Holding ghosts accountable: Biometrics bring greater transparency to African public sector
08 May 2014 12:30 GMT

African nations are starting to address the issue of Ghost Workers using biometrics

This article is provided by Chris Palmer at Anviz Global. The company will be addressing this topic in more detail at IFSEC South Africa.

The insidious nature of corruption presents a formidable obstacle for the improvement of any society. It is difficult to define, and often it is even harder to trace. One of the main principles of corruption is that it often involves the abuse of power for personal gain. There are varying degrees of corruption. These grades often range from low and mid-level officials to high-ranking government workers, but it is not necessarily limited to the public sector.[i]

One of the more nuanced forms of corruption occurs through the employment of “ghost workers”. A ghost employee is an individual who is on a payroll but does not really work at that institution. With the use of false records the absent individual is able to collect wages for labour that is not undertaken.[ii] This issue is gaining special attention in numerous countries across sub-Saharan Africa, as governments attempt to address this issue. These countries have had varying success combating the issue of ghost workers.

Like all forms of corruption, ghost workers present a serious drain on state funds. It could be argued that in cases where it has reached enormous proportions, ghost workers are not merely a corruption problem, but rather a development issue. The state is paying the absentee-workers through public funds. Citizens rely on publicly-funded education, healthcare, transport, and security to function on a daily basis. The loss of public funds, in great-enough quantity surely is detrimental to the development of the state and country as a whole.

A prominent example of this can be seen in Kenya. While corruption is a major issue in Kenya, ghost workers have become especially strenuous on the state. It is believed that the Kenyan government is losing roughly 1.8 billion Kenyan Shillings, over 20 million U.S. dollars, per year to ghost worker payments.[iii]

While these statistics are certainly surprising, they are not unique to Kenya. Numerous other countries are attempting to deal with this issue, such as Ghana and South Africa.

When faced with a dilemma of this size, the task of reducing ghost employees seems extremely difficult. However, the Nigerian government has set up biometric identification registrars across the country. Biometric devices have been included at 300 payroll distribution centres. The devices have registered hundreds of thousands of federal employees based on their unique bodily features. Through biometric registration, thousands of non-existent or absent workers have been identified and removed from the database.[iv]

Through the use of biometrics, Nigerian civil service employees can be accurately identified. This has helped eliminate many duplicate registrations, removing ghost workers from the payroll. By the midway point of last year, the Nigerian government had saved 118.9 billion Naira, over 11 million U.S. dollars, by removing roughly 46,500 ghost workers from the employment system. It is believed that the monetary value saved during this process will increase, as the biometric devices have not been installed in all targeted facilities.[v]

Given the sometimes informal nature of corruption, it is generally an extremely difficult impropriety to stop. However, ghost employees are one area in which hardcopy documents can be utilized to ensure honesty. Reducing ghost employees is an attainable possibility with the use of biometrics. Corruption is a process that is embedded in societies across the globe. It comes in many forms and is often difficult to track.

With the use of biometrics, at least one form of this issue can be limited. This newfound money can then be re-directed towards other sectors that sorely need greater government funding.


[i] Transparency International’s Definition of Corruption
[ii] Definition of Fraud
[iii] Kenya loses 1.8 billion KS to ghost workers
[iv] Unmasking Ghost Workers
[v] Money saved from Nigeria case study