Nigeria: The Dark Side of Whistleblowing in Nigeria

Whistleblowers in Nigeria often find themselves alone.

Several factors make whistleblowers regret their actions and discourage others from blowing the whistle.

A survey published in 2021 showed that the majority of Nigerians perceive corruption as a major problem, but one-quarter of the respondents were unwilling to report any form of corruption.

The survey conducted and published by the African Centre for Media & Information Literacy (AFRICMIL) titled, "Survey on 5 years of whistleblowing policy in Nigeria" also showed that 3 out of 4 respondents have stopped reporting cases of looted funds due to fear of victimisation, believing that authorities do not provide a proper channel to make the report or take action against the suspect.

Weak internal mechanisms

The belief that no action would be taken made a civil servant at the Federal Ministry of Works and Housing (FMWH), Richard Martins, look for external recourse. The whistleblowing policy launched in 2016 states that an internal stakeholder can "escalate the matter further" when the issue is not adequately addressed internally.

Mr Martins had repeatedly complained about employment racketeering within the ministry to his superiors but was ignored.

He reported to the then Director of Human Resource Management, Isang Iwara, and other superior officers; like the Deputy Director Appointment Promotion & Discipline, Shehu Aliyu, Assistant Director Bosede Omoniyi, and others, as documents from his lawyers to the ministry show.

Mr Martins briefed his lawyers to send a petition to the Minister of Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, in July 2020, which spurred the setting up of a committee led by a senior official of the ministry, Rufus-Ebegba Immaculata.

Mr Martins said several colleagues intimidated and warned him to stop investigating the prevalence of fake employment in public service, but he was committed to seeing the end to the employment fraud.

The committee, which sat in August and September of 2020, found Mr Martins' claims to have merit. They found cases of employment manipulation, violation of due process and fake employment documentation.

The committee recommended immediate discontinuation of salary payments to the officers with fake letters and their names were forwarded to the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) for further investigation.

The ICPC is one of the investigating agencies of the whistleblower policy.

In a twist of fate, the panel also recommended disciplinary action against Mr Martins, citing a breach of oath of secrecy as contained by the Public Service Rules (PSR).

The report reads that disciplinary action against the petitioner, "Mr Richard Oghenerhoro, over his misconduct, breach of oath of secrecy, unauthorised disclosure of official information and abstraction or copying of official documents without approval as enshrined in Public Service Rules 030301 (f), 030415, 030416 and 030417 respectively."

The director of press and public relations, FMWH, Blessing Lere-Adams, told the ICIR that there is an internal mechanism to deal with reports on corruption without having to involve the office of the minister.

"Whoever has done that [use external mechanism] does not know the public service rule (PSR)"

"The PSR specifically states if you have a complaint there is a structure you have to follow, so anybody who goes above that should be questioned," the spokesperson said.

When asked what happens when the internal structure is followed and no action is taken, Mrs Lere-Adams facilitated a meeting with the deputy director Anti-Corruption and Transparency Unit (ACTU), saying he is in the best position to respond.

The head of ACTU, Sonny Inyang, however, said he cannot speak to the press as he does not have the clearance to do so, noting that the public he deals with is the ICPC on issues of whistleblowing and corruption. Mrs Lere-Adams, therefore, advised that a letter should be sent to the ministry's permanent secretary. The ICIR sent the letter which was duly acknowledged, but there was no response at press time.

The Coalition for Whistleblower Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF), described the action against Mr Martins as "one among numerous cases of violations and stigmatisation of whistleblowers."

"You would think that a government that lays so much emphasis on fighting corruption would be appreciative of citizens who are willing to expose irregularities and corruption in the public interest," the group said.

Shades of violations against whistleblowers

Godwin Onyeacholem has been at the forefront of advocating for the protection of whistleblowers in Nigeria. "It takes a lot of courage to blow the whistle. You need to know what whistleblowers go through," he said. "It's traumatising."

Mr Onyeacholem is the project coordinator for Corruption Anonymous (CORA), an initiative of AFRICMIL working to build public support and confidence in the whistleblowing policy introduced by the Nigerian government in 2016.

CORA, set up in 2017, advocates effective protection for whistleblowers. This makes Mr Onyeacholem the 'go-to guy' that whistleblowers call when they face challenges.

"Whistleblowing constricts their lives because of what they are going through," he told The ICIR of his interaction with whistleblowers.

"Friends avoid you. You are alone."

Accountant Joseph Akeju has lived the experience. Before his retirement, he was a lecturer and bursar at Yaba College of Technology, where he was dismissed twice for blowing the whistle.

"You know it's natural," he said, recalling how family and friends blamed and abandoned him.

He is now 70.

"Some people were laughing at me; some people were calling me 'Mr Clean'. They were mocking me. They said instead of me to join them and make my own money".

"Only a few people stood with me," he added in a restrained voice.

Compromised by journalists

Mr Akeju said that based on his experience, he would not advise anyone to blow the whistle. He also said journalists need to do better with regard to the confidentiality of sources.

