Ayodele Subair: Whistleblowers are Heroes, their Protection a Priority
On August 5, 2022, The Lagos state government, through the Lagos Internal Revenue Service, launched an anonymous whistleblowing initiative, which allows callers to raise concerns regarding incidents of wrongdoing, fraud or unethical behaviour within the workplace. In this regard and, LIRS Executive Chairman, Ayodele Subair in this interview with Sunday Ehigiator, shed more light on the policy, the importance of whistleblowers, while also assuring them of their safety
The state government recently launched the whistleblowing policy expected to improve service delivery of your commission, can you take us through this policy, how it started, and what it intends to achieve?
Whistleblowing is all about reporting certain types of inappropriate acts, wrongdoings, and financial crimes that could occur within the system; when I say within the system, I mean both internally and externally, within LIRS, outside LIRS, in various offices of private companies, public establishments, etc.
We expect that anybody who knows of any such inappropriate act can report it to an appropriate authority with the whole aim of sanitizing the system and making things more transparent and accountable.
Does the LIRS structure support this policy?
Yes, it’s a framework of the Lagos state government and the Lagos state government in its infinite wisdom and wanting to strengthen the code of ethics and high standards decided to adopt this framework as a statewide policy.
LIRS is the major revenue-generating arm for the state and because of our outreach we have a multifaceted interface with the whole of the state, the business side of the state, know where better to start with and the LIRS. Over time it is going to be adopted by all all-other ministries, departments and agencies.
What is the reason why this is coming now?
Better now than never and everybody strives to improve on all forms, all procedures, all processes all the time. The business world is dynamic and we must be seen to also recognize global practices and global best practices.
It could have come at any time but you know, it needs to come now, the government is trying to create an enabling environment where businesses will thrive without negativity and just make life easy for everybody, it’s just an instrument that is being introduced to help achieve that objective
Is there a framework within the policy that also protects the whistleblower?
Yes, protection is enshrined in the framework of the whistleblowing policy. It is expressly stated in the documentation that the whistleblower must be protected from any form of victimization, intimidation or any such action that can be meted out against such whistleblowers and part of how all these is to be achieved is the ways through which the report can be made.
There are three methods of reporting, it can be confidential, it can be partially anonymous and it can be completely anonymous. In all three methods, the sanctity of protection of the whistleblower is well enshrined.
For instance, with the completely anonymous method, no details of the whistleblower are provided, it is completely anonymous, even if it’s not stated whether it’s male or female, the gender is taken out of it completely.
When in the case of partial anonymity the whistleblower provides his name but this is just for recording when the actual investigations are being carried out, the name of that whistleblower will not be forwarded.
Thirdly in the case of the confidential method, the names and particulars and telephone numbers will be provided by the whistleblower but he has the option to give that information and the whole purpose is so that he can be involved also through the provision of all documents.
If they need more documents you know to investigate, he can be reached very easily. In the case of partial anonymity, the only reason why they have the details of the whistleblower is in case they need to find out more information from him, but at no point will they reveal the details of who that whistleblower is.
It’s a very important concept. Nonetheless, LIRS is partnering with Deloitte, Deloitte Tip-off Anonymous and is a globally accredited accounting and consulting firm one of the top four in the world and they are independent accessors.
How does this partnership work?
Deloitte manages the portal, tip-offs.deloitte.com.ng and all the various communication channels that are open to the whistleblowers, so they get the report, they sieve through the report to see how just to ensure that it’s not malicious.
We don’t want a frivolous or malicious report, we sieve through to see if there is really a case to investigate and then they will then also through specific people who have been assigned within this whistle-blowing framework, will pass it on to them.
Depending on the report itself, if it is from a staff of LIRS for instance they will partner with specific personnel, it is not just open to everybody, so specific people will be contacted to carry out some investigations and advise the independent assessor.
If it’s about the management of LIRS for instance it won’t even come to LIRS it will go to the ministry of finance under the Honorable commissioner of finance for him to carry out his independent investigation and then some of these reports could be escalated, it can be escalated directly to Mr Governor, all to ensure that you know the offenders are not part of the investigative team.
