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INVESTIGATION: 5 Years On, FG’s Whistleblowing Policy Falters

When the federal government, late in December, 2016, announced a policy that empowers citizens to participate in the fight against corruption by blowing the whistle…

When the federal government, late in December, 2016, announced a policy that empowers citizens to participate in the fight against corruption by blowing the whistle on sleaze, it was greeted with enthusiasm. But five years down the line, the buzz has faded as many Nigerians seem somehow oblivious of its existence, investigation by Daily Trust on Sunday has revealed. 

While officials and some exponents say the policy has achieved considerable success despite the lack of a comprehensive mechanism and proper public engagement, some Nigerians who had—in the spirit of the new government’s policy—flagged shady deals they witnessed still live with scars from their action. 

As at the time the whistleblowing policy was announced, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari was still fresh in office and its anti-corruption mantra—one of the three pillars of the government’s tripartite campaign promise—was still on the front burner. The policy, announced by the then Minister of Finance, Mrs Kemi Adeosun, at the end of a Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting on December 21, 2016, was hinged on the need to get citizens involved in the government’s anti-corruption campaign. 

“It is a programme designed to encourage anyone with information about a violation, misconduct or improper activity that impacts negatively on the Nigerian people and government to report it,” Mrs Adeosun told reporters at the end of the FEC meeting that day.

For activists like Chido Onumah, Coordinator of the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), who had in the past worked to galvanise public support in the fight against the country’s age-old malady—corruption—this was a golden opportunity to make Nigerians the centrepiece of the government’s fight against corruption. 

Domiciled at the Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning, the policy pledges rewards for whistleblowers whose tips lead to the recovery of stolen public funds, and has been hailed in many quarters as the most exciting of the weapons rolled out in the anti-graft campaign of the Buhari administration. 

With initial focus on public sector corruption, the policy specifically encourages citizens to volunteer details on embezzlement of public funds, inflation of budget, lack of transparency and accountability in governance, among others.

The rise and ‘fall’ of the policy

The Nigerian cyberspace was thrown into hysteria in early April, 2017, when news filtered in about the discovery of a large stockpile of cash in a four-bedroom apartment in an upscale Osborne Street compound in Ikoyi, Lagos State.

Hours after whetting public curiosity with live pictures from the operation that afternoon, the premier anti-corruption agency, Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), revealed what it found in safes in the unoccupied building: $43.4m, N23.3m and €27,800, totalling N13bn. It was a record cash recovery, one of the biggest ever in Nigeria’s history of counter-fraud effort, which drew huge commendation from startled citizens.

Despite the horse-trading that ensued about the source and purpose of the funds, which the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) claimed at the time, the monies were subjected to forfeiture processes and sent back to government coffers.

However, while the anti-graft agency basked in the euphoria of the feat, not much was made public about how the victory came about; not until the affair went sour. The trio of Abdulmumin Musa, Stephen Sunday and Bala Usman, who gave the information leading to the discovery of the money had to drag the federal government to court when the monetary incentive for their information was not forthcoming.

The whistleblowers had made their calculation and believed, going by the government’s promise of handing out between 2.5 per cent to five per cent of the recovered funds, they would be smiling to the banks. With the high stakes in the case and eventual behind-the-curtain discussions at the highest level, almost everything about what was then dubbed the Ikoyigate had gone with the wind, literally. It is also unclear if the whistleblowers were rewarded as information about them or their lawyer was not forthcoming despite efforts by this reporter.

Minister of Finance, Zainab Ahmed and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami

This was not all. 

Forty-six-year-old Musa Sani (not real name) had a thud of regret in his voice while speaking to Daily Trust. He recalled the tedious process he and his friends went through while trying to pass information to the EFCC leading to the ransacking of a nondescript house in Sabon Tasha, Kaduna State, where a former Group Managing Director (GMD) of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Mr Andrew Yakubu, had stashed away $9.2m and 750,000 pounds in cash. This was in February, 2017.