"During my time, some of the journalists exposed me to ridicule. They will collect information from me and go and expose me to my boss and tell them I gave them the information," he said.

Some of the journalists, he said, collected money from his boss. This, he explained, greatly affected him as the school was able to plan to checkmate his moves.

A mass communication lecturer at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Gerver Celestine, described the conduct of journalists who breach the confidentiality of sources as "unethical".

He said such conduct has a far-reaching effect on the source, the journalists, journalism and society.

"If anyone is harassed because he spoke to a journalist in confidence, such a person is likely not to reveal information to journalists again even when such information is needed, the person will be constrained."

"This will affect the development of the society, investigative journalism will be affected, and things that should have been done to help the society will be retarded," said the doctor.

The National Secretary for the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ), Shua'ibu Usman, confirmed to The ICIR that a breach of confidentiality of sources "regrettably" happens.

"These things do happen, and they are issues of ethics, sometimes journalists don't play according to the rules, we have instances where journalists disclosed their sources because they have been enticed with money," he said.

He said they need the corporation of media owners to curb such occurrences, "media owners have to stand by journalists and insist that they should not disclose their sources" Mr Usman said.

Compromised by security officials

Since the policy was not in effect in 2008 when Mr Akeju reported irregularities in college funds that were not accounted for, there was no institutional process for whistleblowing. He had to rely heavily on the media to amplify his petition, but that was not the case for an architect Joseph Ameh, who blew the whistle three years after the policy was launched.

Mr Ameh was head of the physical planning division at Federal College of Education, (Technical) Asaba, when in 2019, he wrote a petition to the ICPC over corrupt practices such as contract inflation and diversion in the institution.

The ICPC reached out to the school for more information and eventually began prosecution.

Mr Ameh had expected some level of protection from the investigating agency, "In my petition to ICPC, I wrote my name clearly on it. ICPC was supposed to handle it with diligence, which they did not. They exposed me," he said.

He had expected them to handle it with discretion and protect his identity when reaching out to the school, but they did not, he told The ICIR. He received many queries after ICPC sent a memo to the school requesting documents. That was the start of his travail, which led to the loss of his job, and the collapse of his family.

The whistleblowing policy states that "It's preferable individual puts his/her name and contact to any disclosure" but adds that the person's identity shall be kept confidential to be disclosed only in the circumstances required by law.

That's not the only way the ICPC affected Mr Ameh.

"When you blow the whistle, you have prepared food for the ICPC officials to eat," he said, alleging that some ICPC officers are corrupt as they use the opportunity for self-aggrandisement. The officers make money from the suspects in exchange for information, he claimed.

The officers sometimes give advance notice to suspects and employ delay tactics so that they can cover their tracks, he said.

For instance, Mr Ameh said, the ICPC prosecutor on the case whom he calls "Barrister Iwoba" visited the college and when he confronted her she told him she went to interview one of the suspects - the registrar.

This, he says, is suspicious because the registrar had already given his statement.

"Somebody that has given his statement to the ICPC in the presence of his lawyers, duly signed and documented by the ICPC, you are telling me you are going to discuss with the person again?", he asks.

He also alleged that statements from the engineer, quantity surveyors 1 & 2 and the junior architect were not tendered in court. The ICIR could not, however, independently verify the claim.

Mr Ameh's petition had accused Ignatius Ezoem, Ugbechie Linus and Chukwuka Jonas, former provost, former registrar and former director of works respectively, of wrongdoing. They were all charged to court by the ICPC after an investigation.

Mr Ameh said for the whistleblowing policy to be effective, there must be sanitisation within the commission.

The spokesperson of the ICPC, Azuka Ogugua, is yet to respond to questions about the corrupt officers as of press time despite that requesting that the questions be sent to her.

In addition, emails sent to the school - Federal College of Education (Technical) Asaba - current registrar Rotimi Adepoju and the deputy provost were not responded to as of press time. Same with the reminders. The email bothers on the school's mechanism for reporting corruption and reaction to a court judgement to reinstate Mr Ameh.

Delayed by prolonged justice system

"They dismissed me twice, but they reinstated me twice," Mr Akeju the accountant told The ICIR

The first reinstatement was due to the efforts of the then-new rector, who he said was "Dr Mrs Ladipo", who created room for dialogue between his lawyers and the institution.

"I took my case to Federal High Court Ikoyi. It was after we had been in the court for more than six years that the judge told me I was in the wrong court," explained the retired accountant.

"That was when they referred me to the industrial court."

A major challenge facing whistleblowers is what Mr Onyeacholem describes as the 'legal abuse syndrome'. This arises from the long, winding court battles the whistleblowers have to endure.

"It comes from realising that you are suffering from ethical violation, legal abuse, fraud. The prolonged nature of the justice system makes you go mad," the advocate for whistleblower protection states.

Why whistleblowers go to court

Whistleblowers end up in court for many reasons - serving as a witness for the government or to stop intimidation against them, which can be the withholding of salary, suspension or even illegal dismissal from work.

