Whistleblower policy: A remarkable first year as weapon against corruption

By Godwin Onyeacholem

“We can only achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development if every nation has strong, transparent and inclusive institutions, based on the rule of law and supported by the public.” — UN Secretary-General, António Guterres

Today, December 9, 2017, is International Anti-corruption Day (IACD). The day has been observed annually since the passage of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) on 31 October, 2003. The Convention requires state parties to the treaty “to implement several anti-corruption measures that focus on five main areas: prevention, law enforcement, international cooperation, asset recovery, and technical assistance and information exchange.”

The theme of this year’s celebration is: “United against corruption for development, peace and security.” According to information made available by the United Nations, “Every year $1 trillion is paid in bribes while an estimated $2.6 trillion are stolen annually through corruption – a sum equivalent to more than 5 per cent of the global GDP. In developing countries, according to the United Nations Development Programme, funds lost to corruption are estimated at 10 times the amount of official development assistance. Corruption is a serious crime that can undermine social and economic development in all societies. No country, region or community is immune.”

In Nigeria, this month also marks the first anniversary of the introduction of the whistleblower policy by the federal government. The policy has been described as a remarkable addition to the war against corruption in the country.

Corruption is widely acknowledged by Nigerians as well as foreigners as the main cause of the country’s problems. The consequences of corruption over the years have continued to be devastating as can be seen in crippled growth and development, as well as unending rise in poverty in all corners of the country.

At different intervals, governments come promising to restrain the deadly scourge, but exit quietly after each has surpassed the other in erecting abominable legacies of corruption. Such has been the despicable trend that citizens have been overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

Although the current government under the leadership of President Muhammadu Buhari came with the same promise, it has so far shown that it is a completely different broom as far as tackling corruption is concerned. Unlike its predecessors, it has demonstrated the political will and the determination to fight corruption by carrying out institutional reforms and introducing anti-corruption strategies aimed at significantly reducing corruption in the body polity.

Some of these measures include enforcing the Treasury Single Account (TSA), the adoption of Integrated Payroll Personnel and Information System (IPPI), the setting up of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), the adoption of the whistleblower policy, the signing of multilateral cooperation agreements on criminal matters, and the creation of Special Anti-corruption Courts.

All this added momentum to the war against corruption, but none among the components deployed in the campaign has manifested greater impact than the whistleblower policy which the Federal Government announced in December 2016 through Kemi Adeosun, the Minister of Finance. The policy is warehoused in the Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit (PICA), a unit in the headquarters of the Ministry of Finance with Dr. Mohammed Dikwa as Secretary. 

The policy has yielded such enormous dividend that one year after, it is drawing loud cheers for its efficacy which seems to have renewed the hope of the citizenry that the monster of corruption can after all be considerably tamed if government is determined to confront it.

Though whistleblowing is not new as citizens are legally and morally obligated to report crime/wrongdoing, the fresh enthusiasm being witnessed in the people is the result of the new packaging the policy has received from the government. This includes its official pronouncement as a policy and a vital plank in the fight against corruption especially as regards the looting of public funds by government officials and politically exposed persons, a reward of between 2.5% and 5% of the amount recovered if the information provided is original and directly leads to the recovery of stolen or concealed funds or assets, as well as a commitment to the safety and protection, including anonymity, of anyone daring enough to blow the whistle.

No doubt, these incentives have led to increased public interest in engaging the initiative. In less than six months, whistleblowing resulted in the recovery of staggering amounts of looted funds, thus proving to be an effective and reliable mechanism for combating the one singular vice that seems to have permanently arrested the development of Nigeria since independence.

For example, in February 2017, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) raided a home in Kaduna belonging to Andrew Yakubu, former Group Managing Director of Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) and recovered $9.2m and £75,000 from a safe. In March, the anti-graft agency intercepted N49m at Kaduna Airport, and in April bundles of cash worth $43m (about N13b), £27,800 and N23m were seized from a flat in Ikoyi, Lagos. All of this were made possible by whistleblowing.

In February, Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture, announced that whistleblowing led to the recovery of $151m and N8bn said to have been looted under the administration of former President, Goodluck Jonathan. He said the monies were recovered from three sources through whistleblowers who gave actionable information to the office of the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice. According to him, this amount did not include the $9.2m recovered from the residence of the former NNPC boss. As of June 2017, N11.6bn had been recovered and about N375.8m paid to 20 whistleblowers.

