The newly appointed 52nd president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), Deacon Titus Soetan, wants more chartered accountants as entrepreneurs, running their own businesses in order to reduce the level of unemployment in the country. This is because they are trained entrepreneurs, equipped with the skills to run successful businesses. In this interview with CHIMA NWOKOJI, the professional and astute manager talks about his plans for the institute, Nigeria’s new foreign exchange regime and how the institute’s activities impact on the economy.
YOU have just emerged as the 52nd president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), what are your major plans for the institute?
My plans for ICAN are to make sure we sustain and improve the brand. It is a good brand that we have inherited over the years. Having the brand is not where it stops. We must ensure that the brand continues to make meaning and remain relevant. I will leverage on all our strength built over the years. I plan to do a lot of advocacy programmes and we are going to do that more vigorously beginning from this year. We have to let the public know our stand on certain burning issues of public interest that are begging for answers.
We are not a trade union no doubt but our voice is respected by many people in, and outside the country. We have programmes for our members that will improve their skills and make them render the kind of service they should render to the public. We want those of them in practice to practice their profession with ethics and professionalism in mind so that they don’t go against any legislation because if they do anything wrong, it impacts on all us.
We will be holding more talks and training programs for them. Those who want to specialize in certain areas other than audit, like forensic accounting, we have our certification programme them. We encourage them to get certified as Forensic Accountants which is an aspect of accountancy that is relevant in our clime.
Forensic Accounting seems not to be well known in this part of the world. Are you saying you will drive and deepen the learning of that aspect of accounting especially at this period of much talk about corruption?
You are right to say it is not well known. But like I said, we have even commenced the certification programme so that our members can get special training and be recognised in that area. Of course they will be trained in fraud detection, but the issue of fraud is a different thing entirely. It depends on the environment and the organisation in question.
It bothers on whether such organisations even have experts that will assist forensic investigators. You know it is difficult to meddle into other people’s affairs. You cannot achieve desired result if you are not there and there is no one assisting you. I can come as an auditor after the event has taken place, but it will be good to have the kind of experts in ministries, departments and agencies that would be able to raise the alarm before any harm is done, rather than now when everyone has looted the treasury before we start to cry all over the place.
Is there a way ICAN can help Nigeria in its war against corruption?
It is not only ICAN; everybody should be involved. But for the institute as a body, it is helping in several ways. We believe and hold tenaciously to our motor: ‘Accuracy and Integrity.’ That means that even though we are no saints, we must act above board in all given circumstances.
Members should not be unnecessarily tempted to betray the trust bestowed on them. When they are in position of trust and authority, it is first to benefit their organisation and the general public not themselves. These values are imbibed all through our training programmes and processes such that when they become qualified, they would have imbibed the value of accuracy, integrity and ability to manage people’s money entrusted in their hands. You don’t dig into your employers’ money for your own benefit. That does not belong to you. If you do, it becomes professional misconduct and under our processes, the penalties are heavy. If anybody is found guilty, he or she can be expelled from the institute and the person has no right to practise as a chartered accountant again.
That sounds severe enough.
Yes. Corruption has thrived very well in our clime because we don’t have that moral courage to take the right step. In other climes like China, there is corruption but once you are caught, you become a public example. If people that are caught are given the right sentence, everyone will sit up because no one wants to be made a public show.
That is what we are lacking in this jurisdiction. Remember the president said if we don’t kill corruption, corruption will kill us. When a case lingers for too long, its essence is lost because justice delayed is justice denied as they say. So, the Judiciary should help in speeding up justice so that we get result as fast as possible without compromising the procedure.
Are you saying that when the Judiciary speeds up cases and with more professional accountants in various sectors of the economy, corruption will reduce?
Yes it will. But then we need a national orientation. What are our values as a people? We need to develop that, right from the family level. In the past we talked about old politicians as being corrupt but are we having them today? No. We have young men as politicians today. They are our brothers and sisters. Some are even our children. What values did they get from home before getting to the public? It matters a lot. Everybody must espouse good moral values to their children because they are going to be the rulers of tomorrow. If good values are imbibed at the family level, when you become a leader or get to the position of authority you will not forget.
On the part of the government, it needs to promote accountability by its body language. A government cannot say it is fighting corruption whereas its body language does not show it.
Looking back to the days you first became a chartered accountant and now, what are the specific areas you have noticed changes?
