Bearing witness in Africa: Whistleblowing should not be a single and lonely moment

This post by Khadija Sharife underlines the importance of whistleblowers in the fight against corruption in Africa and elsewhere, highlighting the price paid by many of them and options for ensuring they are better protected.

To bear witness to injustice is the most powerful act of humanity.

It demands the coming together of conscience, empathy and courage in a single moment, where one individual thinks of their life in the context of the world around them, and reconciles their free will within the destiny or ‘fate’ that brought them to this point.

Their testimony or ‘disclosure’ may forever alter the reality of one person or many, one animal or an entire species. The moment itself, however brief, is the distillation of our purpose as human beings, for those of us listening and the one, oft lonely soul, who makes us aware.

These citizens are often called whistleblowers in countries with legislation and sources or leakers in countries without. But if they are lucky enough to be born in countries with enough foresight and civic pressure to enact some measure of protection, bearing witness also leads them down the path of being weaponised where the public good is at stake.

Yet in countries without a strong judiciary, civil society and media, the public good is usually interpreted by those holding power and able to justify systemic injustice  in ways the public may not even be aware of, let alone hold to account. They may even invite select civil society organisations such as big labor unions to legitimate compromise under the guise of common or mutual interest – and a seat at the sovereign table.

But these interests only infrequently speak to the needs and rights of citizens who are almost never offered such a space. In fact, as evidenced by the global arms industry which has less regulation globally than the soy milk industry rarely are ‘mutual’ interests the same as equal and democratic interests. That is, the higher the financial, legal and political stakes of disclosure, the more influence is exerted on the process through which the disclosure will be handled in order to control the outcome. (This happened recently in South Africa where end user certificates for  arms exported to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, peddling weapons to conflict zones, were adjusted after pressure from those governments who claimed ‘sovereign’ infringement.)

In cases where the public applies pressure but democracy limited, an entire theatre of activity may be choreographed to ventilate public frustration and give room for the appearance of accountability through its weaker and toothless cousin: transparency.

Many whistleblowers cease to be humans and are often stripped, layer by layer, until they are used to the bone and nothing more than evidence, required to relive that one moment over and over.

During my time with an African whistleblowing centre – the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF), I learned that while such disclosures alter the fate of nations and even topple presidents, whistleblowers lose their families, jobs and even their will to live. They may be divorced, threatened with child custody disputes, or have corporations and politicians publicly celebrate them while they privately turn their faces away.

Being ‘celebrated’ as an individual is, at times, more dire than anonymity, exacerbating the despair as identities are forever locked into that single story. As Bianca Goodson, a South African ‘State Capture’ whistleblower often said, ‘testifying in parliament does not put food on my kid’s plate.’ (Goodson’s disclosure helped remove the former president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma and gave momentum to the creation of the State Capture Commission.)

What angers the most is the elephant in the room: more often than not, disclosures, particularly those involving use of public monies or beneficial ownership of companiesi is information that should have already been in the public domain or where laws demanding disclosure would have prevented wrongdoing in the first place.

Our political economies have yet to be designed as “accountable”.

These laws, ranging from country-by-country reporting for multinationals to a lack of prohibitions on the use of tax havens by home and host economies, are known and debated – but never truly realised as law.

So, how do we make the shift?

At the national level, whistleblowing is a lonely and barren island:

Where legislation exists, whistleblowing is often limited to employees, may expose them, or fail to protect from civil or criminal lawsuits, be subject to secretive processes, have no time limit to conclude investigations, include fines or prison for the whistleblower, exist in an authoritarian or corrupt environment and even constrain the definition of whistleblowing to reduce or remove a variety of circumstances and voices. Not all whistleblowers are without motivation and some, including where the system incentivises payment, may act to harm a politician, a media, a corporate rival or even an NGO.

A chunk of  Africa, particularly in francophone countries remains undemocratic while others in Southern Africa are secretive, thin on democracy and often dominated by one-state political parties that de facto control governments and collude with corporate companies eager to have a place under the political umbrella.

National and regional civil society organisations anchored in community movements, investigative media, labor organisations and other local grassroots systems must be strengthened. They are, or should be, on the frontline of rights and responsibilities between citizens and the state.

But externally, a coalition of pan-African and international actors must be formalised to  to recognise and create a safer global environment within which individual sovereign governments will be forced to respond.

This includes:

A international legal framework to protect whistleblowers: in a globalised economy, corruption, crime and illicit activities do not stop at national borders though law enforcement, the judiciary and political reach often does. Where governing systems are controlled or hijacked by authoritarian, corrupt and criminal regimes, whistleblowers with cross-border disclosures need an independent oversight body to address their concerns.

Access to political asylum across Africa and internationally: asylum shopping is a long, arduous and often political game where some countries receive donor aid for intake of refugees, stateless people and increasingly, victims of the climate crisis. But whistleblowers, save for exceptions on political issues, have yet to be universally recognised in law as deserving of political asylum on safer shores.

A transnational support fund: whether expert legal assistance is needed for pro bono defense, a therapist for psychological support or a few months of financial support, whistleblowers stuck in national silos need a range of resources to help them cross the bridge from precarity, external pressure and collision of the personal and professional to a better space.

A global adversarial and independent whistleblower court: many of the cases involving the whistleblower centre/PLAAF evidenced foreign citizens disclosing on African issues or African citizens disclosing on foreign companies and governments – even multilateral institutions. These issues cannot easily be addressed in countries vulnerable to a domino effect. hutting down a mining company, stripping a bank of its license or freezing assets may impact donor aid, foreign direct investment and even trade agreements. In countries where the highest political seats are held by corrupt parties, whistleblowing is not even an option.

Simply put, whistleblowing is a specific action that demands that a legal process be created to address its unique form and message. In a globalised world, where more than 60% of Africa’s illicit outflow involves multinationals, African whistleblowers and foreign citizens disclosing on African issues need an arena where issues can be investigated swiftly and independently and where support can be accessed for human as well as evidentiary purposes.

Bearing witness to injustice is the most powerful act of humanity.

But the human beings who stand on the frontline to do so — for their conscience and courage, that single moment that fulfils our human potential,should not be abandoned or left to die there.

Let’s stand with them and make that single and lonely moment ours too.

Webinar on emergency measures to protect whistleblowers and promote reporting during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond

OECD work on whistleblower protection

Photo credit © Maya-Aska Yokoi-Arai

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