When Nigeria’s minister of finance, Kemi Adeosun, announced the introduction of the whistleblower policy last December, the news barely gained traction. Many Nigerians were cynical at best, having grown accustomed to seeing the federal government churn out policies that turn out to be ineffective in the long run.

The finance ministry said that whistleblowers who provided tips and information regarding the violation of financial regulations, mismanagement of public funds and assets, financial malpractice or fraud and theft that was deemed to be in the interest of the public, were entitled to, among other things, between 2,5-5% of the amount recovered, after they had provided credible information that lead to a successful enforcement action.

When compared to certain other government initiatives of the past, this policy seems to be different. For one, Nigeria’s minister of information, Lai Mohammed, said in February that the whistleblower policy had led to the recovery of over USD180 million from various corrupt individuals. This includes the USD9,8million that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) recovered from Andrew Yakubu, the former group managing director of Nigeria’s state oil company, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation.

Ikoyi apartment Lagos where millions of dollars were hidden. Photo: EFCC

“The biggest amount of USD136,7 million was recovered from an account in a commercial bank, where the money was kept under an apparently fake account name,” Mr Mohammed said. “The whistleblower policy is barely two months old and Nigerians have started feeling its impact; seeing how a few people squirreled away public funds.”

Read: Sending a warning: Former Nigerian governor gets five-year sentence for corruption

Mr Mohammed’s announcement did not trigger national excitement nor discussion over the issue, until last week, when the EFCC, acting on a tip provided by a whistleblower, retrieved USD43,4million from a luxury apartment in Ikoyi in Nigeria’s commercial centre of Lagos.

The policy is not backed by any law, and this creates legal gaps that need to be addressed urgently

“The operation followed a whistleblower’s confidential alert, received by this commission’s Lagos office this morning, regarding some noticed suspicious movement of bags in and out of a particular apartment in the building,” the EFCC said in a statement. “Preliminary findings indicate that the funds are suspected to be the proceeds of unlawful activity. Facility is said to be owned by Osborne Towers Resident Association.”

Stirring up controversy

This last sentence, concerning the ownership of the building rather than the recovered money, has been stirring controversy since last week. The local online newspaper Premium Times reported that the millions found in the Ikoyi apartment was “a discreet allocation” released to the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) for “major but covert security projects”, citing presidency and security sources. Southern Nigeria’s Rivers State also claimed that the money was stolen by Nigeria’s minister of transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, who was Rivers State governor until 2015. The present Rivers State governor, Nyesom Wike, alleged that the money was the proceeds of the sale of the state’s gas turbines to Sahara Energy. Being the typical politician he is, Amaechi has denied ownership of the apartment.

Though a federal high court in Lagos has ordered the temporary forfeiture of the money to the federal government and adjourned further proceedings to 5 May 2017 for anyone interested in claiming the money, the continued silence of the EFCC on the identity of the owner of the Ikoyi cash haul has attracted mixed reaction from Nigerians.

43 million USD found in Ikoyi last week. Photo: EFCC

“We have the DSS, the NIA, the DIA, the EFCC, the ICPC, the Nigerian Police, but we still don’t know who owns that Ikoyi house,” tweeted Saatah Nubari, a social commentator.

Another Twitter user, known as Vincent, likened the scenario to ‘Night of a Thousand Laughs’, once a popular comedy show across Nigeria. “With the EFCC’s refusal to disclose who owns the Ikoyi $43m, it’s safe to call their anti-corruption war ‘a night of a thousand laughs’”, Vincent wrote.

Away from the heated debates over the EFCC’s motives and the ownership of the cash haul, tipsters or whistleblowers, who provide actionable tips to agencies like the EFFC to investigate and recover looted government funds, remain at the heart of these recoveries. The policy was introduced in the hope of incorporating regular Nigerians into fighting the war against corruption, and it appears to be working.

Read: Nigeria’s whistle-blowers and the fight against corruption

Regular Nigerians have so far provided the information that served as the primary impetus for the start of investigations into stolen funds. Whistleblowers have not only helped the EFCC to open investigation but also provided critical information that often led to the retrieval of large sums of money.

To encourage other tipsters to provide further information, the federal anti-graft agency must be transparent about how much is given to the whistleblower.

It is noteworthy that the policy in Nigeria is in sync with international standards in terms of protecting the confidentiality of whistleblowers. However, the policy is not backed by any law, and this creates legal gaps that need to be addressed urgently, because it is possible for agencies to directly or indirectly reveal a whistleblower’s identity.

To encourage other tipsters to provide further information, the federal anti-graft agency must be transparent about how much is given to the whistleblower. In the United States, for instance, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) does not only issue a press release following the provision of credible information that significantly contributes to the success of its enforcement action, but also publicly states the amount awarded to the tipster or whistleblower.

Experts say that the Nigerian legislature would need to formally pass a law establishing the whistleblower policy for it to become more effective. This will also require of the parliament to harmonise all Bills regarding whistle-blowing that are on its radar.