Nigeria | Those compromising whistleblowing

A survey published in 2021 shows that the majority of Nigerians perceive corruption as a major problem, but one-quarter of the respondents are 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 proper channels to make the report or take action against the suspects.

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 Oghenerhoro 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.

Martins has 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 in a petition forwarded by his lawyers to the ministry show.

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.

The report from the panel investigating the claims from Martins.
The report from the panel investigating the claims from Martins.

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 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 Martins, citing a breach of oath of secrecy as contained by the Public Service Rules (PSR).

The petition written to the Minister of Works and Housing from Martins’ lawyers.
The petition written to the Minister of Works and Housing from Martins’ lawyers.

The report reads that disciplinary action should be taken 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, tells 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 says.

When asked what happens when the internal structure is followed and no action is taken, Lere-Adams directed and 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, says 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. 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 is no response as at press time.

The Coalition for Whistleblower Protection and Press Freedom (CWPPF), describes the action against 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 says.

The 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 says. “It’s traumatising.”

Godwin Onyeacholem. Image: CORA
Godwin Onyeacholem. Image: CORA

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 Onyeacholem the ‘go-to guy’ whistleblowers call when they face challenges.

“Whistleblowing constricts their lives because of what they are going through,” he tells 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 says, recalling how family and friends blamed and abandoned him.

He is 70 now, when he spoke to The ICIR.

“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 adds in a restrained voice.

Compromised by journalists

Akeju, judging from his experience, says he won’t advise anyone to blow the whistle. He also says 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 explains.

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 Verlumun Celestine, describes the conduct of journalists who breach the confidentiality of sources as “unethical”.

He says 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”, says the doctor.

The national secretary for the Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) Shua’ibu Leman Usman, confirms to The ICIR that 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 says.

He adds that 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,” Usman says.

Compromised by security officials

Since the policy was not in effect in 2008 when 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 it was launched.

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 contacted the school for more information and eventually began prosecution.

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 says.

He had expected them to handle it with discreteness and protect his identity when reaching out to the school, but they didn’t, he says to 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 Ameh.

Ameh says, “When you blow the whistle, you have prepared food for the ICPC officials to eat”. By this, he means the ICPC personnel benefit directly by investigating suspects.

He insists the ICPC officers are corrupt as they use the opportunity for self-aggrandisement. The officers make money from the suspects in exchange for information.

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

For instance, Ameh says the ICPC prosecutor on the case, whom he calls “Barrister Iwoba” visits the college, and when he confronted her she told him she goes 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 that of the junior architect were not tendered in court. The ICIR could not independently verify this claim.

Ameh’s petition had fingered Ignatius Ezoem, Ugbechie Linus and Chukwuka Jonas, former provost, former registrar and former director of works respectively, all of whom were taken to court by the ICPC.

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

A letter Ameh wrote to ICPC with regards to suspicion of foul play 1
A letter Ameh wrote to ICPC with regards to suspicion of foul play 1
A letter Ameh wrote to ICPC with regards to suspicion of foul play (2)
A letter Ameh wrote to ICPC with regards to suspicion of foul play (2)

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

In addition, mails 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 focuses on the school’s mechanism for reporting corruption and reaction to a court judgement to reinstate Ameh.

Delayed by prolonged justice system

“They dismissed me twice, but they reinstated me twice”, Akeju, the accountant, tells 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,” explains the retired accountant.

“That was when they referred me to the industrial court.”

A major challenge facing whistleblowers is what 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 withholding of salary, suspension or even illegal dismissal from work.

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

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, the representative confirmed that Oye was not available, asked that the questions be sent to the council info mail; this has been done.

As at press time, the council is yet to respond to questions around 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,” says 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.”

This is known as 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 away in his kaftan. The incident has come to be known as ‘Gandollar’.

The purpose of SLAPP is to “intimidate and shut up” whistleblowers, says Onyeacholem.

What many people were not aware of at the launch of the policy is 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. It’s seven years later, the policy is yet to get the needed backing. This leaves whistleblowers exposed.

PICA – the clipped bird

After blowing the whistle, Joseph 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 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.

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,” says 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 adds.

Letter terminating Ameh’s employment.
Letter terminating Ameh’s employment.

The whistleblowing policy 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 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 says.

By ‘benefit’ Oludare refers to  financial reward a whistleblower is entitled to, anywhere between 2.5 per cent and 5.0 per cent of the total amount recovered.

Oludare says the policy lack of legal backing 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 explains.

Joseph Akeju’s life came to a standstill after blowing the whistle.
Joseph Akeju’s life came to a standstill after blowing the whistle.

Whistleblowers like Murtala Ibrahim, an internal auditor of 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 describe the implementation of the whistleblower’s policy as a “dismal failure” due to a lack of a legal backing.

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

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 adds that advocacy to get “whistleblower protection law” is ongoing. A draft bill has been approved by the FEC. 

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

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.

“Once we get the law, it will protect me, you or anybody who blows the whistle,” Oyeacholem says.


NJC’s response 

The NJC, in reaction to email enquiries by The ICIR on delayed court cases and how they impact whistleblowers, notes that  “cases are supposed to come before the Court after the Police or similar investigating bodies have concluded its investigation and the Court for the smooth hearing and adjudication of the case.  Regrettably, this is not always the case, as most of the matters are brought to Court before investigations are concluded. The prosecution is compelled to seek for adjournments to give them more time to prepare their case, and a charge is filed in Court.”

The commission spokesperson, Oye, says the speed with which a matter is concluded is largely in the hands of the prosecution and defence counsel.

“The Court, by Law, can do very little to hasten its proceedings. Proceedings are largely due to either the prosecution not diligently conducting its case or the defence deliberately exploiting the gaps in our Laws to frustrate the progress of the matter.

“Regrettably, the public does not get to understand this constraint,” Oye says. 

    He went on to note that the NJC deals decisively with judges found to have unduly delayed proceedings and conducted themselves in a manner unbecoming of a judicial officer.

    This they do after receiving a complaint or petition.

    Note: The last part of the report – NJC’s response – was updated after publication. That was when the response came. 

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

    Bamas Victoria is a multimedia journalist resident in Nigeria.

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