Accountability. Now. Nigeria: Keynote Speech by Olivia Kirtley

Oct 11, 2016 | at 46th Annual Accountants’ Conference of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) | Abuja, Nigeria | English

Thank you for the privilege of being with you today. I’m honored to address such a distinguished group of dignitaries and professional accountants during my first visit to Nigeria.

In my time with you today, I’m going to set out a number of ways in which accountability and good governance go hand-in-hand. I will talk about: how this institute is a crucial part of the Nigerian economy, the standards that govern our profession are vital to the public interest, public sector accountability is crucial to rebuilding trust between citizens and institutions, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are an important lens for our profession, good governance is crucial to the fight against fraud and corruption; and, finally, how fighting fraud and corruption is an excellent demonstration of both our public interest mission, and our ability to bring people and organizations together to fight a common foe. And after all that, I will set out some challenges for you!

Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria

Let’s begin with the role of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria—or ICAN—in Nigeria’s economy and public life. I want to acknowledge its contributions at the global, regional, and national level, and its commitment to the public interest. First, as a leading professional accountancy organization, ICAN contributes at the global level through its membership of IFAC, and representation on international boards and committees. ICAN contributes at the regional level through its membership of the Association of Accountancy Bodies in West Africa (ABWA) and the Pan African Federation of Accountants (PAFA)—two valuable forums for sharing best practices—and through the support it provides to professional accountancy organizations in neighboring countries. I thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience beyond your national borders. It is the valuable contribution of leading organizations such as ICAN that makes ours a truly global profession.

Second, I wish to acknowledge ICAN for its commitment to the public interest at the national level—a commitment clearly demonstrated by your role in national reform and contribution to Nigeria’s international economic integration. Nigeria’s adoption of International Financial Reporting Standards or IFRS, including IFRS for Small and Medium-sized Entities, and the International Standards on Auditing is significant. I commend the Ministry of Finance for the decision to adopt accrual-based International Public Sector Accounting Standards—or IPSAS—as the government’s reporting framework. It is vital that governments have high-quality information on which to base decisions. It is also important that citizens have easy access to understandable financial information on which they can base their decisions—often at the ballot box—and hold their governments accountable. These two necessities lie at the heart of IFAC’s Accountability. Now. initiative—a global call for change. It challenges policy makers and governments around the world to recognize the importance of financial reporting that meets international standards.


This brings me to my third acknowledgement of ICAN. I thank you for embracing the Accountability. Now. initiative at the national level, and taking the lead at the regional level. Accountability. Now. Nigeria.—the theme of this 46th Annual Accountant’s Conference—is evidence of your commitment to play a key role in public sector transparency, accountability, and governance. Given the large sums that flow through governments on both the supply and demand sides, there is an acute and urgent need for public financial management (PFM) reform. Recently, the Nigerian Director-General, Bureau of Public Service Reforms, said government should be open with information especially in relation to contracts and procurement because people deserved to know how their money was spent. He said, “Citizens actually know very little about what government does and how they do it, and that breeds suspicion. When you proactively disclose information, it lessens that suspicion. Being open with information requests helps us to engage better with citizens.” As accountants, we know that it’s not only important to be open with the information—but that the information must be correct to begin with. All too often we see the consequences of poor PFM—poor public services, sovereign debt crises, and municipal bankruptcies—resulting in loss of trust by citizens that their governments are able to create a sustainable future. PFM reform—including implementing internationally accepted standards for budgeting, accounting, and financial reporting—supports public sector accountability and transparency. It provides complete, high-quality information, enabling governments to develop policy, make informed spending decisions, and manage assets and liabilities, both now and for future generations. And it’s vital to ensuring sustainable public services and economically stronger societies. Our profession’s support for high-quality public financial reporting—the cornerstone of sound PFM—is vital to enabling sustainable public services and stronger societies. ICAN is ideally positioned to act in the public interest by establishing partnerships between government and the accountancy profession, with the profession acting as a trusted advisor to government. And IFAC gladly collaborates with you.

We facilitate and participate in events that bring together accountancy and governmental leaders to explore working together to advance PFM. We facilitate capacity building by engaging with professional accountancy organizations to develop a pipeline of well-trained professional accountants to work with or in government to bring about needed changes.

This last part—building public sector accountancy capacity at a country level—is key. Countries that have the most to benefit from PFM reforms often lack the accountancy capacity necessary to execute reforms. A great deal of what we do at IFAC is facilitating the advancement and growth of professional accountancy organizations in parts of the world that desperately need more accountants.

As IFAC President, it has been my pleasure to visit many countries that have really grasped the PFM challenge. Let me highlight a few examples of how our profession—even in small countries with scarce resources—can achieve great things. In Sri Lanka, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy is working with CA Sri Lanka and the government to develop a new qualification to help professionalize public sector personnel, increase the understanding of accrual accounting, and build a framework for accounts preparation and audits.

