Unholy Grail of Whistle-blowing in Nigeria

Several Nigerians recently expressed a good measure of outrage at what was perceived to be the laidback disposition of the National Judicial Commission and the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, with the arrest of judges by the DSS.  The insinuation that made the round was that there were many petitions forwarded to the NJC for which it was seemingly uninterested in prosecuting. If only yesterday 21st of October 2016 the NBA made an about turn and asked the NJC to sanction judges who were arrested by the DSS, the NJC had already set out to tell its own side of this dark story via a paid advertorial on The Guardian of Wednesday 19th 2016. In that document, several issues related to the similarity of the ‘sting’ operation by a body equivalent to our DSS in Ghana came up. One of the issues was that in the NJC attempt to maintain that there was no similarity whatsoever with the Nigerian and Ghanaian scenarios, the author of the NJC advertorial inadvertently mentioned the journalists who had carried out years and years of undercover work which exposed the problems of corruption in the Ghanaian judiciary.


According to the story in article 13 of the advertorial, a Ghanaian undercover journalist gathered video and audio evidence which supported allegations of corruption and bribery against some Ghanaian magistrates. After he finished with his investigation, he anonymously turned in the product of his investigation to the Ghanaian Judicial Council which proceeded to prosecute the magistrates on the strength of the evidence by the journalist.  In the said advertorial as well, the NJC cited the example of how Hon Justice I.A. Umezuluike, OFR, Chief Judge of Enugu state was recommended by the NJC on the strength of a petition written by a lawyer whose name the advertorial went ahead to mention. The lawyer’s name as a matter of fact, had been mentioned several times before the NJC advertorial, but that certainly is not the way we should be running the shows.

A whistleblower should be anonymous like the Deep Throat behind the Watergate scandal of 1972. After more than 30 years of being in the shadows, Deep Throat only surfaced a few years ago in 2005. That was when we finally got to know that it was indeed Mark Felt, former FBI agent who blew the whistle on Richard Nixon. A whistleblower exposes what governments, corporations or very powerful individuals would otherwise want to remain under lock and key. In most cases, they put the interest of the public’s right to know and to make informed decisions far ahead of the state and what it seeks to keep away from the public. Thereby, whistleblowers are a very vulnerable and marked people whose identities should not be brazenly thrown to the people in the murkiness of the deep and dark concerns of our public space, and to people who want to take their lives.

I understand the need of the NJC to want to set the records straight and put things in proper perspective but inadvertent gaffs like that of the NJC advertorial have led to the untimely deaths of those who risk their lives for the public good. Take the reported cases published in The Guardian newspaper of Thursday October 20, 2016. A staff member of the National Women Development Centre who exposed the brazen stealing of N300million meant for the alleviation of women in rural areas by top officials, has been dismissed. In another case reported in the publication, another staff member of the Ministry of Aviation who revealed the high level of graft in the ministry was not only sacked but is on the run for his life after his name popped up as the man who opened up the Pandora box of the aviation ministry.

But it has not only been Nigeria where whistleblowers’ lives have been put at grave risk, and for which they have paid the supreme price. According to the International Federation of Journalists, IFJ, over 60 journalists in 2016 who have pursued one criminal case or the other have been killed because of the cases they pursue. Take the case of the Bureau Chief of an Indian Hindi newspaper who was shot dead on 14 February 2016. He was driving home one day with his uncle when two unidentified people on a motorcycle stopped the car and opened fire. The victim was rushed to hospital but died shortly afterwards. He was said to have been targeted because he wrote about the mud mafia, a group involved in illegal black market activities. What about the case of Elvis Ordaniza the Pilipino who was killed early this year? He was shot twice in the chest at his home as he was preparing his dinner.  His colleagues believe that he was gunned down because he had been writing about illegal drugs and illegal gambling.

