Whistle-blowers need legal protection – Punch

Pres. BuhariConfronted with its first open test, the Federal Government is scrambling to save its whistle-blowing initiative from implosion. Activated to boost the recovery of stolen public assets, the policy was enmeshed in controversy in January after the sacking of a top civil servant, who tipped off the government about alleged fraud in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The case is a litmus test for the anti-corruption crusade of the Muhammadu Buhari administration. It is unjust to punish an official that is an agent of change. For that reason, government has to instil confidence in the policy by giving whistle-blowers legal protection from victimisation and other threats. In a nutshell, Mr. Ntia Thompson had exposed alleged corruption by some officials in the said ministry, where he was an assistant director. He had tipped off the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission about a fraud of $229,000 and N800,000 in the ministry. The money was approved for the Directorate of Technical Cooperation in Africa, but was allegedly diverted by key officials. After raising the alarm, Thompson asked for police protection. But he never got it. Instead, he was queried, suspended and dismissed. This is unfair. The twist in the tale is an ill-omen. It validates the audibly-expressed fear that there might be teething problems associated with the implementation of the scheme. But as a new territory, such a challenge is to be expected. Fortunately, the hitch is surmountable. A delicate policy of this nature is not guaranteed plain sailing. So, it is perceptive that the Foreign Affairs Minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, has hearkened to the prayer of the victim, promising to heed Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo’s directive to review and uphold justice in the matter. The promise should be fulfilled. In fighting corruption and human rights abuse, member states of the European Union recognise the need to enshrine the whistle-blower policy in their statutes. The France-based 47-member Council of Europe — a think tank — recommends Britain’s Public Interest Disclosure Act of 1998 (amended in 2013) to willing countries. It says it is “the model in the field of (whistle-blower) legislation” as it protects employees in public and private service from retaliation against emotional and pecuniary damages. The Transparency International says because of the law, a court awarded an employee deemed to have been wrongly dismissed a compensation of £5 million. This gives bite to the policy. Nigeria unveiled the policy last year to curb corruption, and boost economic recovery. The Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, promised a reward of between 2.5 and 5 per cent of recovered loot to whistle-blowers, a fact reiterated last week by Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information. The dismissal of the affected civil servant shows that the protection of whistle-blowers from unfair treatment must be a critical plank of the policy so as not to dissuade informants. Shortly after its commencement, the policy is yielding rich dividends. It was through a whistle-blower that Abuja recovered $151 million and N8 billion, said Mohammed in February. This is apart from the $9.8 million and £74,000 the EFCC recovered from Andrew Yakubu, a former Group Managing Director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, in Kaduna. In December, a tip-off from an artisan led to the discovery by the EFCC of 47 SUVs, buses, trucks and 100 motorcycles parked in a house by a retired permanent secretary. It is also through this same means that 17 cars were found in the Kaduna warehouse of a former Customs Comptroller-General. With the aid of an informant, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission, in March, announced the seizure of “220 flats located in 20 estates,” 165 rounds of ammunition and weapons from an aide to a former governor of Bauchi State. Four weeks ago, another informant tipped the EFCC off about the N8.4 billion stashed away in secret bank accounts with no signatories. The EFCC placed the money under a temporary forfeiture order. But no matter how laudable the policy is, it is open to abuse and exploitation by bent officials. According to human rights experts, whistle-blowers are vulnerable to retaliation, victimisation and physical harm. This weakens an anti-graft drive, but emboldens the looters. Therefore, justice has to be done in the Thompson case to boost whistle-blowers’ confidence. In the event that he has been unfairly sacked, he should be reinstated and compensated. His traducers should, however, be made to pay for their indiscretion. Government should also fulfil its promise of reward to whistle-blowers. This is why it has become crucial for the National Assembly to quickly pass the Whistle-blower Bill before it. This will give teeth to the policy, guarantee the rights of, and compensations for, whistle-blowers, and ensure that corrupt officials have nowhere to hide their loot.

No comments