EXPLAINING OUR AUDIT PROCESSES FOR DUMMIES

By: Winstanley.R. Bankole. Johnson

It is the brouhaha that has followed the recently published Year 2019 Government Audit Report by the Audit Services Sierra (ASSL) that has informed the caption of this piece. In the main I will be using plain and simple English methods of communications for ease of understanding by the wider sector of society who are by now very much confused, to enable them to discern and hopefully decide what to listen to and who to believe.

  1. WHAT IS AN AUDIT?

An Audit is an examination of various records, financial statements and administrative documents within a particular timeline to ensure compliances with existing regulations and guidelines in order to verify the fairness and accuracy of the transactions they purport to represent during that prescribed timeline.

  • HOW OFTEN CAN AUDITS BE UNDERTAKEN?

That depends on the agreed frequencies for the particular organization or government Ministry Department and Agency (MDA) to be audited. For MDAs and even for public and private corporations and organizations it is defined in Sec.119 (4) of the National Constitution and it must be done annually and within the end of twelve months immediately of the succeeding year. These annualized audit cycles of government institutions are different from internal audit frequencies undertaken by Internal Auditors or Internal Controllers and Compliance Officers as per the guidelines of the particular institution.

  • WHO CAN AUDIT GOVERNMENT MDAS?

Responsibility for annualized audits of MDAs is statutorily devolved on the Audit Services Sierra Leone (ASSL) which is headed by the Auditor General (AG) per Sec. 119 (2) of the National Constitution.  These include every national institution created by Parliament, supervised and bankrolled by the central government to wit: Courts, Central and Local Administrations, Educational Institutions, Para-Statals and Statutory Corporations.

  • CAN OR SHOULD THE WORK OF ASSL BE FETTERED BY ANY SUPERIOR AUTHORITY?

Never!! That is guaranteed/entrenched as enshrined in Sec. 119 (6) of the National Constitution that in the exercise of his/her functions, the AG “shall not” be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority. That is to say s/he has, and should be allowed to wax absolute independence and control both over the ASSL administration and in the execution of her lawful duties.

  • DOES THAT MAKE THE AG SO POWERFUL, UNTOUCHABLE AND INVINCIBLE?

Absolutely no!! The Reports, accounts and entire administration of ASSL are as subject to investigations as are the reports, accounts and administration of all the MDAs they periodically review and report upon. And that is guaranteed by Sec. 119 (12) of the National Constitution which states that: “The accounts of the office of the Auditor General “shall” be audited and reported upon by an Auditor appointed by Parliament.  So the AG’s office is policed too!!

  • CAN THE INTEGRITY OF AN AG BECOME BLEMISHED?

Yes. A possibility for that exists because to err is human. And that is where the need for anyone appointed into that sublime office to subscribe to an “Oath” in accordance with Sec. 119 (13) and the Third Schedule of the National Constitution arises. They must swear and affirm to faithfully and truly discharge the duties of that office within the Republic of Sierra Leone, and further reaffirm to always support, uphold and maintain the Constitution of Sierra Leone as by Law established with the help of God.

  • SO WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE INTEGRITY OF THE AG BECOMES BLEMISHED?

This is addressed by Sec.119 (9) of the Constitution which refers us to Sec. 137 which is the same Constitutional Provision for the removal of a Judge of the Superior Court of the Judicature from office other than for the position of the Chief Justice. So this means the Auditor General is not invincible, but until and unless this section becomes necessary to be invoked, Sec.119 (6) is sustained and the Auditor General “shall” neither be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority, nor intimidated or distracted in the performance of his/her duties. That is to say s/he has and should be allowed to wax absolute independence over the ASSL administration.

  • WHAT ARE THE BASIC THEMATIC AREAS ON WHICH AN AUDIT IS ANCHORED?

