The President, Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria, Mr. Titus Soetan, says the various problems facing the economy may make the banking industry to experience more challenges in this interview with OYETUNJI ABIOYE
What are your plans for ICAN as the newly elected president?
For me, one thing we may need to do more work on is our engagement with the Federal Government. To me, our advocacy role needs to be improved upon so that we can help the government to realise its objectives and programmes, especially as enunciated by the current administration. We know that there must be accountability in government, and this accountability comes in various forms, especially as regards the way the government presents its financials and makes them to be relevant. So, we want to partner the government in the area of training to ensure that the government uses international best practices in the presentation and compilation of its financial statements. This will make the government to be accountable and relevant to the people that they are serving. In this respect, I am talking of the International Public Sector Accounting Standards, which advocates for accrual basis of accounting. This is one thing our present government is not doing. Therefore, there is a gap in what the government is presenting to the people as financial statement. So we intend to partner the government so that the right kind of information is presented to the public.
Does the IPSAS affect only the Federal Government?
It affects government at all levels, namely federal, state and local government. The private sector counterpart of the IPSAS is what we called the International Financial Reporting Standard. As you are aware, the private sector has keyed into this early and most organisations are IFRS-compliant in Nigeria now.
Are there other things you are doing to ensure that federal, states and local governments key into the IPSAS?
As I have said, we have started with some measure of training, but this is only at the Federal Government level. We will ensure we move to the state and local government levels. It is a big programme. If the Federal Government gets it right and the state and LGs are yet to do so, we have not arrived because they all spend the state’s money.
The anti-corruption crusade of the present government bothers on accountability as well. What are you doing to partner the Federal Government in this regard?
It bothers on the training of IPSAS as well. However, let me talk about corruption generally. Corruption has become very endemic in Nigeria, not only in the public sector but also in the private sector. So, when we are talking about corruption, I think we need a rebirth of values and reorientation right from the family level. Those people that are facing trial today do not come from the moon or sky; they come from the family. So, who are we celebrating in our society today as families, communities or groups. But if people who are corrupt are not having a place in the society, we are trying to eradicate corruption. That is why I said there must be a rebirth of values. Of course money is not everything; what you hold as value is important. When you have the right value, irrespective of where you are working in the private or public sector, you will be contented and you will do your job without wanting to cut corners. All of us needs to key into this and there should be enforcement of regulations. There should be the political will to enforce rules so that when people are punished for corrupt practices, others will learn lessons. Of course, people are corrupt in other developed societies too but once you are caught, you will face the penalty. This is what is lacking in our own society. And of course, doing this is not the job of one person. Even the judiciary has a role to play in ensuring that justice is dispensed expeditiously. It is said that justice delayed is justice denied. If a corruption case is lasting for many years, you will find out that the citizens will not be interested in it again. So, the judiciary has a great role to play. The truth of the matter is that we are where we are now because of corruption. So, if we don’t deal with it, it will continue to affect us. Everybody must cooperate with the government to rid this nation of corruption. On the part of our institute, we will cooperate to make sure that our members are not doing what they should not do. We have a Disciplinary Tribunal that handles that.
It is said that charity begins at home. How effective has ICAN’s Disciplinary Tribunal been in handling corruption among ICAN members?
It is very effective. It is a process. It is a separate organ of the institute. We have the investigating panel, which any member of the public (whether an employer or what have you) is allowed to take their complaints about any member to. The panel will look into it. They will call people for interviews and if they feel a case is established, we have another panel called the Disciplinary Tribunal that the matter is passed on to. This panel has the equivalent of the powers of a high court. The panel looks into the case and allows the accused person to bring its lawyers and representation and so on. If the tribunal finds the accused guilty as charged, of course, he or she will be penalised. His certificate could be withdrawn such that he/she will not be able to practice again. If the accused feels he has been wrongly penalised, he could go to the appeal court. He does not need to go to the high court again. We have ongoing cases in our tribunals and the judgments are published in our journals so that others can see and learn.
ICAN also has anti-corruption workshops going on in the six geopolitical zones of the country, and we will continue to do that. We also have forensic trainings for accountants. They are trained to be able to detect forgeries and frauds in both the public and private sectors. These are specialised trainings after you have been trained and qualified as a chartered accountant.
