AKEEM NAFIU writes that although the whistleblowing policy of the federal government is yielding positive results, the need to give the policy a legal tooth becomes inevitable in view of incessant victimisation of whistle-blowers and threats to their lives
A top career civil servant, Mr. Ntia Thompson, was fired after sending a petition to the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), asking it to probe an allegation of fraud involving some top officials of the Directorate of Technical Cooperation in Africa (DTCA).
The move came just two months after the President Buhari-led administration, through the Executive Council of the Federation, approved the whistle-blowing policy, promising full protection and restitution for any informant against harassment, intimidation or victimisation.
Thompson had exposed alleged corruption by some officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he was an assistant director. He had tipped off the EFCC about an alleged fraud of$ 229,000 and N800, 000 in the ministry.
The money was allegedly approved for the Directorate of Technical Cooperation in Africa but was diverted by key officials. After raising the alarm, Thompson asked for police protection.
But he was not given as the police in its report dismissed his claims of threat to life as false. Instead, Thompson was queried, suspended and dismissed.
It is not different in Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta (FUUNAB), where no fewer than 23 members of staff were relieved of their jobs by the University Council for allegedly blowing the whistle on the institution’s alleged financial impropriety involving some top officials.
The same scenario had also played out in some institutions save private individuals whose looted funds were blown open and the blowers are enjoying a form of protection of sort. Also, a whistle-blower, Mr. Aaron Kaase was allegedly suspended by the Police Service Commission (PSC).
In a petition to the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Babachir Lawal, a right group, the Civil Society Network Against Corruption (CSNAC) called for the immediate reinstatement of the whistle-blower.
In the petition signed by CSNAC’s chairman, Olanrewaju Suraju, the group urged Lawal to urgently beam corruption searchlight on the report of the whistle-blower against the commission.
Suraju, in the petition, also called for the suspension of the commission’s indicted Director of Admin and Finance, Emmanuel Ibe. According to the petition, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), had on February 22 arraigned Ibe before Justice C.N. Oji of an Abuja High Court on a ninecount charge bordering on alleged N11.75million fraud.
Ibe, the petition said, was alleged to have paid the money to some staff of PSC in March 2015 as airfare and airport taxi allowances to travel to seven states within Nigeria on official duties even while there were no connecting flights from Abuja to these states, thereby contravening Section 19 of the Corrupt Practices and Other Offences Act 2000.
But CSNAC noted that, despite the allegations levelled against him, Ibe had remained at his duty post as the indicted official was likely to use his office to interfere with investigation and destroy evidence while Kaase, who alerted the government about the fraud, has remained on suspension since May 2015 without pay, even as his efforts facilitated the ICPC investigations which prompted the PSC to refund N133m to government coffers.
Although the group has called for the immediate interdiction of Ibe from work as Director Administration and Finance of PSC to enable ICPC carry out unhindered investigation and prosecution, it sought the prosecution of others indicted, asking for reinstatement of the whistle-blower, Kaase, stressing that all his outstanding salaries, allowances and other benefits due to him be paid. Whistle-blowing policy was introduced by the federal government last year to boost the recovery of stolen public assets.
President Muhammadu Buhariled administration unveiled the policy to curb corruption and boost economic recovery. Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun announced a reward of between 2.5 and 5 per cent of recovered loot to whistle-blowers. Already, the policy is yielding results. It was through a whistleblower that the federal government recovered $151million and $8billion in February.
This is apart from the $9.8million and 74, 000 pounds the EFCC recovered from Andrew Yakubu, a former Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in Kaduna.
In December, a tip-off from artisan led to the discovery by the EFCC of 47SUVs, buses, trucks and 100 motorcycles parked in a house by a retired permanent secretary.
It is also through whistle-blowing policy that 17 cars were found in Kaduna warehouse of a former Customs Comptroller-General. In Osborne Road, Ikoyi, Lagos, EFCC last week recovered $43mil-lion shortly after another N43million was discovered in Balogun warehouse.
Already, a human rights organisation, the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) has threatened to drag Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Geoffrey Onyeama to court if Mr. Thompson was not recalled.
SERAP in a letter dated March 10 and signed by its deputy director, Timothy Adewale, urged the minister to use his position to facilitate the immediate and unconditional reinstatement of Mr. Thompson within seven days of the receipt of its letter failure which it will take appropriate legal action.
Besides, the organization said the minister must “act swiftly to comply with the whistle-blowing policy of the government of President Muhammadu Buhari, and the international standards which guarantee full protection and restitution for any whistle-blower against harassment, intimidation, victimisation or any form of retaliation.”
However, this is a pointer to the fact that corruption has indeed eating deep into the fabric of many public institutions in the country, particularly in the face of non-denial of the condemnable act by the Ministry.
Government should do everything to ensure that justice is done in the matter and if it was found out that Thompson had only raised false alarm, his case should be treated in accordance with civil service rules, and the public must be duly informed to put it beyond doubt that he is not being victimised for doing his patriotic duty Lawyers speak Some members of the wig and gown have also bared mind their mind on victimization of whistleblowers. They were rooting for legal protection for whistle-blowers.
The lawyers while speaking at the weekend emphasized the need for the government to ensure that it was backed by law as the policy would remain as mere administrative invention without any legal backings.
They are of the view that government should have a way of protecting the whistle-blowers even in the absence of any law without infringing on the provisions empowering agencies of government to be responsible enough to keep state and official secrets.
Deacon Dele Adesina, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), asked government to urgently put a legislation that would protect whistleblowers in place. He said: “Generally speaking, the policy on whistle-blowing is a positive one for proper and good governance and not just for the purposes of effective anti-corruption war.
