Can Nigeria’s Whistle-Blower Policy Trigger Further Corruption?

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Although the Whistle-blower policy introduced by federal government on December 21, 2016, is yet to be backed by any act of parliament, there is a lot of optimism and caution as federal government is euphoric on its success so far

By Olu Ojewale  |  Feb 27, 2017 @ 01:00 GMT  |

The whistle-blower policy of Nigerian federal government is paying good dividends. That was the verdict of the federal government as it beat its chest after disclosing to the public on Sunday, February 12, that it had recovered more $151m or N46bn and N8bn in looted funds.

Lai Mohammed, minister of information and culture, in a statement, said the looted funds, which did not include the $9.2m in cash owned by Andrew Yakubu, a former group managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, NNPC, were recovered from just three sources through whistle-blowers, whom he said, gave actionable information to the office of Abubakar Malami, SAN, minister of justice and attorney general of the federation. He said that the $9.2m cash and others, were also dividends of the whistle-blower policy.

The minister said that the biggest amount of $136,676,600.51 or N42 billion was recovered from an account in a commercial bank, where he said money was kept under an apparently fake account name. This, he said, was followed by N7bn and $15m from another person and N1bn from yet another.

Nigerians are yet to be told the names of other three sources from whom so much have been recovered, prompting the fear that the new policy could be a trigger for more corruption if the system  is still so opaque.

Nevertheless, Mohammed was quick to boast about the exploits saying what has so far been recovered was a tip of the iceberg. He said in his statement: ‘’When we told Nigerians that there was a primitive and mindless looting of the national treasury under the last administration, some people called us liars. Well, the whistle-blower policy is barely two months old and Nigerians have started feeling its impact, seeing how a few people squirreled away public funds.

kemi-adeosun
Adeosun

The minister used the opportunity to appeal for more cooperation to provide the authorities with further information, saying confidentiality would be maintained with regard to the source of the information. He also reminded Nigerians of the financial reward aspect of the policy, saying: ‘’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 percent (minimum) and five percent (maximum) of the total amount recovered.’’

Indeed, the federal government on December 21, 2016, approved a new policy on whistle-blowing that aims to encourage Nigerians to report financial and other related crimes to relevant authorities.

Apart from cash seizure, Realnews learnt that many properties belonging to corrupt government officials being investigated have also been seized in the cause of investigation. One of such cases in recent times is the seizure of a school allegedly belonging to Unoma Akpabio, wife of former Governor Godswill Apkabio of Akwa Ibom State.

The school, St. John Paul II School, in Shelter Afrique, Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, according to information, is suspected to be a product of the fraud of N108 billion for which Akpabio, who was state governor between 2007 and 2015, is being investigated.

The school has now been marked “under investigation by EFCC,” while normal school activities are allowed uninterrupted. The anti-graft agency had resorted to marking the school instead of shutting it so that innocent parents and students who had paid school fees would not be adversely affected.The school, it was learnt, had been under the EFCC surveillance considering the enormous amount believed to have been sunk into its construction.

A senior official at the EFCC, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the school had been seized, and also disclosed that the agency was also working towards tracing all other properties and money believed to have starched away by the politician.

Efforts to get Akpabio’s reaction through Anietie Ekong, his media aide, failed.

Indeed, the EFCC has, no doubt, benefited from the whistle-blowing policy. Wilson Uwujaren, spokesman of the EFCC, admitted that much in an interview, saying through the policy, the commission had received massive boost in its anti-corruption war. He said through the policy, it had recovered a lot of stolen public funds. Uwujaren did not say how much, but insisted that it would help the agency’s operations if government should allow the anti-graft commission to keep certain percentage of the recovered funds.

 “The commission has already made a proposal that government should allow it to keep a certain percentage of the recovered money to help us with operational expenses. You know, the agency pays transport fares of its operational officials during investigation, it pays for their accommodation and other expenses. Even when the case goes to court, it behoves on the agency to engage lawyers to prosecute some of the case; all these drain our funds,” he said.

According to the EFCC spokesman, some cases have been made to suffer because of lack of money to prosecute, while officials with looted funds could afford to ask for frivolous adjournments several times. However, it is not clear if the demand is being taken care of in the proposed whistle-blowing law that government has forwarded to the National Assembly.

