On December 21, 2016, Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Finance approved a whistleblowing program as part of the Nigerian government’s continued efforts to fight corruption. Key features of the program include the launch of an online portal for submission of tips and the establishment of a reward for “information that directly leads to the voluntary return of stolen or concealed public funds or assets” (the reward is 2.5 to 5% of the amount recovered, with the percentage decreasing as the amounts recovered increases). As over $176 million in stolen funds was recovered within the first two months of the program, the whistleblowing policy appears to be an overnight success story. Nevertheless, although stolen funds are indeed being recovered, the existing policy does not do enough to offset the risks that whistleblowers face when they come forward with information, and this deficiency may limit the long-term effectiveness of the program. In particular, there are three aspects of the program that the government ought to reform in order to encourage individuals to assume the risks associated with becoming a whistleblower, and consequently to ensure the policy’s continued success.
- First, although the financial reward of up to 5% of the amount recovered can be substantial in monetary terms, the requirements to qualify for a financial reward are too stringent. To qualify for the reward under the current policy, the whistleblower “must provide the government with information it does not already have and could not otherwise obtain from any other publicly available source to the Government. The actual recovery must also be on account of the information provided.” As others have pointed out, these terms, specifically “obtain from any other publicly available source,” could enable the government to refuse to pay the reward if the whistleblower submitted information that the government “already had” or “could have had.” Since cases under investigation are not available on the online portal, the possibility of this scenario occurring is even greater. Therefore, an individual may be discouraged from offering a tip if he or she believes the government will have “already had” access to the information or even that the government could use the information against the whistleblower.
- Second, the whistleblower protection provisions of the current program are too vague and lack a solid foundation in law. Although the program declares that whistleblowers will be protected, and that those who retaliate against whistleblowers will be appropriately disciplined, these protections are not currently supported by a whistleblower protection statute. In other words, whistleblower protection rests on political will, not law. Although political will could serve to provide adequate protection, recent controversy over the termination of a whistleblower by an agency of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and general evidence of the frequency of whistleblower retaliation, shows that whistleblower protection may need to be backed by more than just political will to convince potential whistleblowers to take the risk of being publicly identified.
- Third, many would-be whistleblowers do not bother to disclose corrupt acts because of the low probability that the perpetrator will be punished. As others have suggested, the government will need to “tighten the odds of successful prosecution” for the whistleblower policy to work. Fixing this problem requires reforms beyond the whistleblower program itself, reforms that would address the performance of institutions like the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offences Commission (ICPC), the Code of Conduct Bureau (CCB), the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), and the judiciary.
Without question the whistleblower program appears to be a step in the right direction to tackling the very complex and longstanding issue of corruption in Nigeria. However, to continue its achievements in recovering funds through tips, the government should ensure the risks the whistleblower faces by coming forward with information are properly balanced with the financial incentive, guarantee of protection, and confidence in successful investigations and prosecutions.