The President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN), Mr. Doyin Owolabi, in this interview with Uche Uduma, speaks on the accounting profession and its relevance in today’s economy.
Do you think ICAN as a body has done enough for the Nigerian economy?
Yes I would say that they are trying their best. Their best may not be the enough yet as a result of certain factors. You see, ICAN is a subset of the Nigerian system, and where the subset is trying so hard to make sure that, at least from their perspective, things go well. You can imagine so many other subsets that are neglecting that. So as a result, to a large extent, what ICAN subset is doing may not be felt in the system yet; but if you view it properly, you will discover that they are doing enough.
You talked about factors, can you talk about factors that are also affecting our impact?
The number one factor is the Nigerian sense of value which, unfortunately, many people have erased. When we were growing up, it was a big sin for you to tell lies, not to talk of stealing or amassing wealth which you don’t really need. Mind you, a lot of parents in our generation, when they were raising us, they were civil servants and priests. And from what they were earning, they built houses; they educated us. In fact, they gave us the best of education. We lived in affluence in our own way, and I remember that the big lesson they were giving us was: protect a good name; keep this good name; you must never lose this good name. Today, it is the reverse. Rather than celebrate the good name being handed over to us, we now celebrate mediocrity, we worship money, and we worship frivolities and so on. So, as a result, nobody wants to do anything about those old values that we cherished in the system. Secondly, closely linked with this first one, you will agree with me that, looking around us today, people will say that the government is not doing much. Sincerely speaking, I want to believe that the government is not doing much, but we need to ask yourself: who is that man called the government? The government is you and I, because it is assumed that we put them there. Go all over the world, in their system, you will discover that whereas the big nations that have come of age will be objective in criticising their government, at the bottom line, they will always help their leaders with prayers. But in Nigeria, to speak the truth, we don’t criticize them objectively; rather, we curse them. There is power in the tongue; the voice of man is the voice o f God. If you sit there and say your leaders will not do well, they will not do well. But if you sit there, you tell them where they go wrong and they are receptive to it, if you are being criticized, you must be ready to admit, you must see that fault. It is only? when you have seen that fault objectively that you can say, yes, I would correct it.? If you have not seen it, there is no way you are going to correct it because you believe that it is not there. But if you pretend that you did not see it, there is no way you are going to correct it, because you believe in yourself, you don’t want to believe in what others are telling you. So, if the larger society is doing that, and there comes this subset that is saying ‘you must be honest’, ‘you must be men of integrity’, ‘there must be probity’, there must be this and that in the society – let me use the words of the Bible – that subset’s voice will be like the voice of the man in wilderness, crying from thy kingdom come. It is only echoes of your words that you are hearing, because nobody hears you, nobody is listening to you. That is why I say that ICAN members are trying but their best will not be proved because the society’s reserve is not too receptive it.
There is no day you open a newspaper that you will not see all kinds of embezzlement; what do you think is the role of the chartered accountant in all this?
I agree with you, but I want you to realise one thing: I hope they are not joining the society to see that these cases of fraud are perpetrated by chartered accountant. You see, there is difference between using the word ‘accountant’ as a general term and chartered accountant as a brand, which is what we are. Generically, there are so many accountants out there that we don’t even have control over. We are in control of our members and when our members go haywire and err, of course, we have our disciplinary procedures, and virtually all our members are afraid of that. Once they get reported, they know what it means: they get investigated; a tribunal tries them if it is necessary, and once they are found guilty the necessary penalty is meted upon them. In any case, the tribunal of our institute is equivalent to a high court, so if you are not satisfied with the judgement of the tribunal you are free to go to the Court of Appeal. So it is thoroughly done. The accountants are trying their best, but mind you, where you are one out of many, a chartered accountant is heading a department where there are so many other people who are not professionals, who are not chartered accountants assisting him in the department, they are not even our students because there is disciplinary procedure set aside for the students of ICAN, so they don’t have any fear of ICAN. They do what they want to do and, above all, they can even get you, as their boss, into trouble. All you can do is to cry, shout and make sure that you can discipline those caught red handed as much as possible, but the bottom line is they constitute the minority within that system. A lot still needs to be done, not necessarily by the chartered accountants but by the larger society.??
There are many people now who believe that ACCA is? formed to set professional qualification exam for accountant?
I don’t want to believe that ACCA is a shorter way to get qualified. I tell you a professional exam is a professional exam in anywhere in the world. That ACCA has come to Nigeria to be conducting exams directly for Nigerian students is bad enough, I must confess, because all over the world we have a body? that regulates accountancy practice. The World Bank supports us to a large extent and the gospel they are preaching is if you feel there is a nation that is deficient in a way, you are allowed to go there.? Where there is a local institute, try and upscale them; try and make sure that you encourage them to be able to cope with the situation there, and repeal that local institution. However, unlike some other African countries where ACCA had gone, their local ACCA died. I’m happy to note that we are up to the task in Nigeria, both locally and internationally. Both ACCA and ICAN are performing and we both belong to the International Federation of Accountants? (IFAC). What that means is that we are recognised internationally. However, in Nigeria today just like anywhere in the world, if you must be in public practice i.e., serve as auditors, practitioners? and so on, you must be in accountancy practice and a member of a local body. All over the world the subjects we are writing are the same, except for law and? taxation courses, because these are based on the laws of the land. So there is difference from one nation to the other; even between Ghana and Nigeria it is also different; between republic of Benin and Nigeria, they are also different. So all we’re now saying is if a Nigerian goes abroad wit ICAN and he wants to work in the industry, and the industry sees the need to employ him, they will employ him based on his qualifications. There are a lot of ICAN members working abroad right now, both in Europe and America. However if a Nigerian wants to go into accountancy practice overseas, then he has to convert to one of their local institutes and that means that he must be examined in their laws and taxation. So if an ACCA man comes to Nigeria and wants to work for a firm, if the firm? feels he has what they want, so be it. But to us in practice, you must covert to one of the local institutes and if you are going to convert under ICAN, that means ICAN must license you as a practitioner, which implies that you must undergo the relevant training and examination to be so converted under ICAN; otherwise, you cannot practice in Nigeria. So the bottom line is, we in ICAN don’t feel threatened by ACCA.
