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Whistle blowing: Tightening lose ends for maximum result

Four years on, whistle blowing policy, one of the potent anticorruption tools of the current administration, led to the recovery of over N700 billion amid its inherent gaps. Abdulwahab Isa reports

The commitment of the current administration to downgrade, and halt corruption in public service has been demonstrated through cogent policies. At onset of the regime, it rolled out deliberate policies targeted at whittling down corruption.

The introduction of Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit (PICA) domiciled at the Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning is one of the first initiatives of the administration, upon assumption of office in 2015.

Its principal tasks are the validation of controls and ensuring compliance with public finance management principles and maximising the utilisation of the resources through continuous assurance to ensure efficiency in government spending. To give strength to the war against corruption in public sector, President Muhammadu Buhari’s government introduced whistleblowing policy in 2016.

Policy at a glance

Conceived in 2016, the policy is targeted at encouraging patriotic citizens to report criminal acts such as mismanagement or misappropriation of public funds and assets, like properties and vehicles; diversion of revenues, financial malpractice or fraud; collecting /soliciting bribes; procurement fraud; corruption; unapproved payments; kickbacks and over-invoicing. It also includes: violation of law regulation, company’s policy, or a threat to life, public interest and national security.

The Senate passed the Whistle Blowers Bill to Law in July 2017. A whistle blower is a person who voluntarily discloses to the Federal Government of Nigeria, through the Federal Ministry of Finance, a possible misconduct or violation that has occurred, is ongoing, or is about to occur with specific concerns which are in the public interest. Information provided by the whistle blower must be that which the government doesn’t already have and that which the government couldn’t have obtained from any other publicly available source.

The information provided must also lead to the actual recovery of the monies reported. The policy provides that a whistle-blower may be entitled to between 2.5 per cent and five per cent of amount recovered if the information provided led to the recovery of concealed assets. The policy does not avail whistle blowers any immunity from civil or criminal prosecution. In essence, a whistle blower might end up being charged for an offence he/she helped blow the whistle on if during investigations the whistle blower is linked to the offence. The policy is, therefore, not beneficial to conspirators or accomplices but informants.

A whistle blower that intentionally supplies false or misleading information stands the chance of being prosecuted after the investigation is conducted. However, if the whistle blower provided the information in good faith believing it to be true at the time of the disclosure, he/she will not be subjected to any disciplinary action.

A former Minister of Finance, Mrs. Kemi Adeosun, gave the policy its head start. Under her watch, between 2017, government recovered the sum of N7.8 billion, $378million and £27,800 respectively through whistle blower policy.

Within the period, government began payment process for 14 whistle blowers, who gave specific tips on tax evasions. The policy at that time (2017) attracted 8,373 communications, out which 1,231 were tips.

Journey so far

The Policy has endured a four-year grueling journey. Within the four years span of its existence, it recorded a mix bag of mileage and pitfalls. Undeniably, the policy recorded funds recovery.

The Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning, the main driver of the policy, last week organized national conference on the policy. The occasion offered government the opportunity to do a stock taking of the policy, implementation with respect to honoring obligation to parties involved, efficacy of policy provisions and its weakness.

The policy recorded mileage in area of recovery. Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Hajiya Zainab Ahmed, put the recovered sum into perspective when she spoke to journalists last week at the national conference in Abuja. She said government harvested over 700 billion from the policy.

The recovered amount, Ahmed said, was facilitated by whistle blowers that came forward with actionable claims of corruption. “There were recoveries and the cleaning of the Integrated Personnel Payroll Information System (IPPIS), stoppage of non-compliance with the Treasury Single Account (TSA) and violations of the procurement Act 2007, etc.”

The minister lamented that “at inception there was widespread enthusiasm as Nigerians volunteered numerous actionable information.” Such information or tips, she said, were referred for further investigation by the EFCC, ICPC, NFIU or DSS.

