By the Blouin News World staff

Nigeria’s enduring phantom menace: ‘Ghost workers’

by in Africa.

Schoolchildren in Bauchi State, Nigeria. (Source: WaterAid Nigeria/flickr)

Schoolchildren in Bauchi State, Nigeria. (Source: WaterAid Nigeria/flickr)

by Erin Wright

Children as young as eight years old are teaching school in northeastern Nigeria, according to government payroll records.

A not-so-funny joke? An administrative error? An overly ambitious initiative to identify and train the next generation of Nigerian educators? Nope. None of the above — simply the latest chapter in a long-running scam.

The children of the state of Bauchi are pawns in a widespread fraud, known as “ghost working,” that has dogged the Nigerian economy for ages. With the government said to employ 1 million civil servants across 36 states, it’s easy to add the names of fictional characters, dead adults or live kids to the rolls that determine who draws a government salary.

The pattern has become all too familiar. Budget shortfalls or audits alert officials that there is a problem; thousands of phantom employees are frantically rooted out and purged, amid promises to nip the issue in the bud. Within weeks, a fresh cache of nonexistent workers is uncovered, and the cycle begins anew — adding to the government’s headache and to Nigeria’s reputation as a nation that has allowed rampant corruption to cripple economic growth, particularly in the private sector.

The “teachers” of Bauchi may represent one of the more egregious recent cases, but officials insist that thanks to a rigorous audit — driven by a push at the top to root out corruption at all levels — they have managed to kick off the payroll those who didn’t belong, saving the system millions of dollars.

Good thing, too, because with the oil industry — which was relied upon for two-thirds of Nigeria’s revenue as recently as in 2014 — in sharp decline, the government has taken to hunting down ghost workers in hope of cutting some of its losses.

Of course, in a country renowned for turning online scamming into an international art form, there remains one major question: Will any of that recouped money be used to pay Nigeria’s flesh-and-blood teachers — all of whom are more than eight years old and some of whom have gone unpaid for months?