A whistleblower, Sambo Abdullahi, an official of the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading (NBET), had to go to court to get the management to pay his suspended salaries.

Mr Abdullahi discovered illegal overpayment running into billions of naira in his organisation and blew the whistle. This led to the suspension of his salary starting in 2017. He filed a suit in 2018, and in 2020 he was still battling the case.

The ICIR reached out to the spokesperson for Nigeria Judicial Council (NJC), Soji Oye, but his mobile number was not connecting.

A text was sent to that effect. Furthermore, The ICIR reached out to the helpline on the council's website, after some back and forth, a representative said Mr Oye was not available and asked that the questions be sent to the council via email. This was done.

As of press time, the council was yet to respond to questions about delayed court cases and how it impacts negatively on whistleblowers and the policy. Same also with the reminder sent.

SLAPP compromising whistleblowing

"The process of getting this justice also traumatises them due to the insanity of the legal system," said Mr Onyeacholem.

"The organisation might even decide to sue. That's another form of intensifying the punishment. They take you to court for exposing their corruption."

Such suits are called Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

A journalist, Jaafar Jaafar, was at the receiving end of SLAPP in 2018 after exposing the Governor of Kano State, Abdullahi Ganduje, for collecting 'bribe' and pocketing the currency notes in his kaftan. The incident has come to be known as 'Gandollar'.

The purpose of SLAPP is to "intimidate and shut up" whistleblowers, said Mr Onyeacholem.

What many people were not aware of at the launch of the policy was that despite the flamboyant assurance of protection by the then minister of finance, the government placed the burden of fighting corruption in the hands of the public without the requisite legal backing.

The then minister aptly described it as a "stop-gap" initiative until the National Assembly formally passes a law on whistleblowing. Seven years later, the policy is yet to get the needed backing. This leaves whistleblowers exposed.

PICA - the clipped bird

After blowing the whistle, Mr Ameh had two court cases to deal with - one in Asaba and the other in Awka, in addition to having to come to Abuja.

The ICPC eventually began prosecution. This meant Mr Ameh appearing in court in Asaba. On the other hand, he was dismissed from work: this meant instituting an illegal dismissal case against the institution at the National Industrial Court in Awka.

Mr Ameh said at some point, he had to travel to Abuja with regards to the petition every fortnight, all bills on him.

"There is no provision to protect the whistleblower. When you blow the whistle, you are on your own," said Mr Ameh.

"Every two to four weeks, I will go to Abuja by night bus. When I am done with them by day, I will take the night [bus] as a cheaper way. Sometimes it requires me to stay back and do some documentation and the entire cost of lodging was on me," he said.

The whistleblowing policy is domiciled with the Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning and is implemented by Presidential Initiative on Continuous Audit (PICA). One of the heads of PICA, Johnson Oludare, confirmed to The ICIR that the whistleblower bears the financial burden involved.

"If any of our investigating agencies will need him to be in court, maybe as a witness or whatever reasons, I guess he will have to find a way to because when the benefit comes, whatever incidental expenses can be subtracted from it," he said.

By 'benefit,' Mr Oludare was referring to the financial reward a whistleblower is entitled to, anywhere between 2.5 per cent and 5.0 per cent of the total amount recovered.

Mr Oludare said the lack of legal backing for the policy means no funding, "If the policy gets legal backing, we can be talking about the funding for the programme, but as it stands today, it's just a policy," he explained.

Lack of legal backing compromising whistleblowing

Whistleblowers like Murtala Ibrahim, an internal auditor of the Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria, who was punished and later dismissed for exposing malfeasance, are continually subjected to all kinds of punishment for reporting fraud and corrupt practices in their offices.

This is because there is no legal instrument backing it.

A human rights lawyer and senior counsel at Ephesis Lex Attorneys and Solicitors, Abdul Mahmud, described the implementation of the whistleblower's policy as a "dismal failure" due to a lack of a legal framework.

"A policy is a direction of intent, and where it is not backed by law, no effective legal remedy can be derived from it," Mr Mahmud noted.

Mr Onyeacholem, like many other advocates, believes that the duty to blow the whistle can only be enhanced when citizens know that once they blow the whistle, there will not be retaliation, or if there is retaliation, they will be protected.

He added that advocacy to get "whistleblower protection law" is ongoing. A draft bill has been approved by the FEC.

Mr Oludare of PICA confirmed this. He said plans are underway to upgrade it into law. On 14 December last year, the FEC approved the council memo sent to them from the Ministry of Finance. Next is the transmission to the national assembly, Mr Oludare of PICA said.

Relevant stakeholders - investigating security agencies and CSOs are working on getting the policy status upgraded - passed by lawmakers and assented to by the president - before the end of his tenure this May.[1]

"Once we get the law, it will protect me, you or anybody who blows the whistle," Mr Oyeacholem said.

**This story is funded by The Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development under the Media Freedom Project through Justice for Journalists Foundation.**

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