Nevertheless, Kemi Adeosun, minister of Finance, while announcing the policy on December 21, 2016, said the primary goal of the policy is to support the fight against financial crimes and corruption, in order to further expose financial crimes and reward whistle-blowers. While exposing such crimes, whistle-blowers are encouraged with monetary inducement and offered protection from harassment by the culprits, who may be their relations, bosses or employers.

Through such encouragement of voluntary information about corrupt practices, the government hopes to increase accountability and transparency in the management of public funds as well as to recover public funds in private custody that could be deployed in financing Nigeria’s infrastructural development. In the long run, it is hoped that there would be more transparent society where foreign investors could invest their funds.

Perhaps, one major concern of the would-be whistle-blower is about the protection of the whistle-blower. According to the policy: “If you feel that you have been treated badly because of your report, you can file a formal complaint. If you have suffered harassment, intimidation or victimisation for sharing your concerns, restitution will be made for any loss suffered.” This is, perhaps, why there is some sort of sceptism in some quarters that it would be better to wait until the policy is enacted into to law before one spills the bean on corrupt officials.

This is also why some observers are expressing some concern about the fate of the policy on whether the National Assembly would be favourably disposed to willingly enact the appropriate bill. Besides, it is common knowledge that the Senate is already foot-dragging in confirming the nomination of Ibrahim Magu as the EFCC substantive chairman, and there is an ongoing fight against whistle-blowing by the House of Representatives, which suspended Abdlumumin Jibrin, a former chairman, House Appropriations Committee, for blowing the whistle on budget padding.

Magu
Magu

There is also the apprehension that the policy could breed a new form of corruption in the country. As Tobs Agbaegbu, editor-in-chief of Verbatim explained “since nobody is named, the whistleblower has no way on knowing if he/she is getting the correct percentage of what was recovered. So whatever is given he/she is compelled to take it and he can’t complain as there is no means of verifying that what was reported is what the authorities collected”.

Another downside to the policy, is the fear that it could breed unhealthy suspicion in an organisation as nobody could be trusted. “This could lead to crisis because whistleblower who may not have full information of why sudden actions are being taken could instigated unnecessary investigation that could turn out to be a ruse and could harm the integrity of an institution,” Agbaegbu said.

Be that as it may, a lot of Nigerians are excited that the war on corruption would be given more impetus if the policy becomes an act.

Debo Adeniran, executive chairman of the Centre for Anti-Corruption and Open Leadership, CACOL, in an interview, poured encomiums on the federal government for the policy. Adeniran noted that there had been an executive bill before the National Assembly, on war against corruption but because the law would affect a good number of the legislators they have decided not to even look at it.

He said the policy would allow drivers, messengers, cleaners who were being used to perpetuate the crime without any compensation to come out and expose their bosses. Besides, he said the offer of compensation and protection would encourage many of them to come forward. Adeniran argued: “The issue of whistle blowing is patriotism and patriotism cannot be addressed in isolation. It is not really whether somebody is poor or rich; the compensation, in any case, will be a stimulant.”

Besides, the human rights activist said he expects the law on whistle-blower to make those who have information on corrupt officials and refuse to report to government as accomplices. “If you don’t reveal information you have and it is discovered you have the information you will be treated as an accomplice. If you reveal you are going to be compensated, depending on the volume of money involved,” he said.

Adeniran said with the whistle-blower policy, Nigeria would spend money on engaging lawyers, while time and money would also be reduced in carrying out investigations. He said: “There are those who, hitherto, had information but were afraid that the law would not protect them. They are afraid that if they reveal information at their disposal hired assassin will be sent after them and they don’t have resources to run away. But now they know that if they reveal that information government is ready to pick up the bill and even help them to relocate if they so desire; they will also have surveillance 24/7, that will encourage people to come out with information in their possession.”

He said the policy would definitely put everyone on the alert. “It also puts government officials at alert that they are being watched and those who are watching are also being watched and you can never know who is doing the watching. That makes the whole thing interesting,” Adeniran said.