It’s being handled by professionals, by people who are well vast in this act.
What are the avenues for whistleblowers to report their cases?
Okay so there is a web portal tip-offs.deloitte.com.ng, and there is an application that you can download on your phone, there is a whistle-blowing application you can get through android or IOS, you can also phone in, phone open for 24 hours, 365days in a year and the operators are multilingual. They speak English, Pidgin, Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo and any other language, including French.
There is the likelihood that no matter who it is, illiterate or literate there will be an operator at the other end who can handle this matter so well. All the communication channels as explained to you are run and managed by Deloitte directly so all they have to do is call in or write in and make the report.
You emphasized the whistleblower being anonymous, confidential or partially anonymous, in some exceptional cases if the whistleblower’s identity is known to the offender or public, how do you protect them from victimization or threat to life?
As I said it’s expressly stated that by all means any whistleblower must be protected. It’s expected that the person can also report directly to the Deloitte platform; you don’t have to come to management.
The channel is always open. You can go back to the channel, call them or send messages to them that you have been victimized by whoever. On the part of management, you know all those allegations and reports are perceived by these reporters or whistleblowers.
We want to expressly state that their identities definitely will be protected. There will be no leak along the whole chain starting from Deloitte with the management of LIRS, to the ministry of finance; all the necessary measures have been put in place to ensure that there is no leak.
So I will just say that anybody who is being victimized under the suspicion of being the Whistleblower should report it immediately for effective protection.
So, don’t you think the police should come to play in such cases?
It is the whistleblower who still has to determine the nature of the claim. Even if he is a suspect or not, part of the whistleblowing framework also makes it an obligation of the Whistleblower to keep the information to himself.
He is not supposed to announce that he has gone to whistle blow on anybody you know, because everything is being kept very confidential. Now under confidential reporting, even the whistleblower can select that he is open to having direct testimony in front of everybody.
It depends really if it’s going to be something that could be injurious and you know to him personally, he has to make sure that he reports it to whatever appropriate authorities it might be to management, it might be to Deloitte, it might be to the police, you know it depends on his fear level.
You know once there is fear of life in anything the appropriate authority is the police as you know the police are your friend all the time.
Talking about the authentication of claims, how could that be possible without hinting to the accused that there is an investigation on him?
Well, the framework does not provide for that. There is no way we can put the offender on notice without him trying to influence the outcome of the investigation. So clearly the offender is not to be contacted.
If there’s any contact at all at the end of the day, it is after all the investigations have been concluded and an opinion has been made, or the case has been made against them, they must be some form of reprimand.
If you are reprimanding anybody, I mean the laws of justice and equity provide that you put him on notice so that he can defend himself, so that he can get a fair hearing and defend himself.
Some people think this policy is unnecessary because they feel there are existing tax laws that make provisions for enforcing tax payments, how would you react to this?
Well, I think those are two different functions. Law enforcement talks about a liability being established and the taxpayer who must pay doesn’t want to pay. In other words, he has become recalcitrant so when he becomes recalcitrant then we have to move into the side of enforcement.
Which would either be going to the law court, going to the tax appeal tribunal and if need be obtaining a restraining order to go and enforce the outstanding liability.
This is a different ball game entirely. What we’re trying to do here really is to try and clean up the system and also at the same time increase the level of compliance with the tax laws.
They’re two different things but complement each other of course. At the end of the day, we want a good enabling environment for businesses to thrive; we want to achieve our main objective of generating revenue for the benefit of the state and its residents.
It is this revenue that we generate that helps with all the developmental projects, provision of infrastructure, provision of qualitative social services and so on.
If there are any challenges or constraints in generating that revenue, it affects the ability of the good office of Mr Governor to provide those services that he has been elected to carry out and we know all the lofty agenda of Mr Babajide Sanwoolu the indefatigable governor that there is a need to raise revenue to implement the THEME’s agenda.
