By Amechi Ogbonna
deacon Titus Alao Soetan, is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) and the Senior Partner, Baker Tilly Nigeria (Chartered Accountants). He commenced his professional career as Accounts Clerk at Western Nigeria Housing Corporation (1972 – 1973), and later moved to the Nigerian Television Authority (1978 – 1979) as accountant. As a young man that was always craving for fresh challenges in his chosen career, Soetan thereafter, became Audit Senior Manager at Z. O. Ososanya & Co (1979 – 1985) and was later appointed Partner, Z. O. Ososanya & Co (1985 – 1998). He was also a Partner and co-founder of Oyelami Soetan Adeleke & Co (1998 – 2005) and Senior Partner in the same firm (2005 – 2008) before moving to Baker Tilly.
Following his relentless commitment to the accounting profession, Soetan has been a Council member of ICAN since 2004, having served on its various committees and sub-committees either as member or Chairman.
In 2016, he was elected President and Chairman of Council of ICAN. He spoke to Daily Sun on his experiences as 45th President of ICAN. Excerpts:
Well, I don’t think it will be appropriate for me to be counting my achievements but I think its better left for other people to do the assessment themselves. But in my own little way, I can say we have been able to move the institute forward a bit within the limits of the constraints we faced. We have done a lot of advocacy programmes across the country. We have been able to reach out to the government but telling them what we think they should do to better the lot of the citizens. We have been able also to reach out to our members, especially those in public practice, to galvanise them to organise themselves better in order to rejuvenate their practices in line with global trends. This will make them to be a voice to be reckoned with not just in Nigeria but across the world. Through these advocacy programmes, we have also reached out to institutions of higher learning to help them strengthen their processes and curricula to ensure their products are also competitive. In this regard, we are continuing with our advocacy with our lecture theatre programmes that we built for some higher institutions in the country. We laid the foundation of two of these theatres in December 2016.
These are some of the things we were doing with the active cooperation of my colleagues in the council of the institute. We have been working together with one voice and that has made the journey a lot more easier.
I wouldn’t say we had challenges as such because I enjoyed the total cooperation of the ICAN council, which gave the free will to operation. The president doesn’t have a challenge. If there is any challenge, it would be how our members can be improved upon.
We are concerned, for instance, that there are some of our members that don’t have jobs. We have chartered accountants not being gainfully employed. That is a big challenge and it is a function of the state of our economy. If the economy is not buoyant, it means that those who have jobs are being laid off while those that are qualified cannot even get jobs to do. It is really a big challenge for the institute and the economy as a whole.
We have, however, asked our members not to see themselves as accountants only but as entrepreneurs so that they can go into areas where they can set up businesses and become employers themselves.
Again, that is a big challenge because the environment is very harsh for production. Look at what the exchange rate is, and see what the interest rate is today. It’s that tough that even to borrow a little money to promote a small business idea would require a lot of courage. Although it is not a personal challenge, as long as it is what our members are facing, it is a challenge to me as a person.
Way out of recession
Much depends on the government. Like you said, government dictates the pace and other sectors follow. We didn’t enter recession in a single day but it was as a result of so many factors. We did not plan very well, we did not diversify our economy and again, we were over-relying on oil. It’s a mono economy. Above all, we didn’t save when we had windfall from oil sales. But if these factors were taken care of earlier, we would not have been in this mess. I remember a former president who started the process of saving from the excess crude account and at a point we had over $20 billion in that account. But the politicians suddenly woke up one morning and said he had no right to save and that everything must go to the federation account and be shared. The money was shared to the extent that as we talk, we have less than $2 billion in that account. If that programme had continued, probably by now we would be having over $100 billion in that account and so when the oil price crashed we could have relied on that savings. So for everybody I recommend we learn to save when things are good, so that when there is crisis we can have a fall back position.
Then again, we must diversify our economy and in this regard I know that government cannot do it alone but it has to set the pace for the private sector to follow. There is need to improve the operating environment for more Nigerians to go into farming because if we are able to feed ourselves, I believe that 50 per cent of our problem would be solved. But a situation where we import everything we need means we will continue to have challenges. Let government create the enabling environment and let the people key into.
We must be able to feed ourselves because a nation that can’t feed its citizens is doomed. Again, government must be able to spend more on the economy. By this I am not saying doling out money to people but by investing more on infrastructure and other projects that can create jobs for the people.
