President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), Deacon Titus Soetan, speaks on how personal and societal values can affect the fiscal performance of an organisation or a nation, among other issues in this interview with SULAIMON OLANREWAJU and PAUL OMOREGBE.
We hear of fraud everywhere; federal, state and local governments, in corporations and small businesses. One of the functions of auditors who are accountants is to stop this. What do you think can be done to stop these endless cases of fraud in our country?
First, this is a reflection of the values of our society. How we have gone down with what is ideal or acceptable. A fraudster is first born in a home. What values do we expose our children to right from their youth? And my Bible tells me to train up a child in the way that he is to go and when he is old, he will not depart from it. Our values, in my own estimation, have been eroded. And before we think of what accountants can do let’s think of what we all can do to salvage the situation. The Christians call it being born again, but I don’t mean born again in that sense, but having a rebirth of our values and ethics. I think that will make our society to be better. In societies that are doing better, the people there don’t have two heads. It is not wrong to want to become wealthy. But when you become wealthy by cutting corners, that is not acceptable. But that seems to have become acceptable, with the way we celebrate looters of treasury, welcome them back and give them honours.
Second, about what accountants can do and I mean chartered accountants, if they are given the opportunity and free will to operate, they can do so many things. But then they are never given such opportunity and if you have a glorified accountant in a place, you will get whatever you are able to pay for and that is what we see happening in our society.
Apart from fraud, in Nigeria, we don’t get maximum value for every naira that is disbursed. How can ICAN, as a body, address that?
We have so many good laws, rules and regulations in Nigeria, but it is the operation (of the laws) that matters. There is the Fiscal Responsibility Act, Procurement Act; all are very good when you read them on paper. But it is a man that operates them. You are not supposed to give some contracts to the highest bidder, some contracts are to the lowest cost option. And that is the intention. But the people who are going to manipulate and give the contract will have other agenda. If you’re sitting as the head of a conglomerate, do you consider what you will get for yourself, or what is of most benefit to you or what is best for your organisation? Same goes for the country. If we follow the rules and regulations that have been set by our lawmakers, we will get much more for the money spent.
As chartered accountants, you are supposed to stop things like these. There are those who have risen to the top as chartered accountants still doing the same things as those who are not. Is there a way or system to prevent this from happening?
I do not know how you got your statistics, because I can say for my own members, they may not be saints, but from available information, I know they are doing well. We have a system such that if you, as a chartered accountant, are reported to the institute, you will be made to pass through a rigorous investigating panel and you can face a tribunal; to the extent that you can have your certificate withdrawn. So many things can happen to that person. So our members try not to be involved in such, knowing that a good name is better than silver or gold. They don’t want to tarnish the name of the institute or that of their families. Once they have that at the back of their minds, they don’t get involved. There are accountants and there are chartered accountants. But if you know of any chartered accountants that are involved in such, just write to the institute and we will take appropriate action. I am not saying we are 100 per cent perfect, but we have a system that deals with such.
What do you think government can do to improve the economy?
I believe the government is doing a lot, but they can still do better. Of recent they launched the Economic Recovery and Growth Plan, which lays out the path they want to follow in the next three/ four years, to make us have a GDP growth of 7.5 per cent. It is a very good policy that deals with human capital development, fiscal policies, employment and emphasis on agriculture. We do not lack blueprints in this nation. There are so many of them. People who have been to places like NIPSS at Kuru will tell you that if it is a matter of policy and research that we need, we have them. But those who are going to drive these things are human beings. If we have human beings who are selfless, who consider the country or the organisations they work for first before their own, we will get result. So no matter what government puts in place… and you know when government puts something in place, the smartest Nigerians will start looking for loopholes with which they will exploit the weaknesses. Now with the BVN, they see they cannot put money in banks, so where are they keeping them? In soak away and overhead tanks! The BVN is supposed to curb corruption, but people are looking for loopholes. Our values have been bastardised so much that I think we need to go back to the drawing board and make sure our values are such that we are proud of. I don’t think there is any Nigerian that will be proud of the values we are exhibiting to the world at the moment. But I think the challenge is with the individual, so that anywhere the individual is he must be the light in the dark places of the world. There is gross darkness around, but we can be the light that is needed.
