Anti-corruption whistleblowers remain as persecuted as ever
11 July 2024
Author: Eugene Arnaud Yombo Sembe, PhD
Photo: Canva

Marking African Anti-Corruption Day this July 11, 2024 which celebrates the 21st anniversary of the adoption of the African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption reminds us that good governance implies a strong commitment to open government. In this way, it integrates all social components into the control of public action. Citizen control of public action is an important part of this accountability process. The theme of this year hightlights the integral role of whistleblowers in promoting accountability. Over the last ten years in Africa, they have brought to light the endemic corruption on the continent. However, the continent is still lagging far behind as far as their protection is concerned. Those who denounce corruption are subjected to judicial harassment, unfair dismissal, threats and sometimes even death.

The Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF) defines a whistleblower as a person who discloses information concerning acts that are illegal, unlawful or contrary to the public interest that he or she has witnessed, particularly in the course of his or her work, in order to put a stop to them and bring about change. The “Luanda Leaks” in Angola, Congo Hold-Up and the “Lumumba Papers” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the corruption scandal in South Africa that led to Jacob Zuma’s resignation from the presidency in 2018, the Glencore Gate in several countries are some of the main affairs brought up by whistleblowers. These affairs have shaken the highest spheres of African countries and have one thing in common: they were all denounced at grassroots level by whistleblowers.

Intimidation and persecution

Unfortunately, anti-corruption whistleblowers are subject to intimidation and persecution. The Africa Integrity Indicators (AII) 2024 scorecard, published by the African Institute for Development Policy (AFIDEP), highlightsrepression against whistleblowers as anti-corruption and human rights defenders in Africa, especially bloggers and influencers publishing content online. The 12th round findings of AII shows that only two countries, Namibia (with a score of 100) and South Africa (with a score of 75) perform better in this indicator.

The AII 2024 report has identified several cases of anti-corruption defenders summoned by the police, arrested and arbitrarily detained, very often prosecuted for defamation or spreading false news. These offenses are still criminalized in many countries in the region, with disproportionate prison sentences or fines, in contradiction with the principles of international human rights law. In Cameroon, for example, journalist Martinez Zogo was killed on January 17, 2023, for publishing and disclosing ‘’secret information’’ on corruption. The case of Martinez Zogo is proof that these attacks on whistleblowers sometimes go as far as murder. The journalist Martinez Zogo was kidnapped by unknown assailants and his mutilated body was found in a wasteland on the outskirts of Yaoundé five days later. Zogo was investigating and reporting on alleged embezzlement of hundreds of billions of CFA francs involving political and economic figures close to the government.

Restrictive laws

Some authorities also use restrictive laws to unduly ban demonstrations or public meetings by anti-corruption campaigners. In Equatorial Guinea, the coordinator of the Somos+ platform, Joaquin Elo Ayeto, was arrested and detained for two days at the Malabo police station in December 2022 for organising a meeting to celebrate International Anti-Corruption Day.

Anti-corruption advocates are also victims of reprisals such as dismissal, suspension or denial of promotion. In November 2021, Sierra Leone’s former Auditor General, Lara Taylor-Pearce, and her deputy, Tamba Momoh, were indefinitely suspended from their duties two weeks before the submission to Parliament of the annual audit report alleging corruption at the highest level of government.

Anti-corruption campaigners also face threats and pressure, or even attacks, to reveal their sources. In Mali, Moussa Touré, president of the Malian Association for the Fight against Corruption and Financial Delinquency, was kidnapped and beaten by men in military uniform in October 2020. A few days earlier, he had publicly announced his cooperation with two whistleblowers within the army who mentioned various misappropriations of bonuses and salaries, and who were facing reprisals because of these disclosures.

Countering the culture of impunity

Most countries have ratified the continent’s anti-corruption convention, and all African States have set up national mechanisms to combat this scourge, which undermines the rule of law and human rights. Bound by these conventions, States must in particular respect, protect and promote the rights of those who denounce corruption and defend human rights, notably by guaranteeing their freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

If governments are serious about fulfilling their commitment to fighting corruption and protecting human rights, they must create an environment conducive for the work of anti-corruption defenders, notably by decriminalizing defamation and the dissemination of false information. They must also adopt concrete and effective measures to improve and guarantee the human rights of these defenders and enable them to work without fear of reprisals.

States must also counter the culture of impunity by conducting impartial, transparent and effective investigations into cases of violations of the rights of anti-corruption defenders and prosecuting those suspected of being responsible. They must build strong and effective anti-corruption institutions to support the work of defenders and tackle the human rights consequences of corruption, as well as guaranteeing victims’ access to justice.

Without strong action by governments to guarantee the human rights of anti-corruption defenders and support their work, corruption will continue to undermine the rule of law, reinforce citizens’ distrust of the authorities and undermine human rights.