By Haggai Matsiko
Can the ministry of Finance stop the thieves?
Butaleja district in eastern Uganda always has some of the worst performing schools in national primary and secondary level exams. In a recent report, the Butaleja District Education Officer, Philips Kalyebi, blamed the poor results on the pupils. He said more than 40% of school-going age children miss school and go into rice farming, which is the district’s craze. New information, however, suggests that Kalyebi might have to find another explanation.
An investigation by the ministry of Finance has found that, in fact, most schools in Butaleja are non-existent. They are what are commonly called “ghost” schools.
These are fake schools; with fake pupils and teachers, that are deliberately created by a racket of officials to swindle the government.
In the preliminary findings of the ministry of Finance Investigation, it was discovered that about Shs30 billion is swindled each year.
Officials from the ministry of Education, Public Service, and local government are possibly the main architects in a scam in which about Shs2.3 billion is stolen every month.
On average, a Primary school teacher earns Shs320, 000 a month, and a Secondary School teacher, Shs500, 000. The money being stolen each month is enough to pay 5000 secondary school teachers and 8000 in primary.
In all, the investigation has unearthed 221 ghost schools with registered pupils paid for by the government, teachers earning salaries.
Butaleja district, with 78, has the highest number of ghost schools. It is closely followed by Kayunga with 73 and Mubende with 37 among others. That is why the Butaleja DEO needs to find another explanation for the district’s poor performance – together with the Minister of Education, Jessica Alupo.
By the time of going into print, The Independent had failed to contact the DEO, Philips Kalyebi. However, we succeeded in reaching the minister.
But Alupo declined to comment on the investigation findings and instead referred us to the Permanent Secretary, whose known telephone numbers were not on.
When The Independent told Emmanuel Dombo, the MP for Bunyole County East in Butaleja that his district had 78 ghost schools, he sounded shocked.
“78 ghost schools, is that possible?” Dombo said, “I would like to first be sure of the figures but if that is the case, it should be easy to trace and punish the culprits.”
He is right.
Ghosts have for long hogged into and crippled Uganda’s budget.
On June 13 President Yoweri Museveni had a terse message for government officials: “I will not tolerate any further financial waste and the issue of ghosts must stop immediately”.
Even before Museveni’s public warning, ministry of Finance officials had already started scouring the payrolls for ghosts.
With his bosses breathing down his neck, the Permanent Secretary/Secretary to the Treasury, Keith Muhakanizi appears to have increased his pace.
Since the ministry of Education also carries out school, pupils and teachers census, officials at the ministry of finance decided to compare the lists from the accounting officers and those from the ministry of Education.
In most of the cases, the ministry of Education had more schools, pupils and teachers than those submitted by the local governments, the findings show.
For instance, while the local governments submitted 10,037 schools, the ministry of Education’s school list exceeded this by 221 schools.
The findings also reveal a big variance between the number of pupils and students that enrolled for Primary One and Senior One and those that sat Primary Seven and Senior Six.
In another case, the Accounting Officers submitted 5,442,547 as the number of enrolled pupils, but the number of the ministry of Education is bigger than this by 402,957 pupils.
John Muwanga, the Auditor General after a review of UPE in 2013 indicated that the government was losing billions of shillings to ghost pupils and teachers.
Poor districts like Butaleja have also been budgeting massively for the education sector. According to Dombo, Shs8.4 billion of the Shs17 billion of 2013/2014 Butaleja district budget was hogged by education.
Particularly, the Auditor General discovered, several registered pupils were missing examinations yet government paid for their registration (PLE fees).
The findings by Finance reveal similar concerns.
For instance, while a total of 1,181,938 enrolled for Primary One, only 395,818 sat Primary Leaving Examinations (PLE). This means that 66.5% of the students that enrolled for P.1 never made it to P.7 or that of every 100 students that enrolled for P.1, 67 never made it to P.7. Where did they disappear?
While a case can be made for high school dropout rates in Uganda, officials say that this discrepancy is best explained by ghosts.
The officials say that while the racketeers could manage to create as many ghosts between P.1 and P.6, they invariably had to drop them in P.7 because of the national exam; the Primary Leaving Exam.
It is argued that while fake pupils could be created in distant districts like Butaleja between P.1 and P.6, the documentation required for PLE candidates was too elaborate to be forged.
The impact of the ghosts, officials say, is that government’s meagre resources have for several years been splashed on the ghosts instead of real students, schools and teachers.
Last year, Ministry of Education bosses complained that while enrolment to primary increased from 8,337,069 in 2012 to 8,390,674 in 2013 and that of the secondary, from 1,251,507 in 2012 to 1,257,378 in 2013, their budget had not changed much. They wanted more money.
Instead, the Minister of Finance, Maria Kiwanuka, in the 2014/15 budget slashed the Education ministry budget to Shs1.7 trillion from last year’s Shs1.8 trillion.
There has also been restlessness in the Education ministry with endless strikes by teachers over pay and a host of other issues.