What are you then doing at ICAN to ensure that every member imbibes the right values? What can we do as a people to have the right values?
Starting from the latter, to have the right values will take legislation and enforcement. Our enforcement level is so low. Do you know how long it takes to pass through adjudication in this country? If a case will get to the Supreme Court, it will take about 10 years or more. So you will find out that people think that if I offend today, there is no commensurate punishment. So this encourages people to continue to be defiant of the rules because you know all you need to do is hire a good attorney, pay him some good money and then you can continue your life. Some have left one seat in government, and have been elected into another and have become quite untouchable. These are the issues which when other people see, they ask themselves, “Am I going to be the angel that will change all this?”
But I believe we can be angels even in the darkness. Government should be by example. The body language should not be that we are saying something and doing another. If the government is saying we don’t condone corruption, every government official should be seen to be transparent in their outlook and actions. I believe Nigerians are easy to lead; once you give a good example, you find out that people will key into it. But when at the leadership, nothing good is done, of course people will take to whatever they desire.
The institute is doing a lot of things – advocacy, programmes and things like that, but we have power over our members only. But if our members are found wanting we have a disciplinary and investigative panel before which they will appear; and everybody prays not to appear before that panel because the consequences are great.
How has it been leading this body of professionals?
It’s been wonderful. I have had tremendous cooperation from my members in council during my tenure and we have made great progress. There were challenges and there’s no organisation withright thing, you have nothing to fear. Most important is that when I come to district level, and you hear organisations speak good things about our members, that brings joy and satisfaction to us.
We, as an institution, want to be the role model that they will look at and want to emulate. Just as our forefathers who have given us this legacy, they have been role models to us, and we want to be role models to those who are coming and that keeps us on our toes as an organisation.
What do you want to see as your legacy as president of ICAN?
I don’t think people should speak about their own legacy; other people will speak of your legacy. You can say this is what you want to do, but when you leave, let people say this is the legacy you left. I believe I want to lead an organisation that I don’t want its brand to get spoilt. It is very easy to dent a brand. The brand that has been built for over 50 years must not be spoilt in my own tenure. It must be improved upon and passed to those who are coming.
What is the difference between ICAN and ANAN?
There are no problems at all. Both organisations have been recognised by law. We operate under our different acts. We are brothers of the same family. There is no competition between us. We satisfy different market segments within the country. And this country is large enough. As Yoruba will say, the sky is so large that two birds can fly without touching each other.
Any opportunity for collaboration between the two?
We do collaborate. We are members of ABOWA (Accounting Bodies of West Africa), where we exchange ideas. We attend international meetings together. We mentor them to become part of these world bodies. We have been members before and when they need sponsorship we do it. We are working together for the good of the country.
There has been this issue of ICAN examinations being too difficult to pass. What is the institute’s take on this?
This has been an issue over the years. When you talk about professional examinations, you don’t weigh them along with university exams. Because for the university exams you see your lecturer what he wants and this and that, but for professional exams, everybody gathers together to write the same exams. The syllabus is there. And what we have seen is that the quality of education seen at tertiary level is nothing to write home about. And when you come here you have to be judged by our standards. You must measure up to that standard before you can be said to have passed. We review our systems periodically, and we operate our systems in such a way that we give the student the highest chance of passing. We cannot pass someone who we feel in our own judgment has not passed. Let me tell you why people think the exam is too hard. Even as at this moment, there are students who qualify as chartered accountants while in the university. So, if during my 400 level I qualify and somebody left the university 10 years and has not qualified, is it the exam that is to be blamed or the person? Of course there is need for hard work and concentration when you are doing a professional examination, but as I said before, we review our systems so that we don’t just set questions for the sake of setting questions. We set questions that must be of standard, and are professional. And any student who has worked reasonably well will pass.
After the ICAN presidency, what is next for you?
I will take a well-deserved rest. I will be with my family more than I am having it now. My children are grown up, but I want to have more time for them. I want to have more time with my grandchildren as much as possible. Where I am today, I never dreamt I will get there. I believe in God that you do your part, work hard wherever you will get to is in the hands of God. I am happy and satisfied with what God has done for me so far.