Protect, encourage whistle blowers to make disclosures

The courage of a few Kenyans has made whistle-blowing fashionable again. Whistle-blowers are at the centre of reports that a staggering Sh190 million may have been stolen from Maasai Mara University and the Child Welfare Society of Kenya has been ill-treating and abusing several orphaned children.

All societies across history have had whistle-blowers. Men and women who exposed discrimination, torture, slavery, murder, corruption or abuse of public office. Kenya is no different.

It was David Munyekei and Jacinta Mwatela who exposed the infamous Goldenberg scandal that cost the country billions of shillings in fake export compensation schemes in the 1990s. One of Kenya’s most famous whistle-blowers John Githongo now faces a fine of Sh24 million for doing his job as an anti-corruption presidential advisor a decade ago. In 2015, former Nation Parliamentary Editor John Ngirachu was hounded out of the National Assembly for informing the public that the Interior Ministry couldn’t account for Sh3.4 billion.

Remember the infamous Sh5 billion Afya House scandal in 2016? Now retired, it was internal auditor Bernard Muchere who disclosed those 100 portable containers, other goods and supplies only the tenderpreneurs wanted. A couple of years later, charismatic student leader Evans Njoroge was killed for organising demonstrations against financial malpractices at Meru University.

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Last week, we said goodbye to Edward Ouko, one of Kenya’s most resilient whistle-blowers. During his tenure as Auditor General, he survived intimidation, reduced funding, legal and parliamentary attempts to cripple his office. Whistle-blowing does not come without a significant personal cost. Many have lost their jobs, been blackmailed, financially ruined, threatened with death or worse still killed, like land activist Esther Mwikali last week.

Whether accountants, journalists, investigators, prosecutors or students, most whistle-blowers I have met are driven by their love of the truth, country and God. Their actions have been central to us having a country over complete chaos. Inspired by this week’s revelations, we need to ask why we do not intentionally encourage and protect more whistle-blowing. Why does Kenya not yet have a Whistle-Blowers Protection Act two years after it was drafted by Attorney General?

The Bill seeks to deepen ethics and integrity across private and public institutions and protect us against unlawful, corrupt or dangerous behavior by those in power. Whistle-blowers would be protected and encouraged to make disclosures to the Office of the Presidency, other Government offices, statutory and constitutional commissions, law enforcement agencies, Parliament, civic organisations and the media. It would shield citizens against discrimination, intimidation, demotion or being sacked for protecting the public or public finances. It even proposes rewards for those that reveal gross mismanagement, public theft and human rights violations.

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Without the Bill’s enactment our laws remain in disarray. Currently, the Witness Protection Act and the Witness Protection Agency only protects whistle-blowers who agree to testify in court. The Kenya Anti-Corruption and Economic Crimes Act mentions informers, witnesses and investigators but is silent on whistle-blowers. The Public Officer and Ethics Act actively threatens civil servants who speak out with Sh5 million fines and five-year jail terms. Ironically, the Access to Information Act on the other hand gives us the right to demand information from civil servants in line with Article 35 of the Constitution.

Psychologists will tell you children are born honest and courageous. It takes about five years for most to become pretty competent liars and thieves. Children learn early that stealing biscuits, colourful pencils and cheating may get them goodies and better grades. Reporting other children that lie and steal soon becomes snitching. Uncomfortable truth-telling needs incentives and protection not just for children but adults as well.

With rising public confidence in the offices of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Director of Criminal Investigations and the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, no less than 8,000 corruption cases and 3,331 human rights violations, it seems this Bill could be a game-changer.

Understanding this, even countries with much lower levels of corruption like Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania and Uganda have already passed similar Bills.

Continuing to overlook this Bill is not in the public interest. To paraphrase our new Kenyan hero Spencer Sankale; is it because those that have the power to pass this Bill would rather the country remains on its knees than on its feet?

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. [email protected]      

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Irungu HoughtonWhistle blowersCorruption