Bestman Abumere, a political commentator, welcomed the whistle-blower policy, saying people should not do it because of compensation alone. “Anybody who wants to do it should do it conscientiously as patrimony for our fatherland,” he said.

Indeed, Mohammed disclosed on Monday, February 13, how a whistle-blower rejected commission from recovered N1 billion loot, recently. The minister said the whistle-blower declined any remuneration because he believed it was service rendered to the country.

He did not name the whistle-blower, neither did he name the bank from which the money was recovered. “I want to put on record that the fellow through whom we recovered N1 billion, in an account, told us he does not want any commission from government because that was his contribution to the country.

‘’But, I can assure you that we are not going to renege on our promise to give the appropriate commission to anyone who give us information that leads to recovery of money through this policy,‘’ Mohammed said.

That notwithstanding, Abumere also sounded a note of caution for those who may be interested in giving out information, saying they should wait for law to be enacted before passing out information.

Commending the policy, Monday Onyekachi Ubani, a second vice president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, emphasised the need to make the policy on the whistle-blower a law for proper enforcement.

Ubani, in an interview, said that the policy would be more effective in the recovery of looted funds when it becomes a law.

“I’m very happy the government came up with this policy. The policy is very good and timely for us as a nation. This is just a government pronounced policy; government should go further to enact it into law because it is when it is enacted into law that it can be enforced in a court of law.

“As a pronounced policy, I do not know the efficacy or how it will be enforced. I hear the Whistle-blowing Bill is pending before the National Assembly; they should speed up its enactment into law for proper enforcement and to encourage more whistleblowers,” Ubani said.

Ubani
Ubani

He also urged the government to keep its promise of non-disclosure of the identity of whistle-blowers and in dispensing money to individuals who gave out information without delay.

The NBA official also appealed to the federal government to reform the banking industry in order to check money laundering and looting in the country.

“Banks in Nigeria have not helped our economy; they aid and abet money laundering. The minister of Information said that fake names were used in opening some bank accounts and I wonder how come the banks did not process genuine documents for such persons making such deposit,’’ Ubani said.

He enjoined banks to support government’s efforts by reporting any suspicious bank accounts to the appropriate authority.

The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project and the Campaign for Democracy in separate messages called on the federal government to quickly inject recovered loots into the country’s ailing economy.

Adetokunbo Mumuni, executive director, SERAP, said the federal government must immediately inject the loot back into the economy so that Nigerians could feel the socio-economic impact. Mumuni said: “The critical areas of our economy include building infrastructural facilities and the federal government should immediately deploy these funds.

“Another area is that if the loot was recovered as a result of the whistle-blower initiative, the government must keep to its promise. You will recall that when the idea came up, it was promised that if a whistle-blower gives information and it leads to the recovery of sums of money, compensation will be given to the whistle-blower. I hope the government would not go back on that. I think the whistle-blower policy should continue.”

Bako Usman, CD president, while also supporting the whistle-blower policy, said: “It is very unfortunate that the federal government has been recovering loot without meaningful development. Such recovery can take care of some of our debts, provision of social amenities and others. Up till now, we have not seen the value of the recovered loot. The government must work on this.”

The Buhari Media Support Group, BMSG, on its part, urged Nigerians to embrace federal government’s whistle-blower policy, saying recent recovery of looted funds was a proof that the strategy was dependable. In a statement in Abuja on Tuesday, February 14, the group noted that the policy had started aiding the Economic and Financial Commission, EFCC, in recovering funds stolen by former government officials.

The statement issued by Muhammad Labbo, group’s coordinator, and Cassidy Madueke, secretary, particularly noted the recent recovery of $9.8 million from Yakubu was because of the policy. “The policy has given the EFCC the teeth for the necessary bite needed in carrying out its functions,’’ the statement said.

The group said it was convinced that huge sums of looted funds were still in accounts and vaults of many other former government officials. It, therefore, urged the EFCC to step up its game in the “looted funds recovery project.”

Despite the accolades and optimism a good number of Nigerians have remained cautious about how far the option will help to reduce corruption in Nigeria, especially with the National Assembly members whose interest appears to be above national interest.

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