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  • Writer's pictureAbdi Ali

Trust but (don't) verify

The lack of robust parliamentary oversight in the Auditor General’s appointment process is worrying and portends serious accountability and transparency problems.

Accountability... where are you?

Developing countries often face the difficulties of institutionalising good governance in a way that is tailored to their own circumstances. Whilst Somalia is 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.


With few exceptions, politicians are, by and large, self-serving and this is most certainly not unique to Somalia. 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. In Somalia, it takes on an added importance as reluctance to criticise, and keeping your mouth firmly shut, is the difference between being in office in a lucrative post and staying outside looking in (and salivating for the chance to come aboard).


" 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."

Even in countries that languish at the bottom of international good governance league tables, the AG is widely accepted to be independent of government and enjoys the right degree of freedom to scrutinise and challenge those entrusted with public funds. The whole concept of independent audit generally unnerves those who place greater emphasis on espousing empty transparency initiatives, but do very little to show personal accountability. Somalia is no different.


That is why 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 is as unsurprising as it is important. It also means the AG is asking the right questions and that 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 fully appreciated. This is very unfortunate and likely to 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 underpins 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, a public spat shows engagement and accountability mindsets are still underdeveloped. This is why AG's independence is paramount.


The proposed Audit Bill

Somalia’s Audit Bill, an important legislative framework which formalises the role and responsibilities of the office of the AG, is now generating much debate. A key flaw in its provisions 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. However, the bill had since been in legislative limbo at the Upper House for almost a year. Some argue that this is evidence of legislative paralysis at a time when the country needs to show urgency in implementing much needed governance reforms. Others observe the Upper House is scrutinising poorly drafted legislation which is intended impair, rather than enhance, AG’s independence. It is not difficult to see which one is right.


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 a way that is beneficial to society at large. This is critical for economic progress.


However, on the other hand, 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 look 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.


Which means this is all becoming very familiar: trust me, but don't verify it. 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 a rethink.

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The personal views, thoughts and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization or other group or individual.

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