Speaking to our reporter last week, Sani bemoaned how he had to go underground after the operation to avoid retaliation, and how all the sacrifice “did not amount to anything” for him and his co-travellers. After a series of shuttles to EFCC offices in Kaduna and Abuja, the whistleblowers and the legal team they later hired have still not have a closure on the issue.

Sani said the many promises made to them on payment were not forthcoming even before the matter became complicated by forfeiture hearings.

In July, 2021, Mr Yakubu’s legal team discontinued a suit at the Supreme Court challenging earlier verdicts of a Federal High Court in Kano, and the Kaduna Division of the Court of Appeal which directed forfeiture of the recovered funds to the federal government.

Uche Bassey (not real name), who had made many public interest disclosures leading to recovery of funds stashed away in banks, said he was frustrated by the snail-pace of the investigations and the bottlenecks that had dogged the implementation of the whistleblowing policy.

“They will subject you to many things. The statement they will ask you to write is like you are a criminal. No one can pass that process and would want to go back there with any information,” he said.

Many tips he submitted have not been acted on, while he laments that he is yet to get anything for the only two that were successfully pursued by the government.

In the heyday of the policy, the federal government made routine disclosures of recoveries from whistleblowers, especially through the Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit (PICA), the finance ministry unit responsible for managing the policy. The last of such disclosures was at the conference on whistleblowing held in September, last year where the Minister of Finance, Budget and National Planning, Mrs Zainab Ahmed, disclosed that government had recouped N700bn through the information submitted by whistleblowers.

A spokesperson for the finance ministry did not disclose updated figures when contacted by our reporter. He explained that the ministry was awaiting reports from the anti-graft agencies before the new figures would be announced.

In her September, 2020, address, the minister acknowledged the ebbing interest in the policy by members of the public by summing up the high and low points of the enthusiasm which greeted the policy three years earlier.

At the beginning, according to her, “There was widespread enthusiasm as Nigerians volunteered numerous actionable information. However, after some time, interest in the implementation of the policy nosedived.”

The minister spoke of realisation of “apparent confusion in the public mind” about the policy when “attempt to reawaken public interest on the policy did not quite materialise.”

There are many reasons for the waning interest. These were captured in a recent survey conducted by AFRICMIL under its Corruption Anonymous (CORA) project which, in the last five years, has worked to support the implementation of the whistleblowing policy and support whistleblowers. 

According to the report, which was unveiled on December 1, one-quarter of the 7,000 Nigerians interviewed “are unwilling to report any form of corrupt practices, while three out of every four respondents have stopped reporting cases of looted funds due to nepotism, fear of victimisation/stigmatisation, lack of knowledge on the kind of information to report and the appropriate channel to report, and the feeling that no serious action will be taken by the authorities in charge.”

Bearing the brunt for honesty

The feeling expressed by most of the respondents in the AFRICMIL survey tallies with the responses a whistleblower, Dr Murtala Ibrahim, said he got from people who knew about his travails.

“So many people would simply admit to you that, ‘No, I can never do something even close to what you’ve done. I admire your courage for what you’ve done, and of course if we continue to have people like you, probably, we’d have a better country.’”

He further said his respondents pointed to his own experience as the reason they would not embark on such a “risky venture”.

While whistleblowers in the cases of Ikoyi and Yakubu rue the non-payment of what is due to them, others who had toed the contrarian path of exposing wrongdoing in their workplaces are left to nurse scars they sustained for choosing to stand up for what is right.

From his position as the Unit Head, ICT/Process Audit and Special Investigation at the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria (FMBN), Ibrahim and his then boss, Mr Teslim Anibaba, took a firm position not to indulge in what they felt was wrong concerning a variety of contract fraud and refused to endorse the bank’s 2016 Half-Year Income Validation Report. The Finance and Accounts Group had reported a surplus of income over expenditure of the sum of N423m. But when the Internal Audit Group was directed by the management to validate the Finance Group’s submission, it found out it was a loss and not a profit.

