How to Make Whistle-blowing Work in Nigeria By Samuel T. Ajibola

I should not be embarrassed to preface this piece with a favourite joke of Bienvenu, my Congolese friend. He likes to remind me that: fraud is based on trickery and deceit (which is true) and that the Nigerian variety of fraud is particularly difficult to detect for two reasons – the near-scientific manner of its conception and execution, and the hostility Nigerian whistle-blowers are doomed to face (not true).

Over the past several years, the print and electronic media in Nigeria have documented classical examples of the ill-treatment of whistle-blowers due principally to the absence of whistle-blower protection laws.

In February, Mr. Ntia Thompson, an assistant director in the Directorate for Technical Cooperation in Africa, was dismissed from service. This was after he raised an alarm over the sum of $229,000 and N800,000 that had been diverted by key officials of the Directorate. He had initially been suspended from work on December 19, 2016.

In 2014, former Central Bank Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi was suspended by erstwhile President Goodluck Jonathan for ”financial recklessness and misconduct”, after the Kano prince caused shock waves in Nigeria when he alleged that $20 billion in oil revenue had gone “missing” at the NNPC.

In 2011, a member of staff of National Women Development Centre, Abuja, was dismissed from service for exposing the alleged embezzlement of N300 million meant for poverty alleviation by some top officers.

Last year, three members of staff of at the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta — – Lasun Somoye, Abdulsalaam Sobbor and Bimbo Bankole, — were suspended by the university and later sacked by its governing council for whistle-blowing. They had written to the EFCC, accusing the institution’s vice chancellor and the pro-chancellor of fraud. By an interesting turn of events, the Vice Chancellor of the University, Olusola Oyewole, who suspended and later sacked three whistle-blowers, has himself been arrested for alleged fraud.

In all the four cases cited above, human rights groups and other concerned Nigerians condemned the treatment meted out to the whistle-blowers and called for legal protection for people who take the risk to report wrongdoings or illegalities in the public interest.

More often than not, retaliation is the lot of workers who blow the whistle on the behaviour of their employers and superiors. And retaliatory action can include dismissal, demotion and denial of benefits. Or, it may be more subtle: a change in job duties, reassignment to a distant office, exclusion from key meetings, hostile remarks that make whistle-blowers feel unwelcome etc. Isolated incidents can come together to paint a picture that it is time to go.

Since our livelihoods are dependent on our jobs, the fear of losing a job is pervasive. This is one reason why corruption in all its ramifications, other violations of the law, and many dangers to our common heritage, go unreported. People who may know about them are afraid of retaliation. It therefore goes without saying that if the law provides a remedy for victims of retaliation, employees will be encouraged to come forward with evidence that will make Nigeria safer, healthier and more just.

Put differently and more poignantly, there is an immediate need for effective legal framework to back up the recently unveiled whistle-blowing policy of the Federal Government.

Question: are our legislators really keen to write statutes to encourage whistle-blowing, protect and even reward whistle blowers?

The body language of the leadership and membership of the National Assembly hardly inspires confidence. Consider, for a moment, the general disposition of members of the red and green chambers who are
ever so conscious of their own self-protection. What, for example, do we make of the reluctance of the Senate
to confirm EFCC Acting Chairman Ibrahim Magu? Are we not all witness to what happened to the whistle-blowing former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Abdulmumuni Jibrin?

Still, a Bill for an Act to protect persons making disclosures for public interest from reprisals, (also known as ‘Whistle-blowers Bill’) is in the works. It has passed through second reading on the floor of the Senate. The sponsor of the bill, Senator Biodun Olujimi (Ekiti South), provided all the justification needed for the
Bill when she said: “The effectiveness of Nigeria’s legal framework and fight against corruption/fraud depends on the quality of the country’s whistle-blowing standards/protection.”

The Bill would also help to sanitise the banking sector where departure from agreed standards is a culture which gives rise to a high level of insider dealings and market abuse. Bank staff have been known to depart from acceptable banking practice and bypass certain security protocols to favour customers on their “preferential list.”

Culturally, whistle-blowing has connotations of betrayal. Whistle-blowers were hitherto perceived as disloyal malcontents, troublemakers and villains, not heroes or courageous employees. Speaking out has been difficult, especially in a culture where this is not promoted or even actively discouraged. Also, it is a trite fact that some Nigerians would hesitate to blow the whistle on members of their networks (the networks could be tribal/ethnic, regional, religious, old boys’ or old girls’ association etc).

A whistle-blowing policy (as now exists), backed by the force of the incipient Whistle-blowers Bill to protect whistle-blowers, will change all that. In the absence of a culture of whistle-blowing in public or private sectors of the economy, a recent development worth noting is the establishment of a N50 million Whistle-blower Protection Fund by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria. This is laudable and deserves to be emulated and supported by all.

Whistle-blowing is most effective when it operates in an open-door culture that actively encourages staff to report concerns. In such a context, problems are likely to be raised earlier and addressed, even further reducing the need for whistle-blowing.

Senior management of Federal and State Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) should take overall responsibility for ensuring that an open and ethical culture is embedded in their domains. The Federal Government’s “Change begins with me” campaign is already showing the way.

Communication is also key. MDAs must ensure that all stakeholders are aware of the procedures for raising concerns. In particular, they must ensure that staff will be protected, confidentiality respected and
that reprisals will not be tolerated. In addition — and this is of utmost importance — sanctions must be applied, in strict accordance with the law, to staff for failing to protect employees who blow the whistle.

Effective training must also be implemented. This should include details of how staff will be protected and how they will be kept informed of outcomes, as far as is possible, of concerns raised by whistle-blowers. It is also essential to have the right people managing these systems, to ensure that they are really effective.

Any time a hand is raised, the issue must be dealt with carefully and with respect. Training should make it clear that the whistle-blowing line is for raising concerns about danger, risk, malpractice or wrongdoing that affect others and not about ventilating personal grievances.

Reward for speaking out is clear enough. “If there is a voluntary return of stolen or concealed public funds or assets on the account of the information provided, the whistle-blower may be entitled to between 2.5% and 5.0% of the total amount recovered”, says the Federal Government’s whistle-blower policy.

If a Whistle-blowers Bill was in place in 2014, and Sanusi Lamido Sanusi as well as the former House Appropriations Committee Chairman Abdulmumuni Jibrin relied on it to win a case against their tormentors, both whistle-blowers would have succeeded in protecting all future whistle-blowers who report wrongdoing.

If we work assiduously to develop a culture that tolerates and encourages whistle-blowing, people who report wrongdoing in the public interest will be celebrated as heroes not disloyal malcontents; builder not destroyers, and patriots not traitors.

The eighth National Assembly, all levels of government in Nigeria and civil society organisations owe it a duty to ensure that the Whistle-blowers Bill becomes law to give muscle to the whistle-blowing policy of the Buhari administration.

As the popular radio/television jingle urging citizens to report suspicious people and movements says: “If you see something, say something”.
(TNE)

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