“But the point is that when a system is imported, it must be imported wholesale. By the time you do that, all that needs to be done is to introduce a bill to the National Assembly.
“This country is a very complex one and unfortunately, a lot of people in power see themselves as bigger than both the government and the people. “When leaders begin to see them-selves as servants of the people, then, they will know that things ought to be done properly.
“If there is a law protecting whistle-blowers, anyone who flouts the law can then be prosecuted for offences against the provisions of the law. I believe that what the government needs to do by way of Executive Bill is to contact the National Assembly and sought its early passage.
“The present situation of things can serve as disincentive to the policy and if all that we have been reading in the newspapers are anything to go by the policy is a good one. But, it should be backed up by law.”
Another Senior Advocate, Mr. Norrisson Ibinabo Quakers said that law enforcement agencies were not doing enough to protect whistleblowers, citing system failure as the factor responsible for the current plight of whistle-blowers.
Quakers said: “There is actually no law that supports whistle-blowing. It has become an administrative invention as it were. But the problem confronting the policy is just like every other thing that happens in this country.
“You can imagine a situation whereby somebody goes to blow the whistle on a neighbour who is involved in illegal activities, only for the suspect to identify the person who blew the whistle on him.
What this means is that law enforcement agencies don’t set up to protect whistle-blowers. “In other developed climes, there is something called ‘witness protection programme’.
“We obviously do not have anything like that in Nigeria. The fact is that if the whistle is blown and the identity of the person is disclosed, only to the agency that will prosecute, the agency concerned is duty bound to protect the identity of the whistle-blower.
“In other words, if the whistleblower works in a given company, the person must be protected and his identity must not be disclosed. The situation we found ourselves now is just the failing of the system.
“Whistle-blowing is not really out of place but why must you attach any benefit to it? By this practice, we are also encouraging people to also partake in looting. It is my civic duty to blow the whistle on someone that is involved in any illicit dealings.
This is provided for in our criminal system. But not to blow the whistle on the person based on what I stand to benefit from the state. It is wrong and we should condemn it.
“If I fell out with you in a giving situation and perhaps we have been doing things together, or maybe you have been giving me money as a politically exposed person who had looted the treasury.
Now, for some obvious reasons, we fell apart, it is an opportunity for me to blow the whistle on you. Then, the state will now compensate me without considering the fact that before blowing the whistle, I have been benefitting from you. So, personally, I am not too comfortable with the way and manner we are going about the whole thing.
Whistle-blowing is a citizen’s civic responsibility and duty to the state. If you found out that someone has committed a crime, it is your duty to inform the state. “Now, it has gotten to a point where the identity of a whistleblower is blown open by the state that ought to protect the whistleblower.
Even, if you stand to benefit, the mere fact that you are a duck and your identity has been blown open, means that you can no longer blow whistle.” Wale Adesokan (SAN) also harped on the importance of securing the lives of whistle-blowers by the government.
He said: “It is a good policy but I hope a lot has been done by the government to ensure the safety of the people giving the information. “Where this is done in advanced countries, they go as far as relocating whistle-blowers to other communities apart from theirs, to settle down.
I don’t know how much preparations have been made by the federal government along this line before even asking people to volunteer information? “What has been done to train, provide infrastructure and re-orientate the people that will take the information from the whistle-blowers on how to handle it, protect their sources and when the information leaked out, how will they protect the whistle-blowers. It is very important that government should look into those areas.
“The whistle-blowers need to be protected so that these corrupt people will not go after them. Something concrete must be done by the government because it goes beyond just saying that the identity of the whistle-blowers will be protected.
What happens where information given by a whistle-blower is inevitably leaked, what measures are in place to protect the whistle-blower? All these issues must be addressed by the government for the policy to thrive.” To Ige Asemudara, there was the need for a law to be put in place to back up the policy and the political will to implement the law.
Asemudara said: “The whistleblower policy of the Federal Government is not expressly backed by law. Within the framework of the country’s laws, there are provisions that actually protect people like these. “For instance, before the introduction of the whistle-blowing policy of the Buhari’s administration, there was what we called ‘the informants’.
These are people who give information to the police and other law enforcement agencies when crimes are committed. They are protected by the law, that is, because if the law does not protect them, they are threatened and so the level and the quantum at which information about crimes are supplied will be reduced.
In essence, if they are not protected, people will be afraid to give information that may lead to the arrest of anyone that has committed a crime. “So, to that extent, when it comes to the issue of whistle-blower, I believe there should be a new legal regime that will protect these people, so that the interest of the nation will be properly served.
The fact is that if these people are not protected, then, we are exposing them to attacks. So, government should do something in the area of their protection. “Besides, agencies of government should be responsible enough to be able to keep state and official secrets.
This is because if there are persons who are whistle-blowers, and we are hearing that they are being threatened and relieved of their jobs, that means the government has not been able to have what we call official secrets and that is part of the irresponsibility we are talking about in this country. “In other climes across the world, they have system that allows whistle-blowers and protect them.
Therefore, this whistle-blowing policy has in its safety protection for the person who has blown the whistle. When you blow the whistle, the sound emanates from you and then, there should be a garment provided by law to cover the person who blew the whistle so that he does not become the hunted at the end of the day.
“It is also necessary to have the policy backed up by a law but this is not as important as having the will to make the law works. I had earlier talked about state secrets and if we cannot keep official secrets as privileged, then, what are we talking about? In essence, government should have a way of protecting the whistle-blowers even in the absence of any law.
What I am saying is that if we put a law in place without the necessary will to make it work, then, we are deceiving ourselves. “So, the will to protect these people is more important than having any law in place. This is because the law, at the end of the day and most times, will not prevent a criminal from going after the man who has blown whistle against him.”