James Tweheyo, the General Secretary, Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU), told The Independent that it is clear now instead of allocating teachers to schools and paying them; officials in the racket would create pseudo names, and pay them.
“This would give an impression that the schools sealing for the teachers was full when in actual sense, the teachers were non-existent,” he says.
Tweheyo, a former Head Teacher of Nyakayojo Secondary School located in Mbarara, western Uganda, says that the biggest problem was at the district level.
“Personnel at the district level would hide the details such that the headmasters and teachers would not see them and even the CAO (chief accounting officer of the district) would not see them,” he says.
“These officials had become small gods, they would delete and reinstate. In some cases, those who were very corrupt would demand a chunk of the arrears, if they were to reinstate a teacher on the payroll.”
In Kalangala district, for instance, the UNATU secretary general, Tweheyo says that while 1825 were on payroll as staff, after verification, it was discovered that Kalangala had less than 600 workers. The same verification showed that story was the same as in Luuka and Manafwa districts.
Some teachers also noted that politicians were conniving with the office of the DEO and CAO to carry out incessant transfers. Transfers, UNATU’s Tweheyo says, is one of the ways through which officials create ghost teachers.
“It is because of situations like these that you have some teachers spending years and years without ever being part of the payroll,” Tweheyo said.
As for ghost schools, Tweheyo believes that there is a possibility that the ministry of education may have been spending this money on private schools.
“Of course, this means that influential people able to finance their schools have using money that should have been allocated to public schools,” Tweheyo says, “These issues are at the heart of the poor performance and poor quality of public schools.”
The findings are part of a process of reforms that Keith Muhakanizi, the Treasury Secretary and his army of technocrats at the ministry of Finance embarked on last year to clean the government payroll.
Maria Kiwanuka had told parliament in 2013 that the clean-up could save government up to Shs70 billion that is lost in the irregularities on the payroll especially, the proliferation of ghosts.
To reform the payroll, Muhakanizi and his technocrats chose to decentralise it and create a new system all together called the Integrated Personnel Payroll System (IPPS).
The system was only rolled out this year. The switch from the old and flawed system to the new one partly explains why thousands of civil servants have spent several months without pay, the officials say.
Recently, Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga ordered a select committee of MPs to investigate claims that an estimated 9,000 public sector employees had gone for months without pay.
A 2012 special audit by the Auditor General on government’s salaries and wages showed that government had lost Shs34 billion due to irregularities in the payroll.
Another 2013 partial report by the Auditor General on the government payroll found and recommended that over 8,000 ghost names be deleted from the government payroll. The report was as a result of validation of only 34% of the payroll.
An August 2012 Commission of Inquiry Report into the mismanagement of funds under UPE and USE report noted that ghost teachers and pupils were amongst the education sector.
The commission found that some districts were deducting, inflating and sometimes mismanaging money disbursed by the government and recommended that government considers releasing UPE funds directly from Finance to the respective schools.
“The failure to carry out regular inspection of all schools and compile quarterly reports hampered ability to assess the compliance of schools with expenditure and other UPE guidelines and financial accountability,” a report by the Auditor General reported.
It is these findings that Treasury Secretary Keith Muhakanizi to attempt to clean up the payroll by ensuring that responsibility for management and approval of the final payroll and salary payments moves from the ministry of Public Service to accounting officers.
In his new reforms, Muhakanizi has also asked school head-teachers to file quarterly reports.
Under the new system, the ministry of Public Service will still be responsible for verification and generation of the preliminary payroll on the basis of pay change reports submitted by local governments, Muhakanizi says.
But it is the accounting officers that will have the final authority to verify and effect payment to individual bank accounts of the public servants.
In all this, the ministry of finance will only ensure adequate budgeting and issue payment based on invoices generated and approved by accounting officers through the Integrated Financial Management System (IFMS).
CAO on the spot
Apart from the new system, the ministry of finance has directed accounting officers to print and display monthly payrolls on public notice boards for scrutiny. This is one of the demands that teachers raised with governments.
In the new system, Muhakanizi ordered that each local government’s accounting officer compiles lists of pupils, teachers and schools in their area, and sends it to the ministry of Public Service. The ministry of Public Service then forwards it back to the local government accounting officers and the ministry of Finance at the same time.
Then the CAO also forwards them after verification to the ministry of Finance, which pay through the Central Bank. Before money is wired to personal accounts, the accounting officer must first certify and approve. In case of ghosts, they will be liable.
What the new system does in brief is that “it rests final responsibility with the accounting officers, which wasn’t the case in the old system,” an official at the ministry of finance said.
Apart from the new payroll system, teachers will also be receiving their payslips and the names of the workers will be published on the noticeboards of local governments.
However, even with this new system challenges remain. A June report by the Select committee on Salary Anomalies in the Uganda Public Service found that the migration of employee data on to the IPPS resulted into massive errors.
These errors, apart from explaining delayed payment, over and under payment of salaries also led to the existence of ghosts on the payroll.