We may begin to assume that whistleblowers and journalist working to expose corruption in Nigeria may not get killed the way they get killed in Libya, Afghanistan, Brazil, Guinea and Guatemala. That is not really true. The ominous signs are already showing: a blogger with the Abia Facts newspaper was picked up recently by the DSS for ‘character defamation’. Another one from Cliqq Magazine as well was arrested by the police on September 19 2016 in Katsina State. His offence was that he was likely going to disrupt public peace by exposing something considered coarse about the governor of his state. This blogger was detained 7days before he was eventually released. Just a week after that, another one blogger was arrested in Katsina state again on the charge that his activities as a freelance journo were a threat to the esteemed Mr. Governor. Very recently as well, I began to get a feel of what dangers there are with whistleblowing in Nigeria: one government official called me up recently over an article concerning the Onitsha-Enugu Road published here in Daily Independent and with Punch, to give me the hint that I should write now and hope to write again tomorrow.

Certain issues arise and come off as common denominator from these tales. Most of the arrests of these bloggers have come from government or its agencies in an administration seeking to change the old order of doing things. That said, it therefore makes me imagine then that if these arrests were not coming from government, there is the likelihood that the perceived culprits would have been targeted and snuffed out by now. It is a chilling thought. Another thing about these arrests is that bloggers are often the targets. I agree that most are downright irresponsible. Most of them blogging on ‘social media’ know next to nothing about the avowed tenets – objectivity, fairness and accuracy – by which the journalism profession is known by.  Some are shadowy fronts for aggrieved politicians seeking a pound of flesh. Most are also used for mud-flinging at political opponents. But even as at that, do you go arresting someone who has slandered you or has the capacity to do so? No you don’t. What the system recommends is that you write this horrible individual a simple letter of your intention to initiate an action in court against them if they do not retract the publication which offends you. Chances are that that horrible individual spewing horrible things about will back off. You do not go arresting and clamping them in jail first on the perception that what they have published is injurious to you. You do not go arresting a blogger if what he or she is blogging about is false and cannot be substantiated.

What most administrations will do is stretch the limits of their systems and institutions and use every method to bring terrorists and people who threaten the state to book.  Not whistleblowers.  Recall the San Bernardino shooting incident early this year in the US. Just after the shooting, US government found out that the two terrorists who carried out the attack had a likely accomplice somewhere. To get at this accomplice, they asked Apple, the makers of the iPhone 5C they found in the possession of the shooters, for help to unlock the phone. But the phone company refused, insisting that just giving away passwords of their customers to third parties would undermine the security features of its products and result in a breach in the confidentiality between the company and its customers. Then the FBI asked the NSA to break into the phone but the NSA wasn’t able to do it. So what the FBI did next was apply to a Magistrate Court Judge to issue a court order, the All Writs Act of 1789, asking the makers of the phone to cooperate with the FBI.  But in the end, even though the phone company agreed to cooperate with the FBI by availing the FBI four other ways of breaking the password of the phone so that it can unlock that phone to ferret information from it, the NSA still had to use other methods not provided by the phone company to unlock the phone.

I do believe that it is the prerogative of the state to use whatever means necessary to fight terror and corruption especially as exemplified in the San Bernardino shooting incident. But using the instruments of state to coerce and intimidate perceived political opponents, and the use of those same instruments to limit our individual liberties of free speech and expression is what has created the ‘digital renegades’ in Julian Asange and Edward Snowden. Both Snowden and Asange are holed up in Russia and the Ecuadorian embassy respectively because both of them believe that you should not be spying on us in the name of national security. Both seem to believe that the individual’s right to know supersedes whatever overt methods the state seeks to use to guarantee national security. What all this ordinarily stresses is that here in Nigeria we must begin to look towards protecting whistleblowers from themselves and from those meaning them harm. I read a report recently in The Guardian, Nigeria of 20th October 2016 that the Bill for an Act to Protect Persons Making Disclosures for Public Interest and Others from Reprisals, 2016 (SB.158) has gone for second reading in the Senate. When passed into law, it is our hope that all such gaffs as the inadvertent disclosures of the identities of whistleblowers, together with the unnecessary arrests of journalists and bloggers and their wannabe ilk would be a thing of the past. We also hope that at least, it would be an indispensable tool in the fight to conclude all such high-profile corruption cases still lingering in our courts.

Written by
MajiriOghene Bob Etemiku
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