The profession is not static. Many things have changed. With technology which has affected all areas of our lives, the processes have changed. The institute has incorporated the changes as much as possible into our programmes, especially into our syllabus so that the members we are churning out are not deficient when they get to the market place.
But our values have not changed. Our integrity which we hold dearly has not changed. Our disciplinary process has been the same.
Are you satisfied with the level of enrolment into the institute by prospective chartered accountants?
Yes. But there could always be improvements. Some people are scared maybe because of misgiving that the profession and its examination is too hard. I say misgiving because people will always find excuses for their failure. What I can say to such people is, if some people are passing the exam, why can’t you do the same. I believe that our enrolment is okay, although there is competition out there from local and foreign bodies. Despite that, we have our good share of the market.
In the light of what you just said, where do you see the institute in the next five years?
Today we have about 40,000 members of the institute. In the next five years I would like to see that number increasing to about 50,000 members. That is not a small achievement. But most importantly, I want to see people empowered. I want to see more chattered accountants going into businesses because by our training we are not just book keepers for people. We are trained in all aspects of businesses: entrepreneurship and many more.
I know there are a lot of challenges, if we have the courage and what it takes, we can still set up thriving businesses. That way, the rampant unemployment will be reduced. Our members in particular are well positioned to be entrepreneurs.
How would you assess the impact of ICAN on the Nigerian economy?
We have made impact but maybe not as much as one would have expected because many people think that once they get a job, they are okay. They may be okay but who says an accountant can’t combine the profession with agriculture. You can be an educationist or anything whatsoever.
The richest man in Africa today has his hands in so many areas: trading, manufacturing, oil and gas. How much of those has he gone for training? With his idea, he puts the right people there, have the right control and monitoring. That is what I want our members to strive to do.
Meanwhile, we have 40,000 members working in different sectors of the economy. Some are bankers, some are working in manufacturing and even ICT sectors and so on. It is our joy to see that our members are thriving and contributing their quota in the economy. But government has to create the enabling environment. There should be power supply, road and other infrastructure. These things are achievable with sincerity of purpose. So, if a government that promised to provide all these things begins to give excuses, people will begin to doubt its ability to meet the aspirations of the people.
What advice do you have for young and aspiring accountants?
My advice to them is that if they have chosen accounting as a profession, they have chosen the right profession. They have chosen a profession of dignity. Although you may not become the richest man in Nigeria, but this is a profession that will put food on your table.
The society will place premium on your person. There is nothing that is difficult to achieve. What is needed is the right spirit. Those aspiring to become chartered accountants should not be intimidated by fables. Those fables have been there over the years and people are still passing. In fact, there are some universities whereby before students do their first degree; they will be qualified as chartered accountants. So, if it is possible with them, it is possible with everybody. You only need to be dedicated and focused.
What are your views on the new CBN foreign exchange policy and the much talked about 41 items excluded from the official foreign exchange market
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) has reasons for its actions. Whether or not we agree with their reasons is a different thing entirely. Concerning the 41 items, I think we should have capacity to produce them in this country.
Why do we have to import toothpick when we have wood and everything here? Why do we keep creating employment for others and remained consumers. Why can’t we give local manufacturers some protection to produce some of these things? If we get it from the perspective of protecting infant industries, we will not see it as punishing anybody. My only concern is that many times we have policies but we don’t sustain those policies. We should avoid policy summersault.
Concerning the newly introduced floating exchange rate regime, it is a step in the right direction. Many people have even said it should have come a year ago. But the president had insisted on non-devaluation of the naira because of its implication on Nigerians. I believe that they have considered the fact that defending the naira with dollars that you don’t have is an effort in futility.
One thing I think it is going to do is that it will boost the earnings of both federal and state levels of government. This is because the money that was being given to states in the federation account allocation used to be at the exchange rate of about N197 to the dollar. But now, if the exchange rate settles at N280 and above, the naira content will be more. They will have the quantum of money higher than what they used to have and so, many of them will be able to pay salaries. But there is a corollary to it. That is the fact that many of the states are indebted overseas. They borrowed money in dollar terms. When they want to pay back in dollar terms, they need bigger quantity of naira to pay.
So, it is a double-edged sword. However, I believe that the policy will stop rent-seeking and round tripping. Having said that, I think it is a good policy from the CBN.