The African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL) on December 17 welcomed the public to a national stakeholders’ summit organised to assess the impact of Nigeria’s whistleblower policy in fighting corruption in the country.
Representatives of civil society groups, anti-graft agencies, the media, lawyers, human rights defenders, and citizen activists converged on Rockview Royale Hotel in the capital Abuja to appraise the whistleblower policy approved by the Federal Executive Council on December 21, 2016.
The summit was organised in partnership with the Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit (PICA), a unit in the Ministry of Finance responsible for managing the policy, with support from the MacArthur Foundation.
The policy in theory states that whistleblowers’ “confidentiality will be maintained to the fullest extent possible within the limitations of the law.” The policy offers protection for any whistleblower “who has made a genuine disclosure” in good faith, and also promises that “restitution shall be made to the whistle-blower for any loss suffered” as a result of harassment, intimidation or victimisation.
Aaron Kaase, a whistleblower who lost his job in May 2015 after he petitioned the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) to expose corruption in the Police Service Commission, said in practice the whistleblower policy is ineffective as government agencies are failing to protect whistleblowers.
“I am an example,” Mr Kaase said. “For three years plus, I was out of work. I went to the Presidential Committee on Anti-Corruption, the Ministry of Justice, the Presidential Adviser on Corruption, nothing came out of it. I only came back to work because I went to court.”
Corruption Anonymous (CORA), an accountability and good governance project of AFRICMIL, fought for Mr Kaase’s reinstatement. CORA has been supporting other whistleblowers who have suffered persecution, including having their identities exposed, loss of livelihood, and threats for blowing the whistle on corruption in Nigerian public institutions.
Participants at the whistleblower summit presented findings, shared personal experiences, made observations on the government’s anti-corruption fight, and gave recommendations amidst concerns that the culture of whistleblowing in Nigeria was declining despite the existence of the policy.
Femi Falana, a human rights lawyer and whistleblower who chaired the summit, called on Nigerians to see “this as a policy of Nigeria and not of the [President Muhammadu] Buhari government.”
He reminded the public that the introduction of the policy two years ago to fight corruption was sequel to the “deliberate refusal” of the National Assembly to pass a whistleblower bill which has been in parliament since 2007.
During a discussion panel moderated by Maxwell Kadiri, a legal officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative, participants concurred that the whistleblower policy needs adequate legislative backing to expand its scope and impact.
Panellists dissecting the policy were Musikilu Mojeed, Editor-in-Chief at Nigeria’s Premium Times newspaper; Vivian Mma Odi, acting General Secretary of Alliance for Credible Elections; Idayat Hassan, Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development; Frank Tietie, Executive Director of Citizens Advocacy for Social & Economic Rights; and Oluwole Ojewale, Assistant Programme Manager at CLEEN Foundation.
Mr Tietie said a whistleblower policy would not be needed if security agencies were effective in fighting corruption. He advocated for greater public awareness of whistleblowing across all sectors, with a special focus in the financial sector.
“A focus should be on the banks because the real people who see corruption are those in the banks,” Mr Tietie said.
Mr Ojewale said effectively fighting corruption should be at sub-national levels. He advocated for the federal government to exercise influence, while negotiating bailouts and providing other support, in getting state and local governments to adopt whistleblowing beyond federal government policy.
“You cannot fight corruption at the realm of policy. You need an enabling law. This is because any government can decide to kick a policy aside, but not a law,” Mr Ojewale said.
The high point of the summit was the call for members of the National Assembly and State Houses of Assembly to prove to Nigerians their sincerity in fighting corruption by passing whistleblower bills in the interest of the public.
Other identified challenges to the policy, aside from the lack of a legal framework and the inadequate measures in place to ensure anonymity and protection of whistleblowers, include lack of adequate public awareness, lack of trained manpower, and bottlenecks in investigations due to inter-agency bureaucracies and rivalry.
Participants lamented the impunity associated with the lack of diligent prosecution for mostly politically linked persons exposed for corruption. All present agreed it would be impossible to win the trust of citizens to report corruption when corrupt persons are not punished but whistleblowers are victimised.
Olayinka Aiyegbayo, representative of the Acting Chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) admitted that “workers victimisation is the major challenge we are facing in implementing the whistleblower policy.” He added that despite the policy’s shortcomings, the ICPC had recorded successes in sting operations due to information received from whistleblowers.
AFRICMIL provided data sourced from the Ministry of Finance stating that the whistle-blower policy led to the recovery of N7.8 billion, US$378 million and £27,800 as at October 2018. A total of 1,088 tips were received from whistle-blowers, out of which 41 cases were referred to law enforcement agencies, leading to 4 convictions and 12 ongoing prosecutions.
Mr Mojeed said that PICA’s data showed that despite not having legislative backing the whistleblower policy had achieved some success in the past two years. He however warned that the criminal prosecution of whistleblowers for giving false information coupled with the lack of anonymity and adequate protection against retaliation were impediments to would-be whistleblowers.
“You hardly can trust government institutions. Many people have more confidence to approach NGOs with sensitive information than go to government institutions,” he said. “Whistleblowing is growing in our country, but an enabling law is needed to adequately protect whistleblowers.”
Saminu Amaddin of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission said the success of the whistleblower policy in exposing high profile corruption cases in the past two years is majorly attributed to the inclusion of financial incentives which has encouraged citizens to blow the whistle and be rewarded between 2.5%-5.0% of recovered funds.
“The reward component in the policy has led to the recovery of staggering amounts of looted public funds. No doubt, people see this as a legitimate way of making money as many whistleblowers have become millionaires today,” Mr Amaddin said.
Some participants argued that whistleblowing ought to be motivated by patriotism. Citing cases of whistleblowers not paid their rewards, they raised concerns that prioritising financial rewards amounted to commercialising the policy. They noted that it leads to a situation where whistleblowers allow crimes to first occur before reporting in order to get rewarded, and government officials using information received from whistleblowers to enrich themselves.
Ms Hassan raised further concerns about who is monitoring government agencies that are collecting information from whistleblowers, about the transparency of government agencies in the process of recovering looted funds, and about the accountability of government agencies in the expenditure of recovered loot.
“If you really need people to believe that you are fighting corruption to make the lives of citizens better, then transparency in the process and accountability of funds is indispensable,” Ms Hassan said.
Ms Mma Odi reinforced participants’ review of two years of whistleblowing in Nigeria by stating that “the excitement of the whistle-blower policy has died.” She sounded a call to action for citizens led by civil society to “enter the battlefield” to get the National Assembly to pass the whistleblower bill.
Chido Onumah, AFRICMIL coordinator, said the centre would share findings from the summit’s review of the whistleblower policy with relevant government institutions as part of its advocacy strategy to promote whistleblowing in Nigeria.
“The summit has given everyone a very clear picture of whistleblowing and the fight against corruption in Nigeria in the past two years,” said Mr Onumah.
“It has also given us a new opportunity to take the summit’s findings to the National Assembly so that the salient information from the summit can help our legislators to see a reason to update the whistleblower bill and make it a stronger legislation for the benefit of all citizens.”
Mr Nkanga is of the Centre for Impact Advocacy, Abuja