Recalling his experience in an interview with Daily Trust on Sunday, Ibrahim said: “It’s my duty as an accountant and as an auditor to ensure that I’ve done the right thing. And, of course, it’s about the contract of something and from the look of it we knew that something was wrong. You can’t just split contracts and try to take money without job certification. The first thing you must do in a job award is to ensure that your work is certified. If works are certified what would be the basis for you to now recommend further disbursement? Of course, even the engineers would tell you that there must be a piecemeal and it’s when a piecemeal has been achieved and then the report said that okay a contractor has certified, then you can now proceed further and then say okay fine, that’s the first one.

“And then the second one is the issue of profit. Of course, I can’t sign off and say the profit has been made when the parameters I used in the methodologies to check those things aren’t there. So, basically, I was just doing my work and as it turned out things appeared the way they were. I have the conviction that whatever happens I was just doing my job and tomorrow if I have the same opportunity, I’ll still do the job. It’s unfortunate that we operate in a country where things aren’t going the way they should because ordinarily that shouldn’t be an issue at all.”

Ibrahim has gone through a rollercoaster of travails since then and is still battling for his reinstatement after he was sacked, recalled, and sacked again from his job.

“In governance, we have three arms of government: the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. I took my matter first to the executive by going to the minister. I also took it to the legislature, which is the National Assembly, and I’ve not gotten the result that I expected. So, the last resort of a common man is the court, and now I’ve decided to go to the court of law and the matter is before the industrial court,” he said.

Unlike Ibrahim, Aaron Kaase, a staff of the Police Service Commission (PSC), has gotten to a closure, but it was not without a spirited fight. In 2015, Kaase decided to blow the whistle on what he had concluded to be a case of stark corruption through direct siphoning of public funds.

The whistleblower flagged a suspected case of abuse of office and fraudulent act to swindle the government of the sum of N275.5m. He petitioned the EFCC and the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), pointing fingers at Mr Mike Okiro, then Chairman of the PSC.

The petition was investigated, and, although the ICPC investigation did not reveal “any act of criminal infraction” against Okiro, it however directed that the total balance of N133,413,835.99 from the N350m voted for a purported monitoring exercise be remitted to the federal government coffers through the ICPC.

For daring to blow the whistle, Mr Kaase was subjected to series of what he described as “persecution with a trumped-up charge.” Kaase, the hunter, became the hunted. He was accused of collecting N1m to procure a US visa for someone but failed to do so. Based on this, the PSC suspended him without pay on the grounds that a prima facie case had been established against him. In two different courts in Abuja where he was arraigned for the purported scam, he was discharged and acquitted for “lack of diligent prosecution and lack of evidence to prosecute the case.” Yet, his persecutors would not stop as he remained suspended for over three years before he was eventually reinstated, thanks to an industrial court judgment.

The threats and intimidation piled up to the point that Kaase had to relocate his family from Abuja due to safety concerns. He himself temporarily vacated his home and started squatting at different places around the city, he told Daily Trust on Sunday.

Recalling why he toed that path, Kaase said, “Somebody has to speak up against wrongdoing…the motivation was basically to see how we change our society to be a better place.”

He said though he never regretted taking the action he took, at moments of torments during his long travails, he had felt “let down by the system.”

Unfulfilled pledges

Speaking while announcing the FEC’s approval for the policy five years ago, Mrs Adeosun pledged that government would ensure those who offered to blow the whistle would find support and protection in government.

“If you whistleblow in public-spirit and in good faith, you will be protected. If you feel that you have been treated badly because of your report, you can file a formal complaint,” she had said.

“If you have suffered harassment, intimidation or victimisation for sharing your concerns, restitution will be made for any loss suffered,” she added.

Ibrahim, Kaase and a few others like them did not get the protection promised.  

