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Saturday, April 20, 2024

Modou Ceesay, Auditor General (Part 2)

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By Omar Bah

There has been this debate that the NAO, even though it has teeth, doesn’t bite. What are you doing about that, especially when it comes to the surcharge clause?

I believe maybe it’s growing some teeth. But you are quite right. We have made efforts, and for my predecessor, one of the things that he left for me to continue was the issue of the reforms of the NAO Act, so we are currently going through an NAO Act Amendment, which we hope will soon be completed. That will help us to clarify the role the NAO can play in trying to enforce its mandate in terms of what is already enshrined in the Constitution in terms of surcharge, and there are also other areas or other laws or authorities that need clarification. For example, this amendment bill also contains areas that will help NAO remove itself from issues that have been legacy challenges. For example, the pre-audits of pensions.

The NAO is still doing a pre-audit of pensions, and as an external audit, this affects our independence. We shouldn’t be involved in something that we will later audit. So, these are some of the things that are contained in that amendment bill, which hopefully will be given its due attention by the Executive and the Legislature so that we can elevate some of the challenges that you have highlighted in terms of the administration of surcharges and the removal of conflicted mandates of the NAO and provide clarity on other areas such as the term limits of the board and the like.

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There has been this conspiracy theory that the NIA (now SIS) and other security institutions are not audited. What do have to say about that?

They are all audited. We do a consolidated audit of government accounts and in that consolidated audit of government accounts, the military is a budget entity. It is a complete ministry. It is under the Ministry of Defence and then you have the Ministry of Interior and all of these ministries are audited. In fact, they all have also internal audits, and their transactions are all processed at the Accountant General Department so maybe it’s an issue of lack of understanding or awareness, but they all form part of the consolidated accounts of the government. If you follow through very closely, you watch the deliberations on the accounts of 2020, in which we have made a National Assembly, you see the permanent secretaries of Defence, Interior, and the president. All of them were there so all consolidated government accounts are audited. 

What can you recount as your biggest challenge?

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I think the biggest challenge is the issue of access and funding because from my earlier deliberations, you will understand that the office has a broader mandate and that means the office will need adequate resources in order to perform that mandate.

The other challenge would be independence in terms of the legislative reforms that we are looking at, for example, making the office more independent in its operations, financial autonomy, and of course administrative autonomy. These to a great extent have been resolved with the 2015 NAO Act but there are still some little bits of gaps maybe that will need to be filled in other to adequately keep the office as an independent institution. You may even notice that during the Constitution Review Commission, one of the recommendations of the CRC was to bring what it called independent bodies, and those independent bodies, for example, were the National Audit Office, Independent Electoral Commission, the Ombudsman, etc. These were some of the institutions that were recommended to be independent in their operational autonomy and independent in the execution of their function because they are very critical functions that are supposed to review everybody including the executive, judiciary, and the National Assembly; so, you have to sit at a very strategic government position to be able to do this adequately.

The other challenge could be access to records, and personnel which culminates in us not being able to perform our reviews adequately because you will notice that most of the audit findings revolve around documents not submitted for audit, documents not seen for review, and inadequate supporting documents. So those things make the audit work a little bit difficult because it actually restricts the scope of the auditors. It limits the scope of the auditors and then they will not be able to adequately review those transactions or otherwise form an opinion on those transactions because they would have needed to do a due diligence process before they arrive at the conclusion.  So, if you are not fed with the necessary documents, then you may not be able to perform the procedures needed to reach a reasonable conclusion on those issues. I would say those things are some of the challenges that we experience and these are probably due to lack of awareness of the audit process, and the lack of awareness of the mandate of the office. However, we are trying to create awareness through engagements with our partners in the media space to be adequately reporting on the output of the office, its mandate, and objectives.

Is the NAO going ahead with its plan to audit the extractive industry this year?

 This is one emerging area that the Supreme Audit Institutions are realising how well they can be more citizen-centric in their work or in their mandate. The extractive industries and the subsector of it is mining but it is broader than that so we have engaged through support from the African Development Bank to engage in a coordinated audit which means it is not only happening in The Gambia.