By the middle of August, total communications received by the Ministry of Finance through the various channels rose from 2,150 to 5000 representing 43% increase, while actionable tips jumped from 205 to 365, representing 56.2% increase. According to Adeosun, more than half of the actionable tips came from civil servants. It will be nice to see the enthusiasm whistlebliwing has generated in the public sector replicated in the private sector.

For announcing whistleblowing as a policy to rein in corruption, government deserves full commendation. But more needs to be done in terms of creating awareness, ensuring speedy passage of the whistleblower protection bill, providing the required expertise and tools for PICA, ensuring the integrity of the process, and guaranteeing the safety and protection of citizens who summon the courage to blow the whistle.

Hopefully, in the coming year, when PICA gets the required tools and the full complement of personnel trained in the art of managing the whistleblowing programme, the kind of embarrassing confusion and the undue delay now playing out regarding the Ikoyi whistleblower(s), would not repeat itself.

In addition to the aforementioned recommendations, it is important for government to seriously examine a well-considered demand by well-meaning citizens for the management of the whistleblowing unit to be detached from bureaucrats and handed to an independent body of professionals so as to obtain the trust and confidence of the populace in the policy.     

Meanwhile, as expected, there have been reprisals. In the last one year, many whistleblowers have been visited with all forms of retaliation or discrimination at the workplace linked to or resulting from whistleblowing. A few examples will suffice here.

Ntia Thompson, an Assistant Director and Head of Servicom in the Department of Technical Cooperation in Africa (DTCA), an agency of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was sacked outright for reporting fraud in the agency. Only the persistent efforts of some civil society groups and the media ensured his reinstatement after almost six months in limbo. However, in continuation of his persecution, the re-absolved whistleblower was sent to the library. To assuage the attendant trauma, he sought transfer and has since resumed at the Federal Ministry of Budget and National Planning.

For detecting fraud and not succumbing to persuasions to cooperate in a cover-up, Murtala Ibrahim, and his boss, Taslim Anibaba, both auditors at the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria (FMBN), were relieved of their duties. Murtala was dismissed outright in May, while Anibaba was suspended in August. Despite a directive from Babatunde Fashola, SAN, Minister of Power, Works and Housing who supervises the Bank, ordering their immediate reinstatement, only Anibaba was reluctantly reinstated on December 5.

And on 30 November, Aaron Kaase, a senior officer with the Police Service Commission (PSC), got a relief when a judgment of the National Industrial Court returned him to office after being on suspension since May 2015 for petitioning the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and EFCC alleging fraud against Mike Okiro, a former Inspector General of Police and Chairman of the PSC. And there are many more workers out there suffering persecution whose cases are not yet public.   

Then, there is the troubling realization that many Nigerians are still not aware that there is a policy designed to mobilize citizens to take active part in the fight against corruption by blowing the whistle. But thankfully, through the support of MacArthur Foundation, the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), an Abuja-based non-governmental organization dedicated to media literacy training and advocacy, as well as promoting accountability and good governance, has stepped in to complement the efforts of government in promoting the policy and ensuring its successful implementation.

Since July this year, AFRICMIL under its Corruption Anonymous (CORA) project has embarked on advocacy visits to the media and other stakeholders and lined up a series of focused public education to promote the policy as a useful tool for fighting corruption. The project was formally unveiled on October 12 in Abuja, and was followed one month later with a national stakeholders’ summit on whistleblowing also in Abuja. And to mark the International Anti-corruption Day, the Centre convened a media dialogue on December 7 to provide the opportunity for journalists as critical stakeholders to examine the first year of the whistleblower policy.

There is no doubt that one year on, the whistleblower policy has proven to be an effective and reliable weapon in the anti-corruption war. As Bolaji Owasanoye, professor of law and Chairman-designate of ICPC, rightly observed, the policy has challenged two ingrained negative cultures in the Nigerian society: the culture of silence and the culture of acquiescence. Through the policy, citizens now know they can no longer be silent when they see acts of corruption or any other crime being committed, or quietly approve the perpetration of corruption or other crimes without protesting.

If only citizens would resist the temptation to focus on the reward side of the policy and be genuinely motivated by the patriotic desire for a drastic reduction in corruption, whistleblowing will continue to thrive as a viable tool for enhancing accountability and good business environment in Nigeria. 

Godwin Onyeacholem is with the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL). He can be reached through gonyeacholem@gmail.com