Nigeria: Ghost Workers and their Scary Implications

In Nigeria, a one-month old baby made $150 a month as a public sector employee. How on earth was an infant working? Thankfully for the little guy, he wasn’t. But his father was collecting a pension for the “work” the child was doing even before he was born.

The Nigerian government has tens of thousands of forged or imaginary names on its payroll. These people inhabit the ranks of Nigeria’s “ghost workers,” who receive pensions from the government without ever working a day. The problem has not improved over time. In 2011, several state governments reported that they had discovered anywhere from 600-20,000 ghost workers on their rolls. Even the Federal Ministry of Information and National Orientation found 60% of its staff to be under-qualified or ghost workers.

Ghost workers are defrauding the Nigerian government out of $530 million (US) each year, effectively crippling the national budget. While Nigeria has attempted to fight this corruption through audits of the public sector payroll, many people slip through the cracks and continue to draw a paycheck.

Nigeria’s Freedom of Information Bill was signed into law only last year. Prior to its passage, anyone with connections to the government could get their name on the public dole and collect a salary. This was exacerbated by the fact that local officials gain a larger share of Nigeria’s oil resources for higher worker counts, incentivizing distortion of population figures. Politicians will register migrant workers to vote, and in return for their vote, the migrant workers will be placed on the government payroll. The diversion of government funds at the local level prevents important public services, such as road maintenance, public transportation, and garbage collection, from reaching the citizens.

The economic situation in Nigeria is dire with very high unemployment and a very weak social safety net, which makes ghost worker corruption an attractive option for many. In addition to average citizens profiting from corruption, government officials have collected deceased workers’ pensions, accruing as much personal wealth as possible to maintain their lifestyles into retirement.

The problem of ghost workers cuts to the core of the challenge of fighting corruption in Nigeria, and as such does not have a simple solution. More robust social service programs and increased job creation would likely help, but would also be nearly impossible to implement as so many political stakeholders continue to benefit from the current system.