Accountability….where are you?

Asad Cabdullahi MataanBy Asad Cabdullahi Mataan

The weakening of the Auditor General’s independence is a serious setback for accountability and good governance in Somalia.   

Developing countries often face the difficulties of institutionalising good governance in ways that are tailored to their own circumstances. Whilst standards of good governance in Somalia are slowly changing for the better, the current debate about the Audit Bill, which sets out the framework within which the role of Somalia’s Auditor General (AG) is defined, portends serious accountability and transparency problems.

Somalia’s politics is largely based on the principle of being on the make and on the take. Understanding the questions of who drives transparency initiatives, who promotes its effective implementation and who will potentially be hurt by it therefore become very important. This takes on an added importance as reluctance to criticise, and keeping your mouth firmly shut, is the ticket to being in office in a “lucrative” post and staying outside looking in (and of course salivating for the chance to come aboard). In other words, transparency and accountability are bywords for “Qawda Maqashii Waxna Ha U Qaban”.

As a matter of course, the AG must be independent of government and needs to have the right degree of freedom to scrutinise and challenge those entrusted with public funds without fear or favour. It is therefore hardly plausible to expect such scrutiny from someone who is appointed by the very people he is trying to police, and who may as well remove him from office at will. It is an obvious weakening of the AG’s independence to make its mandate ineffective and unfit for purpose.

Flashes of “Isla Xisaabtan”

The most recent “adverse” audit report issued by Somalia’s AG is both instructive and welcome as it shows flashes of “Isla Xisaabtan” peering through. The fact that an audit report details substantial and systemic flaws in the internal governance of every government department, including the offices of the Prime Minster and President, is as unsurprising as it is important. This is progress.

However, the public repudiation of some of the report’s material conclusions a few days later by the Minister of Finance, forcing the AG to issue “clarifications” is a potent reminder that confidence in the quality of AG’s work is neither widely shared, nor AG’s independence appreciated. This is very unfortunate and will have a chilling effect on the AG’s objectivity and independence, cascading all the way down to the auditors on the ground.

The AG’s role is to support accountability and improvement through assessments that are rigorous and free from political bias. Independence from government pressure and interference therefore underpin the unique value of the AG’s audit work. Whilst constructive challenge and debate is part of the audit process, and is something that should be managed internally within the framework of agreed legislative guidelines, a public spat shows engagement and accountability mindsets are still underdeveloped.

The proposed Audit Bill

A key flaw in the provisions within the Audit Bill is that it gives Somalia’s president the prerogative to appoint the AG without parliamentary involvement – in essence, the Executive appointing its own oversight authority. The Lower House of Parliament approved the bill, effectively endorsing a framework which curtails its own ability to provide credible oversight. The bill had since been in legislative limbo at the Upper House for almost a year. This is either evidence of legislative paralysis at a time when the country needs to show urgency in implementing much needed governance reforms; or the Upper House is scrutinising poorly drafted legislation which is intended impair, rather than enhance, AG’s independence. It is not difficult to see what the issue is.

The separation of powers principle dictates that the legislative branch (Parliament), provides constitutional oversight over the Executive (government). Parliament, which approves the government’s budget, needs to be able to make the link between what it approves and how the government is delivering what is required to do.

The AG thus supports parliament by looking across the government to identify evidence of systemic corruption and mismanagement of public funds; assesses whether public funds are used on value for money grounds; provides objective assurance over the delivery of public services and makes important recommendations for making improvements. By helping parliament with its oversight of the executive, a country’s overall transparency and accountability processes are enhanced in ways that are beneficial to society at large. This is critically important for achieving economic progress.

However, we also know that a truly independent AG will naturally worry those that favour form (having an AG in name only) so that veneer of accountability and transparency is projected, rather than substance (an AG’s office that can operate effectively and hold them to account). In this context, the current debate about the Audit Bill, and its initial passage through the Lower House, is indeed unsurprising.

The debate of audit bill has also been spun in a way that makes arguing against it sound almost “unconstitutional”. The assumption that Somalia’s interim constitution gives the president the power to appoint the AG, and anything that deviates from it is deemed unconstitutional, is incredulous and stretches logic.

A parliament ill-equipped to understand its responsibilities to its people and an Audit Bill that is hardly consistent with the pursuit of robust accountability and good governance are both bad news for Somalia.

It is time for an urgent rethink.

By: Abdi Ali

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