That’s easy:

  1. An Engagement Letter – This is usually predicated on meeting outcomes between the Auditor General and the Board Directors, Permanent Secretaries and  other key stakeholders of entities to be audited that will define (a) Who and the areas to audit and by whom; (b) When – usually agreed as the Accounting Year and (c) Audit Fees Payable
  2. An Entrance Meeting with the Auditors. This is held to ostensibly welcome the Audit Team and to brief them about likely key issues, to thaw any perceived ice-cold relationship and to create ambient and amicable work space for the visiting Audit team.
  3. An Exit Meeting with the Auditors. It is usually at these meetings “grey areas” identified by the Auditors during their visits are dialogued and resolved with key players of the particular MDA being audited. It is the outcomes of these exit meetings that should underpin the next step which is the Draft Audit Reports and Management Letter
  4. Draft Audited Financial Statements/Reports and Management Letters. These two separate but related documents are exhaustively discussed with the audited MDA – sometimes at several meeting sessions to cross “Ts” and dot “Is”- before they are produced as the Final Reports and Management Letter. And no Auditor, concerned about his/her integrity will proceed to producing Final Financial Statements/Reports and Management Letters until and unless satisfactory dialogues have been concluded with the audited party, as should be evidenced by their joint acquiescence in those Final documents. This is because the intention of the Auditor is not to “Witch-hunt”, but to ensure that the various records, financial statements and administrative documents produced within the auditable period are indeed fairly and accurately compliant with existing regulations and guidelines of the transactions they purport to represent.

Once the above thematic areas are followed and Final Reports produced as agreed between the Auditor General’s office and the particular MDA, nothing now should remain but for the latter to provide responses to all the issues highlighted by the Auditors no matter at what risk rating they are categorized (High: Medium: Low).

  • WHAT IS THE TIMELINE FOR RESPONDING TO AUDIT REPORTS?

Between 30 days and up to nine (9) months after acceptance of the Reports can be acceptable, depending on the severity and complexity of the issues raised. Whatever the case, every effort must be made to ensure the issues flagged by the AG are satisfactorily redressed so as to avoid a repetition of errors or any carry-overs to the next Financial/Audit Year which might have serious cumulative reputational and/or financial damage to the entity. 

  1. ARE AUDIT REPORTS SHAMEFUL INDICTMENTS ON THE ENTITY OR GOVERNMENT?

Ordinarily they shouldn’t be. Unless there have been evidences of serious malfeasances, huge financial loss or reputational damage incurred and instances of repeated administrative or procurement lapses, such as can frustrate any Auditor General into justifiably applying a severity of opinionated expressions as s/he feels necessary to eradicate intransigence or stupidity.

  1. TO WHOM SHOULD THE AG’S REPORTS BE SUBMITTED?

Parliament – Ref. Sec.119 (4) of the Constitution. And the AG should draw the attention of the Honourable House to any irregularities in the accounts audited and to any other matter which in his/her opinion ought to be brought to the notice of Parliament.  Parliament shall Per Sub Sec. 5 of the same proviso debate the Report of the AG and appoint where necessary in the public interest, a committee to deal with any matters arising therefrom.

Lacunae

From the above it follows therefore that accompanying every Audit Report to Parliament should be another separate Report also drawing the attention of Parliament to issues of irregularity.

Now here lies the lacunae from these Sub-sections 4 and 5 of Sec.119 of our Constitution: What if Parliament in their wisdom does not consider the issues deemed irregular by the Auditor General to be so classified? “Buff” Case? Or what even if Parliament agrees that yes though they are serious and of public interest, they do not warrant the setting up any special committee to further look into anything? Another “buff” case??

To better contemplate the severity of these lacunae one should best imagine if this were a “One-Party State of government” or where the ruling government under whose watch the audit was done controls more than two-thirds majority seats in the “Well” of Parliament and consider the recommendations adverse to their Party interests. Triple “Buff” Case??? Can anyone recall tussles between Parliament and the ACC as to who should do what or what not with previous Audit Reports?