From its survey on the five years of the policy, AFRICMIL found that: “Legislative protection and monetary reward for whistleblowers were considered as key motivators for potential whistleblowers.”

In the absence of the two, as the survey found out, many people are hesitant to stick out their necks because of the potential risks.

How intrigues frustrate legal framework

By far the greatest obstacle that experts have identified as the bane of the whistleblowing policy is lack of a legal framework to entrench it and give impetus for greater patronage by members of the public.

This failure, it was gathered, has to do with the inability of senior government officials to agree over who takes charge of such an important anti-corruption mechanism.

Investigation shows that the policy, first conceived as an anti-corruption tool by the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC) established by the Buhari administration, was honed by the finance ministry and turned largely into an instrument for curbing official corruption within government institutions.

In at least four versions of the whistleblowing and whistleblower protection bills, including two that died with the last session of the National Assembly, there is lack of consensus on who takes charge of the process, and whether there should be a separate agency to oversee it.

While members of the National Assembly, notably Senator Abiodun Olujimi and Hon Mohammed Tahir Monguno, had sponsored different bills on the subject, the federal government and civil society groups led by AFRICMIL had at different levels also worked on their own versions of the bill. Yet, five years after the policy first came into the limelight none of the processes has come to fruition.   

Murtala Aliyu Ibrahim and Aaron Kaase

Why policy falters — Presidential c’ttee

Reviewing the last five years of the policy’s implementation, the Executive Secretary of PACAC, Prof Sadiq Isah Radda, rates the implementation “fair”, saying nothing much was achieved.

He said the low performance was attributable to “attitudinal problem of Nigerian government officials, civil society organisations, and even the whistleblowers to monetise nearly everything that we do.” 

Explaining further, Radda said, “Anti-corruption agencies would look at what somebody is going to get. The whistleblower is only much more concerned with what he’s going to get,” adding that, “Getting it right would require that we de-monetise our activities as a people and as a country.”

On the absence of a legal framework to support the implementation of the policy, the executive secretary opined that “lack of law shouldn’t stop people from blowing the whistle.”

He argued that there were existing laws that could help citizens to blow the whistle, such as the establishment acts of the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), EFCC, ICPC, and Freedom of Information Act.

He blamed the absence of the law to “some sluggish attitude on the part of the National Assembly”, but expressed delight that the House and Senate committees on anti-corruption “are driving the process to ensure that we have legislation on whistleblowing which will include the protocols for the blowing and the protection of the whistleblowers.”

Prof Radda, who acknowledges the failure of the government to give protection to whistleblowers, however, said whistleblowers should realise that exercising that civic duty came at a price.

“I keep saying that you can’t have an omelette without breaking eggs. Definitely, if you’re going to blow the whistle, you should be ready to pay some price. I’m not saying we should expect wholesale paying of price, no. But along the line, definitely people who blow the whistle would have to pay the price. So, you should have to ensure that you’re doing the right thing and along the line something has to happen to you.

“So, I’m not very much bothered about the consequences; but I’m bothered about the credibility of the information. Be honest in what you’re reporting, be sincere in what you’re reporting; then, even if the government doesn’t act, you as a citizen you’ve discharged your moral and civic duties and your conscience is clear and it won’t punish you.”

The PACAC executive secretary maintained that, “Failure to act on the part of the government shouldn’t discourage anybody. Threats shouldn’t discourage anybody. Lack of law shouldn’t discourage anybody. All you need to do is clear your mind that this’s the right thing. Irrespective of the consequences, just go ahead and do it, you’d see that nothing would happen.”  

We’re reviewing it — Finance minister

Contacted to react on misgivings about the policy, spokesman of the Minister of Finance, Yunusa Tanko, said, “The policy is being reviewed to give legal backing and protection to especially the blower of the whistle.”

He described the policy as emanating out of necessity, adding that the government was working on how to improve it.

Investigation for this story was funded by the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL), with support from the MacArthur Foundation.

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