By Angela Atabo, NAN
When President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office on May 29, 2015, one of his cardinal focus was the fight against corruption, because of his belief that “if we do not kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria.”
The fear of corruption became so palpable that the “body language” of the president assumed a warning signal.
Apart from launching some strategies to tackle the menace, the Buhari administration came up with the innovative whistle blowing policy, which was unveiled on December 21, 2016, by Kemi Adeosun, a former Minister of Finance.
A whistleblower is a person who exposes information or activity within a private or public organisation that is deemed to be illegal, illicit, unsafe, and fraudulent, or an abuse of taxpayers’ money.
According to the policy, a whistleblower that provides information about any financial mismanagement or ‘stolen’ funds to the ministry’s portal would be rewarded with between 2.5 per cent and five per cent of the recovered funds.
At its early stage, the whistle blowing policy was greeted with tremendous ovation and enthusiasm as courageous citizens voluntarily disclosed information about fraud, bribery, looted public funds and assets, financial misconduct and other forms of gratification or theft to anti-graft agencies.
Consequently, massive responses were recorded. Billions of supposedly looted funds were discovered, arrests made and legal cases instituted against suspects.
According to the Permanent Secretary, Special Duties in the finance ministry at the time, Muhammad Dikwa, the federal government had saved as much N594.09 billion since the inception of the policy.
However, rather than receiving more tips and seeing corrupt practices and illicit financial flows exposed on a wider scale, the ministry started witnessing a decline in the desire of citizens to submit reports because of safety concerns following the unpleasant experiences of early whistleblowers.
This fear is informed by the fact that the policy has not provided adequate protection for whistle-blowers, thus leaving them exposed to attacks when corruption fights back.
This fear has made whistle blowing unattractive as those who initially embraced the policy have either lost their jobs or are struggling to save themselves, with no help coming from the government that invited citizens to join the fight against corruption by blowing the whistle.
Taiye Abegunde, an academic, lamented that rather than the whistleblowers becoming heroes for exposing corruption, they had become the victims.
“The aftermath came with unmitigated persecution, intimidation and victimisation at workplace, and many were suspended or dismissed from their jobs,” he said.
One of the whistleblowers, Joseph Akeju, a chief lecturer at the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos, was dismissed from work just two weeks to his retirement from public service because he dared to report financial irregularities to the tune of N1.68 billion perpetrated between March 2008 and 2014. To date, his case has not been resolved even with the intervention of the Senate Committee on Public Petitions.
Murtala Ibrahim, an Internal Auditor with the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria, who exposed corruption in the bank, did not bargain for the retribution that followed. He was first transferred to Jalingo in Taraba State and later had his appointment terminated in May 2017. Ibrahim is currently at the National Industrial Court trying to get his job back.
Joseph Ameh, an architect and head of the physical planning division had in 2020 exposed some corrupt practices at the Federal College of Education, Asaba. Although the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission found merit in his petition by taking those found culpable in the crime to court, the school sacked Ameh months later.
He has since been languishing without job or any other means of livelihood and all pleas to ICPC to help him get his job back have not received a favourable response.
Similarly, Sambo Abdullahi, Head of Internal Audit, Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading, NBET Plc had his salaries and other allowances withheld for about three years for daring to blow the whistle on the shady deals of his boss.
Recounting his ordeal, Abdullahi said, “I went to work for almost three years without pay. During that period, I had no money and could not make ends meet. I had to depend on family and friends to survive.
“Everybody suffered it; my children felt it, my wife, my mother. There was a day we went out and my son said, ‘Dad I would have asked you to buy us Shawarma, but we know you do not collect salary.’ They knew what it meant and unfortunately I did not prepare for such, because I thought I was doing something good.”
Other victims of whistle blowing retaliation include Ntia Thompson, who was Assistant Director at the time he reported fraud against his boss, Mr Mohammed Kachalla, at the Department of Technical Cooperation in Africa, DTCA, an agency of the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Jaafar Jaafar, an investigative journalist, exposed the video of Abdullahi Ganduje, governor of Kano State, as he was stuffing bales of dollars said to be bribe money allegedly paid by a contractor.
And of course, Aaron Kaase, Chief Information Officer at the time at the Police Service Commission, PSC, who blew the whistle on a former Chairman of the Commission, Mr Mike Okiro. Kaase was suspended without pay for three years and, in between, was harassed regularly and even had his life threatened.
According to him, “The reprisal attack from the person I blew the whistle against was massive because he was using police to harass me.”
The key thing to do is legislation because for now, there is no law to specially protect whistleblowers.