In Malta, the government is getting its “ACT” together—with ACT being an acronym for Accountability, Credibility, and Transparency. The Ministry of Finance is implementing International Public Sector Accounting Standards across the government and believes strongly that it will improve overall decision making.

In Kosovo, the Society of Certified Accountants and Auditors of Kosovo has partnered with the government and supreme audit institution to develop professional qualifications in the public sector. The program has helped build the profession’s numbers and attract new students, and the external certification has helped enhance the perception of independence of the Auditor General’s office.

In Uganda, the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Uganda is partnering with government to build public sector accountancy capacity. These activities are extending to other African countries with the Accountant General seconding staff to Somalia and South Sudan, and the Auditor General seconding staff to South Sudan and the African Organisation of English-speaking Supreme Audit Institutions.

Under the IFAC PAO Capacity Building program, we are funding a project to strengthen public sector accountancy capacity in Zimbabwe. Almost all of our other projects under the program have a public sector component.

Nigeria, similar to many other nations with dependency on commodities, is experiencing significant budgetary pressure, especially in a year that saw both the highest budget ever and a significant drop in oil prices.

This pressure firmly places the spotlight on fiscal responsibility, making transparency and accountability absolutely necessary, and, as mentioned earlier, a significant opportunity for our profession.

Nations around the world are facing significant lack of trust in governments. Citizens do not trust governments to make sound decisions, or to do the right thing. They are losing faith that governments are able to chart a sustainable future. This is both a cause and effect of global events that, more recently, include the Brexit vote, the impeachment of the president of Brazil, and the rise of unlikely political leaders. In some cases, it is because of national events, such as the failure to provide essential public services, a sovereign debt crises, or municipal bankruptcies. In other cases, it is because of fraud and corruption (An audit of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation showed that from 2011 until 2015, the company withheld more than US $25 billion from the public, according to The Economist). These events create uncertainty and instability. Our profession plays an important role in helping to establish and supporting effective public sector accountability and governance.


And this brings me to the UN Sustainable Development Goals—or SDGs. While they are about many topics that we positively impact either directly or indirectly as professional accountants, it is a global action framework into which we can—indeed MUST—be seen to be actively supporting. I know anti-corruption initiatives are top-of-mind—not just for leaders, but for everyday citizens all over the world who desire—and deserve—the best possible leadership. I commend your nation for the steps it has taken, and the high profile President Buhari has placed on fighting the scourge of fraud and corruption.

He has appointed ministers who place the same importance on fighting corruption as he does, and some former officials have even been charged for past offenses. The Nigerian Ministry of Finance has instituted a “treasury single account,” consolidating all inflows from ministries, departments, and agencies into a single account at the Central Bank of Nigeria. The Minister of Finance—who knows something about accounting!—a fellow of this institute and of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, requires governors to make their finances public before receiving additional federal funds. And the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation is also now publishing monthly financial reports. But it is Nigeria’s leadership on the global stage in relation to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals that I want to touch on now.

The Goals are not only good for the nation, they are good for you as professional accountants. Firstly, President Bhuari’s speech at last month’s UN General Assembly in New York was warmly received. He said,

Fighting corruption remains a cardinal pillar of our administration. Corruption freezes development, thereby undermining the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. I am pleased that our efforts in fighting corruption are yielding positive results including significant stolen assets recoveries. The recovered funds are being channeled towards the development of critical infrastructure and the implementation of social inclusion programs for our people. We are also strengthening our capacity of government entities to institutionalize reforms to ensure transparency and good governance.

He is right on three fronts. The Sustainable Development Goals are worth achieving, corruption is blight that prevents their attainment, good governance is key achieving the SDGs and preventing corruption.

I recently returned from Geneva, where—on behalf of the global accountancy profession—I articulated the need for greater developing world accountancy capacity as crucial to SDG delivery. At their heart, SDGs are an agenda for people, planet, and prosperity at a time when corporate responsibility is high on board agendas. The goals frame the areas of sustainable development and market failure that help governments and business determine what they do, and what they invest in.

What is clear is that SDGs will require heightened accountability from governments and companies, a broader perspective from boards and management, strong leadership and culture, and increased transparency. And in all these things, ICAN’s members—as I’m sure you have already understood—have an extremely significant role to play.

Before moving on to speak about good governance, I want to touch on another reason why it’s important for our profession to speak in terms of its role supporting the SDGs: young people.


This Institute has always been a tremendous supporter of young Nigerians. In all that you do, you fulfill your public interest mandate. But in your physical and practical support, you demonstrate that Nigeria’s professional accountants offer real, tangible initiatives that inspire young people to learn, and to consider accountancy as a calling. ICAN provides professional accountancy education, scholarships, books, and computers to higher education institutions; learning materials, library development projects, construction of lecture theaters in institutions across the country; and even a national essay competition for undergraduates. These are wonderful examples of action, not just words. Into this mix, the linking of our daily and strategic work and vision to the Sustainable Development Goals will further enhance our relevance to young people—the next leaders of our profession.

