest civil service after Lagos and Kano States! The governor opted to take the uncomfortable path to confront a thriving industry of fraud perpetrated by a network of syndicates that specialise in bleeding the State of huge resources that should have gone into project execution.
At his re-election for a second tenure in office in 2016, Dickson commenced a tortuous process of the implementation of public sector reforms with the intention of freeing Bayelsa from the vice grip of payroll crooks and save endangered funds for development. It did not take too long for the multisectoral public reform panel set up by the governor to come up with damning discoveries of large scale employment and financial fraud in the public sector.
The civil service was replete with cases of people benefitting from multiple employments; persons working as senior civil servants with fake, computer generated certificates; those benefitting from indefensible promotions in brazen violation of civil service rules; pension fraudsters; age falsifiers; ghost workers; beneficiaries of inherited employments, among others.
Dickson was resolute in the bid to knock off ghost workers, overaged personnel, primary schools kids, dead workers, and Diaspora workers, all drawing salaries from the State coffers.
He stood his ground amidst overt and surreptitious moves to blackmail the government to drop the idea of the reforms. Dickson insisted that it was a ruling priority of his Restoration Government to bequeath a disciplined, motivated and productive civil service to drive the process of development in Bayelsa. He considered this decision sancrosant and inviolate.
Two years of sustained hard work, engendered by a painstaking implementation of the ongoing reforms and verification exercises introduced by the governor, have yielded some results. The total wage bill of the State, which was put at over N5 billion and N1.7 billion in the eight local government areas in 2012, have been drastically reduced to about N4 billion, including salaries of political appointees. Dickson also disclosed in a meeting of the State Executive Committee in November last year that Bayelsa was losing N1 billion per month to the payroll syndicate in the State.
Dickson vowed that his administration would not embrace the sustenance of a status quo of fraud and outright criminality against Bayelsa and her citizens. “We have lost almost one billion naira per month to payroll fraud. We have to clean up this payroll mess. We have a little internally generated revenue, we have a difficult terrain, we have no support from the Federal Government, from corporate players who are milking us but are not helping us…” Dickson had said
With the emergent discovery of large scale fraud involving billions of naira of state funds, the panel being coordinated by the deputy governor of the State, Gboribiogha Jonah, took the first major step of withholding the salaries of 4,204 suspected fraudsters from the payroll in November 2017. The withheld salaries were paid into the Unpaid Salaries Account. Those affected include 1,329 local government employees, 2184 from the primary school education system and 707 from the pension payroll. However, the government constituted a judicial commission of inquiry under the leadership of Justice Doris Adokeme to hear complaints emanating from the implementation of the reforms as a deliberate bid to prevent the punishment of innocent workers.
Yet, no less worrisome is the preliminary report by the State Government Committee on Civil Service Reforms in February 2018 that over 8000 civil servants got their appointments through an illegal system of inheritance in the State. The names of the affected workers were smuggled into the payroll as replacement for their friends, parents and relatives, who retired from the service. The panel also uncovered 500 administration officers in one local government area, (Sagbama) and 5000 non-academic staff in the Niger Delta University and the other five state owned tertiary institutions in Bayelsa.
While the State awaits the final report of the panel on the mind boggling payroll debacle in Bayelsa by the end of May 2018, the chairmen of the eight local government areas told a bewildered citizenry that the councils have recorded a wage bill reduction of N3.912 billion per annum as a direct consequence of the reforms. A preliminary report released by the committee also shows that the reforms have worked the additional magic of reducing the monthly salaries of teachers in the councils from N1.320 billion to N1.027 billion per month.
One critical outcome of the implementation of the ongoing reforms is the deployment of redundant workers to other agencies of goverment where they would have the opportunity to make inputs to the development of the state. For instance, the Bayelsa Transport Company maintains hundreds of drivers and other workers, even when the company has no vehicles. The government is also using the platform of the reforms to review the workforce in the educational institutions in the State. Dickson holds the view that the current arrangement where over 70 percent of the staff strength of 15,433 workers in the school are non-academic staff, most of who are redundant, cannot be said to be productive.
As, it is, with all genuine reforms, there have been complaints and indeed outright blackmail orchestrated by the well-organised payroll syndicate to demonise the reforms. However, to the citizens of Bayelsa, the figures emanating from the reform panels emits a breath of fresh air as they signal a drastic reduction of the State’s overbloated payroll. It is indeed a fact beyond contradiction that the ongoing reforms introduced by Governor Dickson signals the end of a cruel culture of entitlement and a regime of financial terror perpetrated by a greedy band of unscrupulous characters, to the detriment of Bayelsa and her citizens. The reforms have rescued billions of naira from the unconscionable talons of payroll vultures in Bayelsa.
Fidelis Soriwei is special adviser, media relations to the governor of Bayelsa State.