If the National Assembly can pass that law, it should spell out protection measures for whistleblowers as well as spell out punitive measures for those who commit reprisal attacks.
Whistleblowers go through a lot, ranging from loss of jobs to suspension and non-payment of salaries.
Once we have a special legislation on whistleblowing, then Nigerians will be encouraged to blow the whistle.”
The News Agency of Nigeria discovered that most whistleblowers who became victims of exposing wrongdoing are now afraid to even speak publicly about their experiences.
Most of them said they would rather not recall the bad memories.
Theirs is a life of constant fear due to continuous threats to themselves and members of their families, and an unending sadness that the government did not provide them with the protection they deserve.
“The worst part of it is that, in most cases, they do not even deal with the offenders or prosecute them,” one of the victims lamented.
The victims were unanimous that the national whistleblowing policy should have a victims’ fund that would support those who volunteer credible information.
They said this was necessary because corruption cases usually took long before they are finally concluded, thus consigning the whistleblower to prolonged suffering, with nothing to fall back on.
They added that because the exposed persons were mostly highly placed individuals with connections at the top levels, it was always difficult to conclude their cases on time as most of them have intense influence almost everywhere, including the media.
When asked if they would ever blow the whistle again, some of them replied with an emphatic “No.”
One of them said, “I won’t advise prospective whistleblowers to do it because of the situation on ground. Nobody should blow anything again because it is not a good experience, but if there is a law to protect them, why not?”
Another whistleblower, who craved anonymity, said blowing the whistle was a memory he would rather never talk about.
“The attitude to adhere strictly to punitive laws is key in fighting corruption, it is not the number of laws that matter; it is the attitude of people towards the laws. No need to go over what I went through, I do not want to talk about it.”
Kole Shettima, Africa Director of MacArthur Foundation, noted that the number of whistleblowers in the country had reduced, compared to when the policy started.
He observed that at the beginning of the policy, there were more people coming out to reveal individuals and institutions that were not doing things right.
“I see that the tempo has reduced because of certain reasons, including the fact that there is no adequate protection for them.
I think also that it is because there has been delay or no payment of incentives for whistleblowers, and I also think that informed the reason the policy has not been effective as it used to be.
So, we need to reconfigure the policy by setting stronger legal backing and ensuring that there is more transparency in the administration of the whistleblowing policy,’’ he said.
Mr Shettima also stated that lawyers play a critical role in the whistleblowing policy, because whistleblowers might be taken to court where lawyers’ support, experience and knowledge would be needed.
He therefore urged lawyers to help in providing pro bono services for people who are blowing the whistle to avoid reprisals.
Chido Onumah, coordinator, African Centre for Media and Information Literacy, AFRICMIL, said the whistleblowing policy was one of the creative additions to the fight against corruption by the current government.
Mr Onumah said this is why AFRICMIL, with support from the MacArthur Foundation, is funding journalists to carry out investigative reports to strengthen the policy.
He stated that the idea of the policy was to make citizens part of the fight against corruption, adding that the absence of protection of whistleblowers has slowed down citizens’ interest in it.
“There is no law to back the whole whistleblowing policy; therefore, citizens are not eager to blow the whistle because there is no legal guarantee that if they blow the whistle they are protected.”
Mr Onumah said whistleblower protection was essential in the whole process of whistleblowing.
According to him, countries like South Africa, Uganda and Ghana have gone ahead to put in place broad laws around whistleblowing to protect whistleblowers and define the parameters of whistleblowing.
Mr Onumah noted that if properly implemented, the policy would add value to the anti-corruption fight. He suggested that whistleblowers be made anonymous to protect their identity.
Sadiq Radda, the Executive Secretary, Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption, PACAC, agreed that there were some challenges.
According to him, the challenges include the fear of lack of protection of whistleblowers and the ulterior motive of a whistleblower who has a hidden agenda other than the desire to fight corruption.
Mr Radda also said some civil servants have turned whistleblowing into a business, adding that what they do was contract people and supply them with information for selfish reasons.
A member of the House of Representatives, Tunji Olawuyi, also agreed that there was need to expedite action on a law that would protect whistleblowers.
He said the lack of an enabling law has no doubt discouraged some prospective whistleblowers.
Mr Olawuyi urged well-meaning Nigerians and civil society organisations willing to end the menace of corruption in the country to come up with a private bill that would provide a necessary legal framework for whistleblowers to operate without fear of intimidation.
“At the moment, whoever blows the whistle is on his own and subject to threats from within and outside.
“Unless Nigerians have a sense of protection, see people against whom whistles were blown get punished, the policy will remain ineffectual,” the lawmaker said.