There are further lacunae that I think require amendments at the next Constitutional review to strengthen the effectiveness of ASSL as under:

  • Whereas by Sec.106 (7) of the Constitution a fourteen-day timeline is given to H E the President to assent or return Bills to Parliament unsigned, there is no Constitutional timeline for Parliament to complete reviews of an AG’s Annual Report. So they can choose to be debating it endlessly if it is seriously adversarial to a sitting government with more than two-thirds majority or in a “one-Party State” government, just to preclude public or even the ACC interest. This is where a definite timeline (say of not more than 30 days) for Parliamentary debates on those issues of serious irregularities raised in the Auditor General’s Reports becomes necessary.
  • If the appointment, status and removal procedures of the Auditor General is akin to that of a Judge of the Superior Court (except the Chief Justice), it should logically follow that for the effective performance of his/her roles (and as in the case for Parliamentarians in Sec.93 (6) of the Constitution), all AG’s Reports should come with such powers, rights and privileges as are vested in a Superior Court of Law at a trial in respect of (a) Responding  to Audit Reports and Queries and (b) Compelling the production of documents within stipulated timeframe from date of submission of final Reports. This caveat will compel MDAs to “willy-nilly” respond to all Audit Reports whether or not it is receiving Parliamentary or Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) scrutiny. This is implied because the Constitution neither absolves MDAs from providing responses to Audit Reports under Parliamentary or ACC scrutiny, nor does it compel Parliamentary appearance or attendance of any AG. As I understand it, the Constitutional powers of Parliament insofar as the AG’s Reports are concerned are restricted to addressing “irregularities in the audited accounts”-  Sec.119 (4) and “….to appoint where necessary in the public interest a committee to deal with any matters arising thereform.”- Sec. 119 (5). From both provisos it follows therefore from my perspective that a Parliamentary invite to the entire Audit Service Sierra Leone team appears constitutionally unnecessary at this point. The Reports were written in clear and communicable English and the AG’s appearance will not materially change anything in my view.
  1. SO IF PARLIAMENT DISAGREES WITH THE OPINIONS OF THE AG ON IRREGULARITIES, WHICH OTHER BODY CAN INDEPENDENTLY INVESTIGATE IN PUBLIC INTEREST?

The ACC of course! But I will leave its effectiveness to readers’ contemplation having regard for recent years Auditor General’s Reports covering years 2015-2018 of an APC administration by an SLPP-appointed ACC Commissioner and the present furore surrounding the same Auditor General’s year 2019 Report under an unfettered SLPP stewardship.

  1. DO FINAL AG REPORTS CONTAIN ANYTHING NEW THAT SHOULD SURPRISE THE MDA AUDITED?

Not at all! Never!! As a matter of fact there is, and should be nothing new in any Final Audit Report that should surprise the government in particular and or the key stake holders of any MDA in general. This is because everything and anything contained in the relevant Final Reports must have been amply red-flagged by the Auditors and discussed with the key stakeholders of the MDA during the Auditor’s Exit meetings before the Final Reports are printed out.

Backstory

So if the answer to No.13 is no, then why all these alarmist reactions by this present SLPP government to the Year 2019 Auditor General’s Report? The answer to that is simple Watson: Politics! Sheer sectarian, ethno-regional, ethno-centric politics!! And here’s the backstory:

Audit Reports are not new in Sierra Leone and they have always highlighted and exposed serious lapses in the management of governments’ resources particularly as regards procurements. But between 2015 and 2017 the SLPP introduced new dimensions by recruiting Information Trojans and Cyber Mercenaries comprising local and international private companies and civil society groups to “troll” those Auditor General’s Reports  – not for the benefit of the country – but to discredit the past APC regime in full measure and to ensure SLPP victory at the 2018 polls.

