6 December 2017

Nigeria: A Whistleblower Policy Burdened By Distrust

editorial

That a faithful implementation of the Whistleblower Policy of the Federal Government has to be challenged in court by supposed benefactors or beneficiaries barely a year after it was instituted poses a threat to the continued effectiveness and, therefore, usefulness of the policy.

Even worse, the credibility of the Federal Government is put in doubt. And to allow this to continue would be unfortunate and condemnable.

The Federal Government announced the policy in December 2016 to encourage well-meaning and patriotic citizens to volunteer reliable information on unethical practices in public life. It is one tool to, on the one hand, discourage a wide range of acts of corruption in high places and on the other, to recover stolen public funds and property.

Specifically, the policy is intended to, among other objectives, 'improve the level of public confidence in public entities, enhance transparency and accountability in the management of public funds, improve Nigeria's Open Government Ranking... , and (yield) funds that can be deployed to finance Nigeria's infrastructure deficit.' No one will fault these laudable objectives.

And in order to encourage citizens' involvement, a reward of between 2.5 per cent and 5 per cent of recovered money goes to a whistle blower who, as an act of good faith and purely in public interest, provides exclusive information beyond what is already known to the authorities, on the mismanagement or theft of public funds and assets such as procurement fraud, over- invoicing, contract-splitting, diversion of revenues, bribery, and under-reporting of revenue and violation of public procurement procedures. The policy- and this is crucial to its workability- also provides for the protection of the whistle blower.

Whistleblowing policy is not original to this country although the level of corruption in public life is exceptional. In many jurisdictions, big and small, it has gone beyond mere policy pronouncement into pieces of legislation. In the United Kingdom is the Public Interest Disclosure Act, 1998; in South Africa's the Protected Disclosures Act, 2000; Ghana has the Whistleblowers Act, 2006, South Korea has the Protection of Public Interest Whistleblower Act, 2011, and there is the United States' Whistleblower Protection Act, 1989.

It is also a law in such small countries as the Solomon Islands. And in these countries, the law works with minimum rancour because the rules are clear and it is implemented by people with no hidden agenda nor ill motives.

In principle, the Whistleblower Policy is well-intentioned and reasonably simple, and it appeared to be working smoothly such that, as at March this year - only months after it was put in place, the Federal Ministry of Finance which hosts the multi-agency unit that implements the Whistleblower Policy, said it received 2, 351 tips on a wide range of corrupt practices such as contract inflation, theft of salaries of ghost workers and disengaged workers, and illegal payments.

In June, only six months into the policy implementation, Minister of Finance Kemi Adeosun said that it had paid about N375.8 million to 20 whistle blowers whose information led to the recovery of N11.6 billion.

Finance minister was confident enough of the efficacy of the policy to proudly say that 'the payment underscores the commitment of the President Muhammadu Buhari administration to meet its obligation to information providers under the (policy), Alas, the machinations, the controversy, apparently orchestrated, the suspicious vacillation and the risk of exposure that has characterised the payment of the just reward to the whistleblower in the $43 million found in an Ikoyi flat has put in severe doubt the commitment of Buhari's government to play by the rules of its own policy.

Firstly, given that some whistle blowers have been paid before this, it is strange indeed that a simple procedure that clearly spells out on who gets what for what service is allowed, somehow, to develop complications between the claimant(s) and an agency of government.

The Federal Ministry of Finance (FMF) states, in respect of whistleblower's reward, that ' "a whistle blower responsible for providing the government with information that directly leads to the voluntary return of stolen or concealed public funds or assets may be entitled to anywhere between 2.5% - 5% of the amount recovered... " But a needless and embarrassing dispute reportedly arose about the amount accruable to the informant(s).

Secondly, the FMF states that 'there is a feedback mechanism where a whistle blower can independently monitor the status or progress report of tips submitted [because] the portal will generate a unique reference number. For such a major haul, over $40million, one cannot but wonder in dismay why there is no clear record with the relevant agency of signed statement by whosoever volunteered information.

The dangerous, and sad, consequence of the contrived tardiness is that, what should be 'a secret but noble transaction' has become public as the informant(s) are constrained to seek redress in court as well as put themselves at grave risk of retaliation.

The Ikoyi flat incident is just one of a number of incidents that put a huge question mark on the commitment of this government to being firm with unethical conduct.

Ntia Thompson of the Directorate of Technical Cooperation in Africa (DTA) was suspended in December 2016 and subsequently sacked from his job a few months later for exposing financial fraud to the tune of $229,000 and N800, 000 at his workplace. It took pressure on, and even an ultimatum by civic groups to the minister of Foreign Affairs to get Ntia recalled.

Murtala Ibrahim, once the head of Internal Audit Group in the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria, has been sacked for objecting to instructions that he professionally considered breaches of financial and other regulations. He is yet to get justice. And all these are happening in spite of the provisions of the whistleblower policy and an assurance by minister of information and culture, Lai Mohammed' that 'for those who may have suffered any backlash as a result of the information they provide, their cases will be reviewed and appropriate mitigating actions taken.'

Besides, the case of Abdulrasheed Maina gets 'curioser and curioser', to the continual embarrassment of this government. In truth, it is a shame that a government that espouses, ad nauseam, a commitment to fighting opacity in the conduct of its business can come to this pass.

While inaugurating the committee to audit recovered looted funds, President Buhari promised that 'never again as a nation, are we going to allow the wanton diversion and embezzlement of public funds to private pockets' adding that his government aims to avoid creating room for dishonourable conduct by any individual or agency.

The principles, not new anyway, are well articulated and sound nice to the hearing. But government must walk its talk to be taken seriously. In the much touted fight against corruption, there are too many loose ends waiting to be tied into a neat knot.

It must be said without equivocation that the Federal Government should honour the terms of its commitment to whistleblowers as provided in its own policy statement. If in its wisdom, government wishes to review the policy, it can as long as it improves effectiveness and implementation.

Also, the cause of the embarrassing controversy over who is entitled to the rewards or not needs to be investigated. Persons involved in an attempt to discredit the efforts against corruption -and by extension the government- must be exposed and punished.

For the anti-corruption effort to mean more than talk and paper work, it must be seen to be free from the burden of public distrust.

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