“However, after sometime, interest in the implementation of the policy nosedived. Our attempt to reawaken public interest on the policy did not quite materialise. It was then we realised that there was apparent confusion in the public mind on several issues,” she said. To address these issues, a committee with representatives from anti-graft and security agencies chaired by a representative of the Federal Ministry of Justice was set up to draft a Whistle Blower Bill, taking into account all the complaints received from the public and the observations of the various stakeholders.

In his remark at the event, Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, said the whistleblowing policy “was developed as a tool towards the exposure of corruption and corrupt actors in government.”

He said the policy presented a unique opportunity for men and women of conscience, who are appalled by the level of corruption in the society, and are looking for safe avenues to expose the perpetrators of such corrupt activities to do so in a way that their identities are protected and their positions in their places of work are secured. Osinbajo tasked developers of the new bill to expand “the scope of wrongful acts that may be reported by whistleblowers.”

Osinbajo said: “It appears that under the current policy whistle blowing is only with respect to acts of corruption. However there are a whole range of issues that may not endanger public finance directly but may constitute public safety or security risks.”

The vice president wants “as a violation of law, gross mismanagement, waste of public resources, or acts inimical to public health or safety to be included in the scope of activities that whistle blowers can report to the authorities.”

He added that “the law should also provide for comprehensive protection of whistleblowers, including against reprisals from their employers and those whose activities they expose. These may include witness protection type provisions should the whistleblower have to appear in court.

“The ability of our government to deliver on promises in the areas of human capital development, provision of quality infrastructure and the general economic progress of the country the Vice President said “depends significantly on the protection of the scarce resources from being looted and its application for the benefit of Nigerian citizens.”

The vice president also wants the policy to operate “widely in states and local governments as the tiers closest to the people and overseers of about half of the nation’s revenues.” Government’s goal, he said “is to harness the huge potential of the people to deliver on their moral obligation to report cases of corruption within their immediate environments.” The policy, he insisted “will energise the people to guard and police their resources through increased exposure of financial and related crimes.”

Osinbajo told the gathering that “certainty and clarity of the reporting processes and adequate protection of the blowers would improve confidence in the initiative. Similarly, enhanced transparency and accountability in the implementation of the Policy will result in more discoveries and recoveries.”

Pitfalls

Like every policy, thepolicy is riddled with gaps. Some of the inherent pitfalls of the policy include honoring payment obligation to a whistleblower, identity protection and enforcement principle of trust. Of all the obstacles, paying whistleblower stipulated percentage is a knotty issue that casts dent on the policy. Recently, a whistleblower, John Okpurhe, sued the Federal Government, accusing it of breaking its promise. John said government refused to pay his commission on the recovery he made to the Attorney General and Ministry of Justice in 2018.

In a suit number M/9293/2020 filed by his lawyer, Elochukwu Nweke, at an Abuja High Court, he sought enforcement of his fundamental human rights with Abubakar Malami SAN, Alhassan Dantata, Inspector General of Police, and the Nigerian Police as respondents.

The whistleblower claimed in the suit that he and an ex-militant leader, Eshanekpe Israel, a.k.a. General Akpodoro, had approached the Attorney General and Ministry of Justice, Mr. Abubakar Malami, sometimes in 2018 dwelling on the whistle blowing policy of the Federal Government of Nigeria, which encourages members of the public to reveal any suspicious act of corruption to the authority resulting in a stipulated entitlement, being a fraction or percentage from the amount recovered through the whistleblower policy . Although Malami denied his involvement, John’s experience is just one of the instances whistleblowers have been allegedly shortchanged by the government. To gain absolute confidence in the policy, government whistleblower’s identity from potential harm must be guaranteed. The law needs to be revisited for strengthening.

Last line

An integral part of anti-corruption policy of the administration, whistleblowing, could be a potent tool for stamping out endemic corruption in the public sector. However, for it to happen, identified weak areas of the policy must be expunged and tighten.

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