Issues of serious irregularities highlighted and exposed in those Reports by this same Auditor General on seat today were exaggerated and amplified via regular public international demonstrations against former President Koroma until they ultimately crystalized into the infamously concocted Government Transition Team Report on the economic status of Sierra Leone which the BBC Local Stringer Umaru Fofana in the opening lines of his report on that day aptly described as “grim and grubby”.

The APC went on to lose those lections and in summarizing the economic status of the country for H E President Bio when presenting his GTT Report the Chief Minister Prof. David Francis on that day opened up thus:

Quote: “BY 4th April 2018 Sierra Leone was in a state of near financial bankruptcy and facing the worst economic crisis since independence in 1961. And we have the various reports to justify that. Your Excellency at the time of your assuming power the international reputation of Sierra Leone was battered and at its lowest ebb because of rampant corruption, gross mismanagement and leadership failure of the former APC administration. Most importantly we must set up a Judge-led Commission of Inquiry with immediate effect to recover all stolen and inappropriately converted state funds. The primary objectives are to investigate, prosecute and jail if found guilty of corruption….they must be made to pay back to the state all corrupt funds and face long Prison sentences” –  Unquote.

For his part H E President Bio described corruption at the level inherited as an existential national security threat. The nation agreed. So on the national political scorecard it was “Bull’s Eye” for the SLPP. The Commissions of Inquiries and Technical Audit have come and gone. The latter a definite failure and the former snail-paced as completion had not been achieved within the shortest possible timeline contemplated. We continue to await the outcomes of the appellate processes.

“Shock and Awe”

No doubt the SLPP had hoped that after “beastify-ing” the past APC government their own annualized AG’s Reports would reflect positive indicators as would make them appear as efficient managers of state resources, help them regain the confidence our traditional bi-lateral partners to make them more disposed to Sierra Leone’s counters. But as we progress year on year the contrary continues to obtain and in worse dimensions. Irregularities in the AG’s Year 2018 Reports were blamed as APC legacy issues and allowed to pass. By Year 2019 such excuses were unacceptable because the SLPP was in unfettered control of the economy and the APC was too long gone. The situation being so, it is the “utter shock and awe” about the level of corruption under the supposedly eagle-eyed and untainted SLPP administration that continues to defy all logic that is sending this government that is intolerant of democratic accountability into frenzies for excuses, explanations and even celestial support to launder their extensively battered image within so short a period in governance.   

The public has been left with no alternative but to conclude that this SLPP government had no “locus-standi” to have branded the previous APC administration as “a Criminal Cartel”, knowing full well that they are in fact the “Capo-di-Tutti Capi” (which in Italian and American Mafiosi language makes them Dons or Godfathers of the same Criminal Cartel) when it comes to loss of government funds through persistent irregular procurement patterns as revealed in both the Years 2018 & 2019 AG’s Reports. In the last twelve months not a week would pass by without the public hearing or reading about massive misappropriation of government funds in every facet of government.

Conclusion

For decades now successive Audit Reports reflect the same litany of errors such as misapplication of government’s assets/resources through misprocurements, mismanagement of control registers, accountable documents and through other administrative or management lapses. This is not good for our country and those are the very reasons that make the AG’s role necessary, to ensure regular compliance with existing control guidelines.

It isn’t always correct to surmise that every irregularity identified by the AG represents corruption. But governments have a responsibility to ensure that all questions pertaining to issues of irregularities as flagged by the AG are satisfactorily responded to in the normal business flow Audit Reports and responses have always been intended to follow – whether or not they are receiving Parliamentary or ACC scrutiny and whether or not a government feels indicted by it and is apprehensive of a retributive “Tit-for-Tat” treatment should they lose political power to the opposition at the next polls.

We are running a country and not political cabals. Once that is understood accountability and transparency should be our hallmark, rather than our exceptions and justice, being no respecter of tribes, regions and Party colours must prevail if corruption should be minimized, and development and social services delivery accelerated to help us reduce illiteracy and massive unemployment.

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