We happen to be part of the Supreme Audit Institutions (SAIs) that are being selected alongside other audit institutions to do an audit on the extractive industries. It includes also an audit of what is called, the Sustainable Development Goals. You know governments have launched the National Development Plans which are aligned to the Africa 2063 Agenda and to the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations. So, these SDGs need to be assessed at the country level to know their efficiency, effectiveness, and the economy of the programs, and Investments into those SDGs. We will be auditing infrastructure development as well. These are specialized areas, of course, like you just mentioned the extractive industries so these areas that you need a lot of expertise to be able to audit them effectively.  You need to probably rely on a lot of additional expertise outside which usually, are not available inside the Supreme Audit Institution so we are far on that and we are hoping that it will progress very smoothly. This is one of the reports that will be available to the National Assembly this year for their discussion.

What initiatives are you taking in terms of creating more public awareness and building more citizens’ interests in your audit?

This is also in line with the strategic vision of the NAO and its mission to increase the public interest. We acknowledge that there is an increased public interest in our reports and that means that the interpretations or understanding of the report should be, at least accurate to also benefit the people. We have initiated communications initiatives like maybe the one you mentioned; simplified audit reports which will kind of flesh out the technical language from the report findings and that will make it very simple for the average person to understand what is being reported or what the findings are. These are some of the initiatives that we have taken. Also, we have video explainers on our website talking about similar topics and explaining the mandate of the office. We also recently engaged with the media because you know the problem sometimes is not even what is important but how it is being reported. So, the challenge now would be to explain to the reporters who are carrying that message what is entailed so that you can understand it well and explain it well. We have recently engaged with our media colleagues especially the Parliamentary Reporters Association who are directly reporting from parliament and that’s where most of our reports are discussed and reported so we have engaged them and trained them and we are in the process of giving them a handbook on reporting audit findings, about audit work, etc so that they will increase their understanding to adequately and appropriate report on those findings for the benefit of their viewers and readers.

Also, we are doing radio programs and very soon, we will be starting a second wave of radio and TV programs which will kind of bring to the citizens some of the important things that they need to be aware of with regard to the mandate and work of the NAO. These are some of the initiatives that are been taken to increase awareness and to sustain the interests of the people in the work of the NAO and make them appreciate and benefit from the work of the NAO.

How often do you engage with civil society?

The engagements with the civil society, media, auditees and our primary stakeholders, the National Assembly Members are all important initiatives that we will continue doing and we have quite recently engaged, the civil society on many platforms and many forums. Also, civil society organisations, I would not name some of them but they are very close to us. Some of them have been funding outreach programs, for example, is the simplified report that you mentioned earlier. So that is very much central in our stakeholder engagement efforts and we will continue doing that. The civil society as you mentioned is very important and they continue to play a very critical role in dissemination and advocating for continued transparency and responsible use of public resources we are in line with those visions and we have extensively and will continue to extensively engage with all the relevant stakeholders.

Any final words?

We will continue in line with our strategic vision to enhance accountability and transparency in the use of public resources for the benefit of the citizenry. This is the vision we hold and we will continue to uphold this vision through the mission that we task ourselves to provide independent professional audit services to the Gambian citizens and the economy, efficiency, and effective use of public resources. 

These are some of the important messages that we will continue to uphold and highlight the roles that we realise the stakeholders in the audit process are manifesting in terms of adding their weight to the relevance of the NAO in the accountability cycle. We also acknowledge and will continue to reinforce and repeat the important role that the National Assembly Sub-committees play in terms of enforcing or scrutinising and holding accountable public institutions and those tasks with those with the responsibility of running those public institutions ensure accountable use of public resources.

Just to add that we are in the verge of restructuring and reorganising ourselves to meet the need of a modern 24th-century audit institution. That would mean amending the NAO Act to enhance its financial and operational independence and by extension making sure that this would allow us to be auditing the relevant issues at a relevant time. 

We believe that we could immensely be of value to The Gambia and her citizens.

The end

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