Recalibrating Nigeria’s Whistleblowing Policy: An urgent plea for a comprehensive whistleblower protection legislation

Author: Olabisi D Akinkugbe
PhD candidate at the University of Ottawa, Canada

This short essay draws attention to the current gap in regulatory framework for the protection of whistleblowers in Nigeria and its potential to derail any meaningful sustained and long-term success of the country’s nascent whistleblower program. The other socio-political factors that would contribute to the effectiveness of the program in Nigeria are discussed in a forthcoming article by the author.

Whistleblowing refers to the public interest disclosure of information by members of an organization or government employees about illegal and immoral practices by other employees or other persons who deal with the organization, such as contractors, in the case of public governance. Employees are often the first to recognize malpractice, fraud, dishonest and illegal activity, or other wrongdoing with potential impact on the public interest. As a public governance integrity enhancing mechanism, it is primarily linked to encouraging and enhancing the public disclosure of wrongdoing in order to improve accountability and transparency.

Whistleblowing in public governance in Nigeria has a fairly recent history. In December 2016, the Nigerian government adopted the country’s first National Anti-Corruption Strategy (2017-2020) (“NACS”). An important feature of the NACS is the introduction of whistleblowing as a tool for combating corruption in public institutional governance in Nigeria. Although the corporate governance whistleblower program predates that of the public sector, the latter has garnered more engagement from citizens and has been more consequential in terms of recovered funds by the Nigerian government. The adoption of NACS was swiftly followed by the launch of the whistleblowing program by the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Finance, also in 2016. In its current practice, the whistleblowing program has enjoyed a modest and hugely publicized result. Yet, the long-term sustenance of the program urgently requires not only the adoption of a comprehensive legal framework, but also, the co-ordination of all the anti-corruption agencies in Nigeria in order to understand their role in the process.

Up to date the implementation of the whistleblower policy has carried on without underpinning whistleblower protection legislation. While there are at least (3) different bills – the Witness Protection Bill; the Whistle Blowers’ Protection Bill; the Public Interest Disclosure Bill – at various stages of legislative process before the Nigerian National Assembly, the government has a window of opportunity to recalibrate the whistleblower program as a matter of urgency by consolidating these bills into a comprehensive legislation. If done, this would minimize the risk of retaliation and backlash against potential whistleblowers. To manage the incidences of retaliation, victimization, and encourage voluntary public interest disclosure, certain universal features distinguish a comprehensive whistleblower legislation, to wit; it guarantees effective enforcement mechanisms for the rights and remedies of the whistleblowers; facilitates public awareness and education about whistleblowing; it must be specific, clear, complete, and simple in order to properly protect those who, in good faith and on reasonable grounds, speak out against suspected acts of wrongdoing. These are some of the ideals that such legislation must provide for. In addition, its implementation process is also be backed by unequivocal political will, independence in investigative process, and confidentiality of the identity of the whistleblower. The legislation should also provide for a trustworthy chain of disclosure open to receiving complaints and must offer a safe alternative to silence.

In a society like Nigeria with complex socio-economic and political relations and a notorious history of corruption, the risks associated with whistleblowing for the whistleblower are minimally curtailed where a comprehensive and effectively implemented legal framework exits. The lack thereof thus, exacerbates the risks for the whistleblower.

While the adoption of whistleblower protection legislation is generally accepted as a feature of international whistleblowing best practices, it is important to note that every act of whistleblowing takes place in different socio-political and cultural contexts. These complex heterogeneous contexts and informal social norms have significant impact on the overall implementation of whistleblowing programs whether in the corporate or public sector governance. The phenomenon and the experience of whistleblowers in the implementation process in one jurisdiction or country cannot be directly compared to experience in a different cultural or legislative context, often at a different time. Knowledge gap, socio-political realities, poverty and overall management by the regulators all impact the complexity that accompanies the implementation of the phenomenon of whistleblowing. Hence, the passage of the whistleblower protection legislation represents the first of many formal and informal steps that would be required to ensure the institutionalization of whistleblowing policy in Nigeria.

About the Author:
Olabisi D Akinkugbe is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada and a PhD Candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, Ontario Canada. 

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