For years, there have been some half-hearted efforts to protect citizens who disclose corruption and malfeasance in the public sector. Now, even that feeble attempt is under threat. The anti-corruption war of the regime of President Muhammadu Buhari is gradually metamorphosing into an insipid campaign because of several reports of whistle-blowers being victimised, intimidated or unpaid even as corruption scandals continue to rock his regime. There should be a strong legal cover to protect citizens willing to put themselves at risk to uncover waste, fraud and abuse in government.
Not too long ago, a whistle-blower lamented that he had not been paid his reward two years after exposing a government account named, ‘NNPC Brass LNG INV. Fund’, housing funds in a bank to the tune of $223 million in contravention of the Treasury Single Account policy. Out of frustration, he has filed a suit before a High Court of the Federal Capital Territory, which has exposed his identity and put his life at risk. Nigerians will not forget in a hurry how a man who blew the lid on the $43 million cash in an apartment in Ikoyi, Lagos, struggled for over seven months to get part of his reward after being branded mentally unstable by the government. It took spirited efforts from his lawyer and widespread condemnation from Nigerians before he was eventually paid part of the money. This ought not to be so.
Ironically, the authorities are quick to arrest, expose and arraign whistle-blowers whose tips turn out to be false. No doubt, the adoption of whistle-blowing is a veritable tool in the fight against corruption here, but there has been no legal guarantee on the implementation of the policy in almost four years. An Act of parliament should be a firm warranty for the whistle-blower to get the reward and secure protection from harassment, intimidation and job loss.
Sadly, several attempts to create laws for the protection of whistle-blowers since 2008 have failed. This is not surprising since the powerful and wealthy are usually on the receiving end of the policy. The ‘Whistle-blower and Witness Protection Bill, 2019’ sponsored by a senator, Benjamin Uwajumogu, has failed to pass its first reading at the Senate since the sudden demise of its sponsor in February 2020. There must therefore be collaboration among all stakeholders, including civil society groups, to ensure that the bill does not end up in the dustbin of history like the previous ones.
According to the Attorney-General of the Federation, whistle-blowers will only be paid after all legal hurdles have been crossed. Unfortunately, the snail’s pace with which some of these cases progress in court could dampen the morale of whistle-blowers and undermine the success of the policy altogether. The suspended acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ibrahim Magu, captured this succinctly when he stated last year, “The whistle-blower policy is still working. Maybe most of the information we stumble on is not reliable and then from the information we have, it is the court process that is discouraging people, but we want to beg people to come with information.”
Magu stated that the $9.8m cash owned by a former Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation that was discovered in a dingy apartment in a Kaduna suburb in 2017 was still a subject of litigation; hence, the whistle-blower could not be paid. Such cases must therefore be given time limits like election cases since they are non-conviction based forfeitures.
Protection must be given to whistle-blowers while they wait for the process to conclude. According to reports, some of them are forced to quit their jobs, go underground and are subjected to harassment and intimidation while awaiting their reward. This is most unfortunate, unjust and could lead to the total failure of the policy.
There has also been a disturbing trend whereby whistle-blowers that expose secret government accounts operating outside of the TSA are told by the authorities that they were aware of the existence of such funds prior to the exposure and therefore the whistle-blowers are not entitled to rewards.
The reports emanating from the public service are equally discouraging. The draconian Official Secrets Act, which is a vestige of military dictatorship, needs to be repealed. The Act states that any person who obtains, reproduces or retains any classified document, which he is not authorised on behalf of government to obtain, may be guilty of an offence and liable to conviction. Both journalists and public officials have been hounded, detained and sometimes arraigned based on this Act.
The Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre, which is Transparency International’s chapter in Nigeria, revealed the reasons Nigeria dropped in ranking to 146 out of 180 countries on the Corruption Perception Index. It stated in January, “Government has a whistle-blower policy, yet whistle-blowers are attacked and sometimes even sent to jail! Even governmental data recently launched through the Second Bribery Survey shows that Nigerians do not report corruption because they are afraid of repercussions.”
States can also lead the way by promulgating laws that encourage whistle-blowing and deepen the fight against corruption. It should not be left to the Federal Government or else it would fail to live up to its potential like the Freedom of Information Act.
It is increasingly becoming clear that whistle-blowers are the first line of defence against corruption, crime and cover-ups. It is high time the whistle-blower policy became a reality and for parliament to actually protect those who witness wrongs and try to make the government better or at least live up to its mandate. In 1998, the United Kingdom granted whistle-blowing some legal protection in certain circumstances under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, which was the first of its kind in the European Union. Essentially, fighting corruption or any other form of crime can only be successful when those who are willing to expose such vices are guaranteed of their safety and reward. An anti-corruption campaign in which the people do not trust that their lives would be protected after blowing the whistle is dead on arrival.