Innocent Okwuosa argues for the engagement of more accountants to enhance public accountability

Some events witnessed in the country in the past few months suggest that public accountability in Nigeria can draw parallel to the protests in US and elsewhere with the slogan “black life matters”. But in our case the slogan should be “public accountability’s life matters”. This is because public accountability has long been and continues to be treated as if it should not exist in our public sector, meaning its life does not matter. By the way, I ask whether anybody cares about the existence of public accountability in our public sector.

In a layman’s language, Scapens in 1985 defined accountability as the “giving and demanding of reasons for conduct.” Another accountability researcher, Joannides tells us that accountability can be understood as a requirement to give an account of oneself and of one’s activities. Therefore, public accountability is expected of any public office holder. These public offices include parastatals, public interest entities, local, state and federal government businesses, local, state and federal governments, etc. The public expects public office holders to give reasons for their conduct in public office, hence public accountability.

Public accountability need not be in form of accounts of government and parastatals but can be in form of reports of activities that explain how activities are carried out. However, public accountability has been operationalised as the rendering of financial accounts by public office holders. This may be because all activities of public offices will have to first be budgeted for, before they are carried out or executed. The budget, therefore, serves as authorisation to carry out the budgeted activities and incur the costs or earn the income stated therein.

Taken a step further, the budget defines the activities to be carried out and the conduct of public office holders in carrying out the activities. This is why accountability is seen as “giving and demanding of reasons for conduct” or “a requirement to give an account of oneself and of one’s activities”. Over time, it is the financial aspect of these activities through accounts that is a measure of accountability.

First it is accountants that prepare the budget through which the activities of the public office are defined and authorised. Second, it is accountants that prepare the statement of accounts through which public accountability is rendered. I therefore presume that all accountants have work given the sheer size of government, government business and unaccountability in public sector. That is why public accountability should matter to all accountants in Nigeria.

Evidence that “public accountability’s life matters” in Nigeria can be gleaned from some newspaper headlines which may have history dating back to many years. I give few examples:

On February 10, 2016, one newspaper headline was about how the Fiscal Responsibility Commission (FRC) had accused the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation of failing to audit and submit copies of its audited financial statements to it since 2010 as required by the FRC Act, 2007. This is public accountability issue that matters to the public which accountants can resolve.

On 24th September 2019, we saw one headline “Security Votes: N241bn spent annually unaccounted for, says Transparency Int’l. “Unaccounted for” how? The public is interested but are there no accountants in these states? It underscores why the public should care about public accountability and accountants in particular because of their skills.

On June 15, 2020, the newspapers in the country thrilled us with news of accountability issues in NNPC. Their headlines were about how NNPC has published its audited financial statements for the first time in 43 years and it was jubilation everywhere. This shows how public accountability has been neglected in public governance in Nigeria. Surely the public cares and I guess it may be because NNPC failed to engage enough chartered accountants underscoring why public accountability matters to accountants. That a public interest entity could not render account of its activities for a period of 43 years may be because accountants were not invited to work. Why should their skills not be utilised effectively?

In July, 2020 the newspapers were once again agog with news of public accountability issues involving NDDC award of contracts and humongous spending. The country was again thrilled with display of allegations and counter allegations of public unaccountability. The public wants to know what happened, as no one knows. Perhaps more accountants need to be deployed to NDDC.

Fast forward to October, 2020, where we saw through the newspapers, pictures of COVID-19 palliative warehouses broken into by those who hijacked the EndSARs protest and carted away goods meant for the poor who suffered more as a result of the pandemic. If we apply the definition of accountability as “giving and demanding of reasons for conduct”, people were quick to ask “what is the reason for keeping these goods, some of which are expected to expire soon, without distributing them? The public cares and I guess accountants are yet to be engaged to work here.

Accountants are the gate keepers of public accountability and the accounting profession should always lead in the demand for public accountability. It appears that the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria has already woken up to this by producing the ICAN Accountability Index (AI). ICAN AI is designed to assess the efficiency of public finance management and ensure public accountability and transparency in the public sector. If local, state and federal government businesses and local, state and federal governments can embrace ICAN Accountability Index, public accountability will improve tremendously in Nigeria. This will see the engagement of accountants to man the gate of public accountability.

Dr Okwuosa is the Chairman, IFRS Experts Forum (IFRSEF), Nigeria