Tinubu, whistleblowing and the quest for good governance
By Godwin Onyeacholem
Whistleblowing has become a democratic accountability tool
Whistleblowing is one of the most direct methods of exposing corrupt acts
The policy encourages citizens to voluntarily disclose information about fraud
Lack of citizen sensitization impedes successful implementation of the whistleblowing policy
Whistleblowers in government offices risk from suspension without pay and denial of salary
Whistleblowing is steadily growing to become the dominant theme in ethics literature. It has earned a prime position as a forceful vehicle not only for delivering clarity and openness in workplace culture, but also for defining responsible behaviour expected of an individual.
On a wider scale, whistleblowing has shaped up to become a democratic accountability tool, and a check on secrecy and abuse of power in many different contexts.
In July 2016, the ECOWAS Commission met in Cotonou, Benin Republic, to launch a whistleblower protection strategy and plan of action to encourage member states to enact whistleblower protection legislations. This move was borne out of the regional body’s acknowledgement of corruption as the main cause of underdevelopment of West African States, and whistleblowing as one of the most direct methods of exposing corrupt acts and fostering accountability in the internal management of organisations.
The Cotonou meeting happened about the same time the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), a committee of seven put together by former President Muhammadu Buhari to promote the reform agenda of his government’s anti-corruption effort, was chewing over the idea of whistleblowing as one of the strategies for prosecuting the war against corruption, which Buhari had promised as he campaigned for the presidency.
About six months later, his government, by an executive order, introduced the whistleblowing policy and handed its management to the Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit (PICA), a unit he set up and put under the Federal Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning to strengthen controls over government finances through a continuous internal audit process across all ministries, departments and agencies.
The policy encourages citizens to voluntarily disclose information about fraud, bribery, government funds and assets spirited away by unscrupulous public officers, financial misconduct and any other form of corruption or theft to the finance ministry through PICA.
It turned out to be effective as expected, especially in its early days when enthusiastic citizens poured the office with tons of reports of stolen public funds in assorted currencies hidden in unoccupied buildings and other unimaginable places, including remote farmlands and septic tanks. Public sector workers, nerved more by the exigency of rooting out the menace of entrenched financial fraud than by the reward the policy offers for fruitful disclosures, embraced whistleblowing and became whistleblowers for public good.
Citizens will only be motivated to report corrupt practices and wrongdoing when they know they will be protected
But there were noticeable impediments to a successful implementation of the whistleblowing policy such as lack of citizen sensitization in form of continuous education, and zero funding for the office managing the policy. Still, breakthroughs in terms of tips and recoveries of stolen public money were being recorded and gleefully publicised by the finance ministry. Then crept in the main drawback: lack of protection for whistleblowers.
Whistleblowers in government offices risk all kinds of retaliations, from suspension without pay and denial of salary and promotion for long periods even when not suspended, through punitive postings to outright sack and threat to life. All this and much more are what whistleblowers face daily. For carrying out a duty in the interest of their organization and the public, they are forced to walk a minefield of reprisals that have continuously discouraged other citizens to engage in whistleblowing.
The protection guaranteed in the provisions of Section of 12 of the country’s whistleblowing policy exists only on paper. Not one victimized whistleblower has enjoyed protection as outlined in that section of the document. Many have been forced out of work and are rebuilding their lives in different ways. They regret their actions and vow not to go that route again if they had the opportunity. The ones who have managed to raise funds to go to court, including those enjoying pro bono services, to seek redress against injustice are perpetually afflicted with the legal abuse syndrome caused by the insanity of the legal system.
Citizens will only be motivated to report corrupt practices and wrongdoing when they know they will be protected from adverse action from any quarter because of their reporting. Only robust protection of whistleblowers will foster a culture of transparency and accountability.
To that extent, it is high time Nigeria speedily graduated from implementing a whistleblowing policy that is increasingly losing momentum to enacting a whistleblower protection law that offers full protection for whistleblowers. It is unfortunate that an administration that had the presence of mind to introduce the policy as an anti-corruption mechanism was never able to summon the needed political will to strengthen it with a proper legal framework more than six years after the policy was introduced.
Whistleblowers in government offices risk all kinds of retaliations
If that lack of foresight is to the eternal discredit of the outgone administration, there is need to warn the successor administration to avoid that infamous legacy.
Thankfully, President Bola Tinubu will not have to waste a great deal of time and effort in creating something that already exists. There is a draft whistleblower protection bill that the Buhari administration approved at one of its council meetings last December. The bill was forwarded to the National Assembly for passage in the hope that it would become a law before the end of the administration. That expectation was not met. The ball is now in Tinubu’s court. He is obliged to make the next move by immediately dusting up that bill and ensuring it becomes law soonest.
With a national debt tripping towards N80trn, no one needs a whistleblower law more than the Tinubu government to encourage disclosures that could potentially block leakages and boost government revenue as the country grapples with the effects of petrol subsidy removal and naira devaluation.
Although no concrete agenda on how his administration plans to tackle corruption is known to the public, Tinubu can begin to signal commitment to transparent and accountable governance as soon as he gives the country a whistleblower protection law. And he shouldn’t stop at that. He should move on, by virtue of his position as the chairman of ECOWAS in less than two months of being president, to the much bigger issue of using his strategic and vantage position to encourage his colleagues to uphold ECOWAS Protocol on the Fight Against Corruption and Supplementary Protocol on Good Governance and Democracy, which has been ratified by all member states.
A significant feature of the Protocol is the call on member states to adopt whistleblowing as a good governance tool and make effective laws to protect whistleblowers.
Tinubu should use his office to inspire this noble objective.
Godwin Onyeacholem is programme manager and project coordinator of Corruption Anonymous (CORA), the whistleblowing project, at AFRICMIL.