From Magnus Eze, Abuja
Mallam Isma’ila Zakari is Managing Partner of Ahmed Zakari & Co and President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN). In this interview, he speaks on the new international accounting standard, which abolished the confidentiality clause in the profession. Aside promoting transparency, he said the rule, which took effect July 15, 2017, will boost the fight against corruption in Nigeria. Excerpts:
The new accounting standard
The new rule is called Noncompliance with Laws and Regulations (NOCLAR), which are the laws of Nigeria and the regulations set by the regulators. There are many regulators in Nigeria. One of the leading regulators of the banking industry, for instance, is the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), which makes regulations, and the Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC). Apart from the Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA), they also make regulations. The Nigeria Deposit Insurance Corporation (NDIC) also has regulations and the National Insurance Commission (NAICOM); also has regulations. Financial Reporting Council of Nigeria (FRCN), has regulations, so if in the case of a non-compliance with any laws or regulations in Nigeria, accountants can no longer hide under the old rule of “all our fundamental principle of confidentiality.”
Before July 15, one of the strongest and fundamental principles we have always been known for is our confidentiality. We keep our mouth shut about anything we see or hear in respect of our employers or clients and that is why they respect us and have trust in allowing us to work and dig through their records. So, if I go to a company in Nigeria as an auditor, I would know their business strategy but because I am a chartered accountant and member of ICAN, I cannot, under the confidentiality rule, take the business strategy of that company and go and give to a competitor company; so we keep that confidentiality.
The global accounting profession came up after a six-year stakeholder engagement with NOCLAR and it says that our principle of confidentiality has been probably responsible for allowing people to go scot free with cases of non-compliance with rules and regulations and that, in fact, if we apply this NOCLAR principle, we may be able to even stop potential cases of non-compliance with rules and regulations, which would make life in the world better and make the economies of the world thrive better and probably perform better.
For instance, if I am aware, as a chartered accountant, that somebody is just about to commit money laundering offence, in the course of my work, I am now required under NOCLAR to mention to him not to do it, and if he still insists that he wants to do it, I would go to the appropriate regulator like Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and report. This is now the ethical disposition of the profession, the new paradigm shift in the ethical disposition that we now, through our ethics, are going to be global whistle blowers in the case of non-compliance with rules and regulations or potential case of non-compliance or suspected case of non-compliance with rules and regulations.
How this will help the fight against corruption
Definitely, it will help in the fight corruption because accountants work with almost everybody. Even mosques and churches have accountants now looking at their books; they account for what they are doing. Every organisation is required to prepare some account or another kind of account depending on the standards. It is now going to help curb corruption and accountants can no longer hide under confidentiality and if they do not report and the situation becomes known and it is proved that the accountant had prior information of this matter, he is also likely to be charged complicity with the company that committed that offence.
Is this a new law?
It is not a law, it is our standard. Professional code of ethics of professional accountants globally is now saying accountants should act and we as accountants, like the ICAN, monitor what our members are doing and if they are reported for professional misconduct, any breach of accounting or ethical rules is a professional misconduct and we have a system in place to treat that.
We have a disciplinary process in ICAN; our Act also created two separate bodies, the accountants investigating panel, which investigates cases of professional misconduct brought against our members. We ask them questions, put the case before them and ask them to defend themselves. If we confirm that the member is in breach of the ethical rules of the profession, then we refer him to the accountants’ disciplinary tribunal and it will try the member and if found wanting, we can take punitive measures against such member. We can reprimand a member, we can suspend a member, we can even delist a member and remove his name from the register of members and he will no longer be a chartered accountant. That is the worst punishment the tribunal can give and the tribunal has given in some cases that punishment to chartered accountants in Nigeria.
Impact on confidentiality code of ethics
The old confidentiality code has changed now; it is not a contradiction now. We have changed the code to say that we still maintain confidentiality but not in the case of non-compliance with the laws and regulations. In the case of non-compliance with the laws and regulations, we cannot hide under confidentiality but under any other situation, the confidentiality principle still applies and still stands.
As a council, we adopted the new code on June 29; the council sat because we are the council of the institute, we take decisions on behalf of the profession in Nigeria, so we adopted that NOCLAR be applicable in Nigeria with effect from June 29 because the global standard says the effective date of its application was July 15. However, you can have an early adoption.
How NOCLAR’ll help accounting profession
It will bring us more respect in the eye of the public and stakeholders and make us more responsive. We are going to now contribute to stemming cases of non-compliance with laws and regulations and corruption especially in Nigeria and everywhere globally.
Key focus of my administration
What I want to achieve is to continue from where the immediate past president stopped; to move the Institute of Chartered Accountants forward in ensuring professionalism and good accounting practices in Nigeria; supporting our members, serving and educating our members. As you know, one of the key tenets of a profession is continuous education because of the dynamic nature of our work and the economies of the world. Things are changing everyday, technology is changing so many things and as a profession, we have to continue to move ahead together.
One of the things we do in ICAN is to ensure that members update and renew their knowledge continuously, so we are working on enhancing this continuing education development.
We think that the number of chartered accountants in Nigeria is too small with membership of 41,774. We think it’s too small for a country with a population of about 180 million, so we are hoping to help bring in very brilliant students who would qualify as chartered accountants so that the quality of the services we provide will also be excellent.
We are doing a lot of programmes; right from secondary school, we introduced this “catch them young” programme; we go to secondary schools and do career counselling for young students and tell them about the profession of accountancy and encourage them to come into the profession.
We also go to tertiary institutions. We have what we call tertiary institutions’ residency programme. It is where we bring in students of tertiary institutions during their holidays to have one week residency programme in a university campus. We pay for the services to use the campus, we also pay for their feeding, they have sporting activities, we bring in reputable chartered accountants that have been successful from very many spheres, some in public sector, some in education as lecturers, some in practice, some in financial reporting and companies as chief accountants or finance directors to speak to these students and inculcate in them the disposition of chartered accountants, the ethical disposition and what is required for them to immediately come in when they graduate.
Another thing that we are doing now is a middle level examination, which is called Accounting Technician Scheme West Africa (ATSWA). It is an examination taken in the West African region; in Ghana, Gambia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. ICAN actually started that programme in 1989 and the target is from school certificate holders. So, if your child has school certificate, the entry requirement is five credits including English and Mathematics, with NECO, WAEC or NABTEB, then they will enter the ATSWA examination. It is the only other means where a person can become a chartered accountant without getting a degree, otherwise, you have to be a graduate. It is a three level examination; we call it the mid-level accounting support for account clerical officers and so on.
We are now selling that as an alternative to JAMB. If you have a child who has been doing the UMTE year in year out and he hasn’t entered any tertiary institution and that child wants to do accounting, he should also try his hand on ICAN ATSWA because if he does and succeeds, he can become a chartered accountant even before graduation. There are many people who are coming through that pipeline so far. Employers of labour are telling us that, in fact, they prefer those who come from the ATSWA because they come right from the foundation level; they have solid foundation in the ATSWA before they come into the professional.
In fact, I went to Obafemi Awolowo University few years back and in the lecture hall, while we were making presentation, about 80 students of 300 and 400 levels had already qualified for ICAN final exams before getting graduated.
We have people who came through the ATSWA and they qualified as chartered accountants and have even gone to do other professional examinations and they are successful in their work; they don’t even have degree till now.