Africa

Letter from Africa: Haunted by ghosts

Someone counting money in Kenya

In our series of letters from African journalists, media and communication trainer Joseph Warungu reflects on the Kenyan government's decision to pursue the ghosts that are haunting the public service.

Not many people in Kenya will admit they have seen a ghost.

But President Uhuru Kenyatta has seen not one, but thousands of them.

And no, they are not flying about invisibly around the International Criminal Court in The Hague, causing him sleepless nights.

These ghosts are apparently real, alive and well in his civil service - costing his government the equivalent of $1m (£620,000) in lost payments each month.

And so ignoring the urge to recruit a traditional healer, who might have offered a powerful concoction to smoke out the phantoms, this month the president went on a ghost hunt, armed with biometric technology.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The government hopes to free up money to improve living conditions
Image copyright AFP
Image caption A headcount of all civil servants is being done

He launched an exercise to document employees in the public service, so as to flush out ghost workers.

Known officially by the frightening name of the Capacity Assessment and Rationalisation of the Public Service, the biometric registration programme is expected to reduce the government wage bill and hopefully improve public service.

'Managed by phantoms'

It is not unusual in Kenya for a dead public worker to continue receiving a monthly salary.

It is not clear what kind of expenses these workers might be incurring in their graves.

I actually wonder why Kenyan banks have not considered installing ATM machines six feet under the ground to capture this lucrative activity by spirits.

Neither is it surprising to hear about staff who retire, or are sacked from government employment, continuing to get paid.

Indeed a number of judges and magistrates who were dismissed by the official vetting board were reportedly still earning salary months after being sent home.

Similarly, hundreds of soldiers who left military service more than seven years ago were also said to transform themselves into invisible attritions that pocketed pay cheques.

It remains a mystery why governments are usually unable to catch up with ghosts.

Could they be too scared of an encounter? Or perhaps the payroll system itself is programmed and managed by phantoms.

Kenya is by no means the only African country fighting ghosts.

Two months ago, Ghana said it had an estimated 3,000 invisible workers, who were costing the taxpayer about $120m.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The government is accused of failing to improve roads

And in Nigeria, the government earlier this year announced that it had discovered about 45,000 ghosts and taken them off the payroll, thus saving nearly $738m.

The Nigerian spooks were hunted down after a staff audit, and the implementation of its Integrated Payroll and Personnel Information system.

Kenya is only in its second week of ghost-busting, so it might be too early to say how successful the authorities will be in catching the invisible.

But there is a bigger problem affecting government workers: And that is ghost service.

'Spiritual cheque'

Quite often you will walk into a government office to find long queues of people waiting to receive an invisible service from an invisible official.

The civil servant's jacket will be seen hanging in an empty seat, but when you enquire about his whereabouts - you get ethereal answers:

"He's around."

"She's having tea."

"Come back at two."

"Leave your papers on the desk - you'll be served!"

But the servant and the service will be nowhere to be seen.

Image caption Queues are a way of life in Kenya

We also have haunted roads.

Sometimes when you consult an official map of roads, you will see a beautifully tarmac road, which was built or repaired at a cost of millions.

Yet when you drive to the actual location, no such road exists. Or it has simply a rocky donkey path - a ghost road.

President Kenyatta started his tenure of office by volunteering to take a pay cut to save the government wage bill.

He also personally launched the biometric registration of civil servants last week by having his own fingerprints taken.

So it is safe to assume that he is not a ghost president.

As he exorcises his civil service, Kenyans will expect that he can soon bravely declare that he has actually seen many ghosts, tackled them to the ground and that the fat civil service wage bill has truly gone on a diet.

But most importantly, many will hope that he will then switch his attention to turning the ghost service provided in public offices, into a real, timely, quality and efficient service, provided equally to all as the constitution of the land demands.

For the time being when I join a queue at the bank at the end of the month, I will still assume the rush of air around me is a ghost cashing their pay spiritual cheque.

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