When there is no money, you begin to think about what government can do to raise money and that brings us back to the issue of borrowing to finance development. People are not really worried about government borrowing money but borrowing for what purpose? We don’t want government to borrow and we won’t see the impact of the money and that means that government must give people the confidence to support such borrowing from any source so that our roads, infrastructure, education and health systems can be fixed. It must use such funds for housing development so that there would be jobs and people would be employed to earn a living.
Policies to pull Nigeria out of recession
It is not appropriate for me to begin to assess government programmes on how to get the country out of recession because I believe that government must have done its homework very well before introducing such policies.
One thing is that you don’t condemn policies without getting the full details about them. For instance, it took the government a lot of time to deregulate the price of fuel because it was convinced it would hurt the ordinary man. But eventually it did it. The reluctance to do it was because government wanted to side with the common man. And in most cases people in government want to side with the common man for obvious reasons. So those criticising the government perhaps didn’t see what the government was seeing in delaying the implementations.
Now, we have the dual exchange rate and people have been criticising the government and asking questions why we should be using dual exchange rate that encourages rent seeking and unnecessary splitting of our scarce foreign exchange. And as this debate and criticisms continue to rage, government would be thinking, ‘if we allow a single exchange rate, may be the naira would be N1,000 to $1 and who is going to feel the heat more?’ Of course, it is the common man because prices of goods would hit the roof top and inflation and interest rate would be very high.
But the issue today is not just about policy in place. The questions to ask really is whether there are other things we need to do in addition to the policies that government has introduced that would balance distortions thrown up by its policies in the first place. Naturally, I would want government to review policies not just policy somersaults. There are some policies you can’t see their effect immediately unless you allow them to mature, so on the basis of that, I would want government to constantly review its policies to close up all observed deficiencies arising from an earlier policy.
Corporate governing code
Well, I’m happy you asked that question, because if you were at the opening ceremony of the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) summit, you must have heard both the Chairman and the Executive Secretary of FRC mentioned some of the issues of concern raised in that code.
The interesting thing is that even the Executive Secretary said, and everybody seemed to agree with him, that the provisions of the code were not cast on iron. This summit is supposed to review the code and if there is any area that needs amendment it would be done.
Another thing we must take note of is while it is difficult to amend laws, it is not difficult to amend codes. What I think we needed to do at that summit was to ensure that all those areas we think need to be amended are taken note of so that they can be updated during the next review.
Look at them again with the mind of doing some amendment no matter how minute. In other jurisdictions, we have seen them amend their codes even every two years. Codes should be dynamic. It’s not a static thing and it is not something you do today and leave it to eternity, so with that I’m hopeful we will have opportunity to amend our codes.
How to cope with recession in 2017
I’m not a prophet but I believe that if we all work together it will be better for us. There are policies already enunciated in the 2017 budget, which the president believes can take us out of recession and I think that requires the support of everyone. If the government makes a plan to move the economy forward, I think it is incumbent on all the citizens to support him because he cannot implement the policies all by himself. It requires that those people who are the executors should do it faithfully.
But a situation where a head of department charged with the responsibility of executing a project abandons it and all we see is monies being taken into private pockets and leaving the project abandoned and the citizens to suffer, will not help us to grow as a nation. If stealing continues in this economy, I bet you, we are going no where because development and corruption don’t go hand-in hand.
So I encourage all Nigerians to reexamine ourselves. The country will only become what we want it to be. America and Europe will not come to develop this country for us, it is the citizens that will do it. We have seen economies that were in the background before and today they are in the forefront of economic development but we see ourselves stagnating year in year out just because of corruption by political leaders.
Today, our people love to go to Dubai, but we must realise that Dubai was not Dubai 50 years ago. Some people made a commitment to build a model commercial and industrial state that would be the attraction of the global community. We can also do it here if we collectively agree to shun corruption and build a country that the future generation of Nigerians would be proud of.
Dubai that was a mere desert where rain does not fall sometimes in 10 years, has been so developed that people all over the world are coming to visit but here in Nigeria, we have all the natural resources to make us greater than Dubai, yet we are wasting our opportunity.
I still insist that it is only Nigerians that will develop the country, not outsiders and so all of us must rise up with the love of the country at heart anywhere we find ourselves. If we do that, we all will be happy because we will come out of this mess called recession.