Aside improving your advocacy programmes, what other things do you plan to do during your tenure as ICAN president?
I intend to look inwards by reviewing our policies and programmes so that they are in tandem with international best practices. For example, we want to help our members who are small-scale practitioners to upscale their capacities by exposing them to new trends in the profession. We will do this because we act in the public interest. And of course, we will continue with our normal programmes of training and conducting of examinations.
Talking about training and conducting examinations, why do many Nigerians prefer to be United Kingdom-certified chartered accountants instead of ICAN-certified?
Well, It is just a malady in our national life that anything that is imported is perceived to be better than what is made locally. But talking seriously, maybe there is competition as you have said but I think our objectives are not the same. While ICAN is a not-for-profit-making organisation, acting in the public interest, the UK body you talked about is not set up for that. It is probably a profit-making venture. They come to Nigeria and charge students high amount of money to take their exams despite the high exchange rate. We in ICAN act in public interest. You will see that ICAN does so many things that students don’t pay for. We have scholarships for students; and we are currently constructing lecture theatres for universities across the country. Each of these lecture theatres costs about N30m. We are not doing it for show but to strengthen our educational system and improve the quality of life of our students. So, we focus on Nigeria because this is the only country we have. One thing you must note is that anybody who takes the foreign body’s exams and gets certified as a chartered accountant must still come and take ICAN’s exams before he/she can practise in Nigeria. They have to domesticate their certificates by coming to take some of our exams. Anybody who is wise will know that it is like two ways of getting one thing. We are in a free world and you can choose to take what you like, but we will continue to improve on our system.
The CBN has just adopted flexible exchange rate policy. What is your opinion about it?
I think it is a right step in the right direction as many people have opined. Like you said, people have been clamouring for the relaxation of the rigid exchange rate regime because it is not sustainable. It was laden with many distortions, sharp practices and rent-seeking activities. The fear is that the interbank rate will go up but it will gradually find its level. As far as it will eliminate rent-seeking and distortions, it is good. We are an oil-dependent economy but that has to change now. A major challenge we have is lack of infrastructure. Government needs to strive to give us electricity and good roads. Within the limited resources that we have, government needs to work harder to give better infrastructure. This is what shows the difference between a developed and an undeveloped economy. Even with the poor state of our infrastructure, some people are still destroying it to show their agitations. My advice to the government is to dialogue with them. We don’t have any other country we can call our own.
The banking sector, which is at the heart of the economy, is facing challenges. What advice do you have for stakeholders in this sector?
The Treasury Single Account policy has affected the banking industry. They need to look inward now because the era of free funds is over. We have not seen the end of these challenges. Other issues will still affect them, especially those who have foreign loans will be affected by the new foreign exchange regime. I see the banking sector still facing further challenges. The challenges in the economy will make more loans to still go bad. Again, the banks provide infrastructure for their operations because of the poor state of infrastructure in Nigeria. All these will still affect their overheads and they need to look at how to cut costs in other areas now. The banks also need to look at other things they can do to boost their bottom lines and help the economy to grow.
How would you assess the activities of ICAN in the past 51 years?
We have come of age. Credit should go to our founding fathers who built the formidable structure we are building on today. We will not relent but continue to review our systems to make it more relevant. Even politically, we have five governors who are members of our institute. So, we will continue to develop ourselves and we have over 40,000 members, from only about 200 when the Act was established in 1965. We will continue to partner local and foreign bodies to make our institute more formidable. This is the foremost institute in Nigeria and Africa.
Over the next five to 10 years, is there a particular thing you want ICAN to improve upon?
You know we operate in a dynamic society. There is nothing that is static. When we were trained many years ago, things were not like it is today. The technology was not like it is today. There was a time that we would not admit members until they showed competence in information and communications technology. When we train accountants, we don’t just want them to be book keepers. We want them to develop competencies in their profession and various other areas. We want most of our members to be entrepreneurs that may not need to go out and look for jobs. So, our training will continue to focus on that. The government cannot employ everybody. It is when you start a business and you employ someone and I start a business and also employ someone that our economy can grow. This is the area we will continue to improve upon. We want to encourage our people to also maintain ethics. There are temptations to cut corners. The accountant is not a saint but you must know where you belong. We owe the moral duty to sustain the name of the profession as our founding fathers have done.