Wouldn’t it have been better if there is collaboration between the two organisations though operating separately?
There is collaboration but what? kind of collaboration; not one that will merge the two organisations. ACC is a foreign body; it is an English institute. ICAN is a Nigerian institute. Unilever Nigeria Plc comes under Unilever International but where ever you go all over the world, the Unilever there belongs to the locality even though it must attain the international standards.
Is it true that your exams are designed to be difficult?
Our exams are not designed to be difficult. I would say the exams must meet some minimum standards. You asked me some personal questions at the beginning of this interview and I told you how I shut my eyes and my mind on the rosy salary of the NNPC and I went back to an auditing firm. To be more specific, if we know the Nigerian economy then in the early eighties, NNPC was offering me something close to N1,000 per month and I left it for something that is less than N100 per month; it means that I had a focus. Today, a lot of ICAN students want to have the best wherever they go: they want to work in banks; they want to work in oil companies; they want to work in telecoms companies. As a result they leave home before 6am in order to get to work 7:30. They close around 7- 8 pm and courtesy of the traffic they don’t get home till about 11pm. They register for tuition toward exams, and they are not able to attend. They register for exams, they cannot do their private studies. Of course, in the Nigerian system, you cannot pass a professional exam by default; you must really work for it; you must know everything in the syllabus before you go for the exams. Rather they don’t know anything in the syllabus, and when they go in for the exams and the fail and they say ICAN has failed them. They failed by themselves and that is the situation. Take the statistics of those of them that pass ACCA, it is not in any way different from ICAN. I am not holding brief for ACCA; I am yet to see that IFAC member that will set its exams to be below standards. We review papers and we see all the questions after the exams have been written. We review them and we compare notes. And we know there are minimum standards.
What efforts are you making to integrate your programmes in northern Nigeria since the north is a bit backwards?
I wouldn’t say the north is a bit backwards, but in development economics, there is what we call initial advantage. In western education, the south western part of Nigeria had an initial advantage over all the other regions and this is very historical and there are records for it. As a result, not only in accounting profession but in virtually all professions, the south west has the largest number of persons in them. Whereas western education has its tap root early enough in the south west, Koranic education had its tap root in the north because it entered through the north, and by the time they realised the need for western education, I will even say their Koranic education helped them a lot. There are a lot of northerners qualifying under ICAN now we even have them on our council. My vice president is from Kebbi State and he is a very literate person. I think by now we have a council of 30 members; we have five northerners, and that is a lot, which means that in spite of our large numbers in the council from the south west, we are not even dominating the governing council on the institute. It is a perfect blend even though we don’t go there through quota system; we go there through hard work. So it is not that the north is backwards.
But are your activities as popular here now as they are in…
Oh yes, they are very popular. We have 43 distinct societies worldwide, one in the United Kingdom, one in the USA, and the rest in Nigeria. All those in Nigeria are mainly spread all over the country, across all the geo-political zones. And I must tell you this: annually, every president of the institute must embark on what we call ‘the district tours, and the district tours must be evenly spread all over the country; that is one. Two, apart firm our national conference; we have zonal conferences – northern zonal conference, southern western zonal conference, then south eastern zonal conference. These are done annually. So these are done annually to cater for our members who are in all these zones and may not be able to attend the national conference when it comes on. Apart from that, the district societies established all over the country and even in the US and UK were established to bring the institute to the door steps of our members as well as students in all the districts. So, we keep establishing more and more district societies for instance. There was a time there was only one district society in Lagos, now they are four. There was a time there was only one district society in the south west, now we have in Ibadan, in Osun and in Ekiti. There was only one district society up north; now he have in Kano, Jigawa, Yobe and Jalingo. We have in Kaduna, Zaria, and so on. They are all scattered sufficiently? to cater for members.
As an economist and a chartered accountant, what do you can be? in? Nigeria to get the economy on the right path?
We have to go back to the basics; we committed some fundamental errors in the past and we really must correct them to be on the right path. What we learnt in basic economics is this, every economy takes off from the rudimentary stage, as in agrarian economy, farming, production of raw materials. After that, it moves into the manufacturing economy. The industrial revolution in Nigeria started but we never allowed it to take off properly. We never allowed it to come to fruition. It started but by the time it began to gain grounds, then came the period of oil boom, so a lot of people were no more interested in working in the industry per se, except where they will be doing white? collar jobs, offices jobs and so on. The artisans started to fade away, the technical colleges established to train artisans to support the economy at the grassroots level began to be shaky. As a result of that, you will discover that Nigerians abandoned the industrial aspect of development and quickly jumped into the most sophisticated aspect, which is the service aspect.
The service aspect is where we have banks, accountancy and commerce generally. Everyone wanted to work in the civil service. As a result of that, the economy kept going down. That exactly changed the economy from the one that relied on mining, agriculture and oil to a monocultural economy that now relies mainly on oil. And that has caused a lot of problem because of the fact that we neglected other sectors and the money accruing to us from the oil is being mismanaged to a large extent.
You started as an ICAN president; how would you want to leave ICAN?
It is a relay race. Each president of ICAN exchanges the baton from the immediate predecessors in the office, runs the race to the best of his ability and hands over the baton. As Paul the apostle would say,? I will run the race this time to take ICAN to greater heights before I hand over.