Good Governance

So now, to good governance—vital to the economic health and prosperity of any nation, and to any organization: public, private, not-for-profit. I have devoted many years to governance—both serving as a non-executive director of several publicly listed companies, and as a consultant to businesses, boards, and governments. I have seen firsthand how robust governance greatly enhances decision making and accountability in any organization. Embedding strong governance into a country’s DNA, and expecting it in government and every organization and business, is one of the most important steps that can be taken. Sustainably growing Nigeria’s economy and solidifying its position in an internationally integrated economy is going to require a strong, decisive, and embedded governance culture. Again, this is something President Bhuhari noted in his General Assembly speech, referencing the nation’s public wealth inherent in your rich, diverse natural resources:

Nigeria remains committed to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global coalition which promotes transparency and accountability in the management of revenues from the oil, gas and solid minerals sectors. We voluntarily signed up to EITI because we are convinced that transparent governance is an imperative for resource-rich developing countries like ours.

The National EITI has been empowering citizens with critical information they can use to hold government and other players in the extractive industries to account, and make recommendations that drive reforms in these strategic sectors of our national life.

The International Framework: Good Governance in the Public Sector issued by IFAC and CIPFA in 2014 provides a framework for governance codes for the public sector. To deliver good governance in the public sector, both governing bodies and individuals working for public sector entities must try to achieve their entity’s objectives while acting in the public interest at all times, consistent with the requirements of legislation and government policies, avoiding self-interest and, if necessary, overriding a perceived organization interest. Acting in the public interest implies primary consideration of the benefits for society, which should result in positive outcomes for service users and other stakeholders. It therefore requires two things: 1) behaving with integrity, demonstrating strong commitment to ethical values, and respecting the rule of law; and 2) ensuring openness and comprehensive stakeholder engagement.

  • In addition to the overarching requirements for acting in the public interest achieving good governance in the public sector also requires effective arrangements for:             
    • Defining outcomes in terms of sustainable economic, social, and environmental benefits;
    • Determining interventions necessary to optimize the achievement of the intended outcomes;
    • Developing the entity’s capacity, including the capacity of its leadership and the individuals within it;
    • Managing risks and performance through robust internal control and strong public financial management; and
    • Implementing good practices in transparency, reporting, and audit to deliver effective accountability.

Professional accountants are uniquely qualified and stand ready to help establish and ensure good governance. In 2012, I was part of a Corporate Governance Study Group sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. Our charge was to examine and suggest ways to bridge governance gaps. During one of our meetings, the Dean of Columbia University Business School in New York made the observation that: “There are three kinds of gaps that [those charged with governance] must address: gaps in information, gaps in oversight, and gaps in expertise.”

The accountancy profession is uniquely positioned to help address those gaps. Financial expertise and professional skepticism are our core competencies. Information is our business. We help organizations understand the essential elements, structures, and processes of strong governance. It is in the accountancy profession’s best interest to play a significant leadership role. Effective governance leads to high-quality information and transparency that enables professional accountants to do a better job. It is essential that our profession is involved at every level.

I encourage you to read IFAC’s latest submission to the G-20: Trust and Integrity—The Accountancy Profession’s Call for Action by the G-20.

Our #BuildTrust social campaign recognizes:

  • Accountancy plays a critical role in achieving transparency in the global economy, contributing almost USD $600 billion in gross value added each year, and enabling capital flows, economic activity, and higher standards of living; and
  • Organizations and individuals must be empowered by strong governance in the business and public sectors, underpinned by a coherent public policy and regulatory environment.

To these ends, IFAC—as representative of the global accountancy profession—called on the G-20 to enhance sustainable growth through stronger governance for trust and integrity in business and public sector and creation of a cooperative, consistent, and smart global regulatory environment. Strong financial management, transparency, accountability and enhanced governance are essential for sustainable, long-term economic growth that benefits the world’s citizens.

To achieve this, we must not only have good intentions; we must act intentionally. I would like to close by challenging each of you to act intentionally by finding ways to #1—ADVOCATE for strong governance and to position your national profession as trusted advisors in the PFM reform process. Be interested in all aspects of governance, talk about what changes should be made, what works well for others, and share experiences. #2—EVALUATE. Review your current governance arrangements and identify areas for improvement. Seek out what has been effective elsewhere, highlight existing gaps, and create an action list to bridge those gaps. #3—PARTICIPATE. Talk to your government representatives. Make sure they understand the importance of high-quality financial reporting as cornerstone of sound PFM. Support them in their PFM reform efforts. Be visible leaders, and lead by example.

As I have witnessed many times throughout my career—individually, we may be ordinary individuals, but together we can achieve extraordinary things. Thank you once again for the invitation to be with you today. It is indeed a pleasure and privilege for IFAC to be a small part of this chapter as your story continues to unfold.


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