Anything that is going to be a constraint to that has to be tackled head-on. So we hope that this whistleblowing initiative will be embraced by all and sundry. It’s not just about LIRS OR LIRS Staff; it is also about other members of the public, not just taxpayers.
Anybody who has information on any wrongdoing is expected to speak up. If you don’t have a speak-up culture, things will continue to deteriorate in society. So they’re two different things.
Asides from the need to always report on anything you feel is not right, what nature of cases are open to the platform, and are there any criteria that a whistleblower must fulfil before his case can be obtainable?
No, there are no criteria. Any member of the public is entitled to be a whistleblower. He doesn’t have to practice or prepare anything; all he has to do is contact the platform and make his report.
If he wants to submit documents it helps the case further, if you have no documents to submit, the matter will also be investigated. There’s no restriction.
It could be the case of a taxpayer or an employer deducting taxes from payroll and not remitting to LIRS, it could be under remittance also, it could be a financial crime, any type of financial crime, it could be money laundering, and it could be an item even in another ministry.
As long as it affects taxes, it needs to be reported. It could be over-invoicing or under-invoicing, it could be a forgery, and it could even be that a company can have two different sets of books of accounts, if an employee knows that his company is keeping false accounts, he can also come forward and report his company.
There are all sorts of categories of reports that can be made as long as it’s wrongdoing, inappropriate behaviour, it’s unethical behaviour, and it’s financial crime. And it all falls under the purview of what is to be reported
Charity, they say begins at home, are members of Staff of the LIRS also permitted to be a whistleblower?
Yes, members of staff can be a whistleblower. They might want to whistleblow on a taxpayer, or they might want to whistleblow on another member of the public who is involved in wrongdoing. They might also want to whistleblow on some of their colleagues that are probably involved in inappropriate behaviour. So it’s open to everybody with no restrictions.
What is the synergy with the FIRS on this?
Well, you cannot predict the outcome of an investigation. If there is a need to contact the FIRS to obtain information that will aid instigation, yes of course that channel is there, it’s very open.
Already we have an agreement on the exchange of information and collaboration with a lot of federal agencies including the FIRS, so it’s not unusual or uncommon that when we need information from them, we will request and they will always oblige us.
It works both ways when they need us also, we are always there to provide the necessary information.
Are there any incentives for whistleblowers?
Well, this framework that we are operating right now has no incentives. There’s no financial incentive, maybe letters of commendation to prospective whistleblowers, or some formal recognition because they are heroes. Whistleblowers are heroes.
They should be regarded as heroes and there must be an acknowledgement of the bravery of their hearts because it means that they generally also are interested in cleansing the system. If you’re talking of financial rewards, presently there are no financial rewards.
Frameworks are very dynamic and constantly reviewed. If there will be a need for financial rewards, it will be introduced but members of the public should also see it as part of their civic duty.
You know we are all Nigerians; we have to improve our economy. We have to improve our image all the time. Where there is any perceived wrongdoing on the part of anybody you know, if there’s no sound business and financial system in any economy, investors are going to run away.
We’ll have to put our hands together to ensure that we carry out our civic duties and improve on transparency and accountability at all times.
Is there any synergy with banks in terms of them also being a whistleblower?
You are asking if the banks can act as whistleblowers against persons who are not properly registered and who are engaged in business, yes.
Already there are provisions in the law, there is an executive order that compels all banks to ensure that every customer has a Tax Identification Number (TIN) and a Taxpayer ID. That is already in place and so the banks will usually furnish us with the list of all the customers, all new customers that open the account.
They are compelled under the personal income tax act and they comply with this order. There is a whole system of collaboration between us and the banks so we will also expect that they help to whistle blow wherever it is appropriate.
Would there be any other thing you want to put on the records about the policy?
The only thing I would put on the record is to reiterate that all whistleblowers will be protected. There will not be any backlash, intimidation, or harassment against them.
We urge and encourage all members of the public, be it, taxpayers, be it, other public servants, be it, other civil servants, to try and speak up because if we do not speak up, things cannot improve or get better in the business world. Thank you.