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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Modou Ceesay, Auditor General (Part 1)

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By Omar Bah

Following his first anniversary as the country’s Auditor General, The Standard had an exclusive with Modou Ceesay on his achievements, vision, and plans to strengthen the country’s supreme audit institution.


The Standard: How were you able to cope over the past year trying to fill the shoes of your predecessor, who has won admiration for his tremendous work and a strong commitment to accountability?

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AG Ceesay: Thank you very much. First of all, I would also like to take the opportunity to, on behalf of myself and my staff, extend our sincere welcome. To your question, I think it is quite an admiration because he has already laid a very strong foundation, so it’s just for us to continue from where he left off, and to build upon the existing benchmarks on the blocks he already laid which resulted in a smooth transition into the office; the staff were quite supportive, and most of the policies and programmes were already in place. The strategic plan was a continuation, and the visions were all in place for the office. Of course, the mandate of the office is already clear. It’s already stipulated in the Constitution. The act is already very clearly laid out, so it wasn’t a big challenge, but riding on the back of an image such as the one that you just described can be positives, which is, of course, that the element of it has been made easier for anybody to take over. Thus, for us, it is to continue that wisdom, the leadership skills, and the energy that he has left behind.

In concrete terms, what notable difference were you able to make in the past year?

That is a challenging situation to some extent, as I have said earlier there has been a very strong foundation laid, but notwithstanding, of course, despite the foundation and also the achievements made, we were able to come up and push for the attainment of those goals that have been at least set and where progress has been made such as:

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Notably, of course, is the continuation of the professional and administrative reforms that were already in gear, so we were able to in this one-year add a lot of numbers on the professionalisation of the NAO’s capacities by increasing the number of professional staff and professional programmes that staff would need to know in order to be able to do their job. For example, there has been an increase in the number of ACCA students, and the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (CFE), and staff are qualifying for what we call the Professional Education for SAI Auditors and also bringing the API, which is the Africa Professionalisation Initiative.

We also brought in initiatives to enhance the audit scope. Of course, the scope was already there, but the challenge would have been how well we were meeting up with that scope which we did by adding the number of auditees—what we call expanding the audit universe. By increasing the number of auditees, we are able to provide assurance and give feedback to the National Assembly, on how they used public resources.

As part of our achievements in auditing government accounts, we have been able to clear the backlogs because we are now auditing the 2021–2022 accounts, which means that by March if we are able to complete the exercise, we will be doing the current year auditing. Of course, it has been achieved not because of the effort of the NAO alone but with the effort of our stakeholders, such as the Accountant General and the Ministry of Finance, who prepared these statements on time and handed them to us on time.

The other issue could be the attainment of improved engagements with the auditees. It started before I came, but we were able to expand on it. We bring them together to understand the challenges and obstacles that we face with them, help elevate those challenges, and bring about a wider understanding of the benefits of auditing for them and their respective objectives.

We have also enhanced our audit processes with the use of technology. We now have what is called Gam-SEAT. The ‘Gam’ stands for Gambia, and SEAT is generic, meaning SAI-Enhancement Audit Tool which automates the audit process from planning to reporting. That means we will not be manually dependent on working papers; we now have systems that can be used to back up our documentation. It will also be easier for reference purposes and quality assurance purposes because we now have a system that documents audit processes, which is very important. After all, it can be followed and reviewed, and you will still have the conclusion the auditor has reached because auditing is a process. It is not a very complex process, but it is a process that is very rudimentary, and it requires the output of that process to be vetted properly before the results of that audit outcome are shared with the stakeholders.

In short, we were able to make those small or somewhat significant contributions within this short period, and we hope to build on those gains to actually make a new contribution during the time that we are here. God willing.

What are you doing in the area of transparency, especially when it comes to publishing audit reports when they are due to be published?

Publication of audit reports has been one of the highlights of this office. And of course, no doubt, this is a process that was taken consciously and in line with the mandate of the NAO. So, in line with our mandate enshrined in the 1997 Constitution, the audit reports are public documents after they have been discussed at the National Assembly, so therefore nothing will change in that direction. We will sustain that transparency or even promote greater transparency because, remember, our mantra and vision are to enable effective transparency and accountability. Transparency is envisaged in the vision of the NAO, and so it will definitely continue.

We would just be very much following through on those gains that have already been solidified in that direction. You know, traditionally, all other reports were published, but the publication mechanism was the National Library, with the assumption of the internet and social media, we are now present on those platforms in order to enhance the mandate of the office and increase the visibility of the good work that the office is trying to do to meet its mandate as enshrined in the constitution and other laws. So, in that direction, we will definitely continue to be very transparent, inclusive, and objective in our work, so there will be reports to be discussed at the National Assembly, and once they are discussed, they will be available for everybody to access.

The issues of backlogs and lack of proper implementation of audit reports have been a big challenge over the past few years. What is the NAO doing to tackle this problem?

The issue of the audit backlog is one of the challenges that we are currently facing. We have engaged with the National Assembly in one of our stakeholder engagements, which was dedicated, particularly to the National Assembly Members, especially those in the relevant committees of the PEC and FPAC. We have highlighted this issue because the challenge with the backlog should be understood in the context of the fact that you cannot audit accounts that are not presented to you. So, the challenge is that we have to work with the stakeholders. We have to work with relevant supervisory bodies to ensure that the people who are supposed to prepare those accounts and bring them on time will do so. If they are brought timely for audit, then the pressure will shift to NAO to audit those accounts on time and report to the National Assembly on time.

I mentioned that for backlogs, we are working with the Accountant General’s Office, the Ministry of Finance, and the government in general to elevate these backlogs. This is why I told you earlier that, thanks to those engagements, we are currently auditing the 2021–2022 government accounts, so after that audit, we will be left with the 2023 accounts, which will be due on March 31st. We are hoping that by March 31st, the Accountant General will be able to prepare the accounts for 2023, which will put us at the current year of auditing.

Now we are left with the other backlogs, for example, with the local councils and local government authorities, but we are also working very closely with their management, the National Assembly, and the Ministry of Local Governments and Lands to ensure that they all have the necessary tools, the necessary staff capacities, and the necessary resources to prepare those accounts on time and submit them for audit on time, but that would also put another additional requirement on the National Audit Office in terms of resources. This is why we are trying to build internal staff capacity, which of course requires resources. That is why it’s important to resource the National Audit Office so that all these accounts—the accounts of the government, the accounts of the courts, the accounts of the National Assembly, the accounts of the local government authorities, and the accounts of the SOEs—will be audited and reported on by the Auditor General on time, which will require a significant number of resources.

Also, together with our partners, we outsource audits that we feel are required on time, for example, audits of donor-funded projects. Most of the audits of the SOEs (State-owned Enterprises), have been outsourced to private audit firms to help the Auditor General meet those deadlines in terms of reporting on those accounts. So, these are some of the issues or some of the efforts being made to erase the backlogs.

You might have noticed that this year we issued a press release giving notice to all government entities and heads of departments who are required to produce and submit their financial statements to do so by March 31 after the end of the financial year for audit purposes. So, we will continue in that direction to keep sensitising all stakeholders, but the challenge there could be that there are not enough enforcement mechanisms if people deviate from those set deadlines in the constitution. For instance, what could you do to compel them to comply with those deadlines? Those are some of the gaps in the laws that we hope could be part of our bills to allow for greater enforcement in terms of helping to bring accounts for audit on time.

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