The independence of the Auditor-General’s (A-G’s) office has become a hot topic in Ghana due to frequent removals and appointments by incoming or outgoing Presidents, and the recent clash of the A-G with the board and the board chairman of the Ghana Audit Service.
Importantly, due to the circumstances surrounding the appointment of the current A-G, the two main political parties have unfortunately become entrenched in ways beautifully described by a communication director of a major political party as follows: “They seek to undermine the constitutional office and mandate of the A-G by bringing in their usual NDC-NPP politics.”
Sacrosanct is defined as something too important to interfere with. This article discusses whether the independence of the Ghanaian A-G can be interfered with, by providing more understanding on the need to have a truly independent A-G.
It looks at the constitutional roles of Parliament and the Auditor-General in Ghana and the impact of their roles on Ghana’s public financial accountability.
Finally, it looks at the perception of compliance of the A-G with professional conduct as expected of the role, based on publications and news in the Ghanaian media and makes recommendations on the way forward.
This article provides the background of the independence of the A-G’s office and the need for public financial accountability.
Legislative or government auditing has been found to be the central element of any accountability system and, therefore, it is indispensable that every country must have a Supreme Audit Institution (SAI) whose independence is guaranteed by law.
SAIs play critical roles in their countries by helping ensure financial accountability and transparency in the use of public funds.
They are uniquely placed to contribute to fostering the efficient and effective management of public resources by confirming that controls are operating effectively to identify irregularities and waste, providing recommendations for improvement in government organisations.
They can only achieve their main mandate if they are truly independent with the necessary legal framework and financial resources to safeguard their independence.
The importance of having an SAI that is independent in most aspects cannot be over-emphasised.
It enhances their ability to accomplish their tasks objectively and effectively as they are protected against outside influence. In Ghana, the Ghana Audit Service (GAS), as the supreme audit institution, is a key oversight, accountability, monitoring and evaluation institution in the governance process.
Article 187 of the 1992 Constitution establishes the office of A-G as Ghana’s Supreme Auditor, and combined with Section 84 of the Public Financial Management Act 2016, Act 921, the office is expected to carry out the “very important watchdog role’ and is ‘supposed to superintend in the transparent use and accountability of the public purse”.
It must be stressed at this juncture that diligent auditors are expected to be sensitive to the principle of independence such that overt identification with one or another side on issues that have a partisan or personal colouration will be avoided.
Currently, Ghana is considered as having a poor record in public financial accountability which adversely affects the effective and efficient use of government revenues.
The Public Procurement Act 2016, Act 663, as amended by Act 914, arguably is one of the most flouted laws in the country as the lack of enforcement provides the necessary loophole for exploitation by politicians and public officials.
It is well established that given a certain degree of state intervention, opportunities for political corruption increase also with the weakening of those checks and balances that should prevent the discretion of the public administration from becoming abusive.
Remarkably, following the ruling in Occupy Ghana vs A-G, and its successful implementation or operationalisation in surcharging and disallowing of financial malfeasance, an otherwise silent office of the A-G has now been thrust into the limelight in Ghana.
This situation has facilitated tremendous financial and moral support from the government, civil society organisations (CSOs), the media and the citizenry. This explains why currently, Ghanaians either rightly or wrongly believe that the A-G’s main role is to fight corruption.
Understandably, if the A-G and Parliament effectively collaborate and efficiently carry out the oversight responsibility of Parliament, corruption in Ghana will see a significant decline.
As of June 2020, Ghana’s debt position had risen to USD 45.6bn (67 per cent of GDP). This serious debt situation has accumulated over the years due to the financing of annual fiscal deficits, a situation which could have been prevented with more effective oversight and scrutiny consisting of public financial management and accountability.
For instance, in the year 2019, the total of revenue and grants realised was GH¢53.38 billion against a target of GH¢58.90 billion.
However, the corresponding expenditure amounted to GH¢70.27 billion against a target of GH¢74.62 billion.
The result was a deficit of GH¢16.89 billion or 4.8 per cent of GDP which had to be financed.
With the emergency economic situation created by the COVID-19 pandemic in Ghana, the government now expects the fiscal deficit to rise to GH¢44bn (11.4 per cent of GDP) in 2020 and the debt-to-GDP closer to 70 per cent by the end of 2020, owing to increased funding of the deficit by the government.
Interestingly, Section 91 of Act 914 requires the A-G to conduct annual and specific audits of entities and report findings to the Procurement Board.
As emphasised by Ackerman (2004), the only way good governance can be secured is by “institutionalising powerful accountability mechanisms that hold public officials responsible for their actions as public servants”.
The recognition of the A-G’s contribution by both the President of Ghana and his Vice is quite remarkable. Also, some CSOs in Ghana recognise his dedication to protect the public purse and the significant financial and other support he has managed to secure from the current government for the work of the GAS. In 2019, he bagged several awards, including Ghana Public Service Leadership, National Union of Ghanaian Students’ Award for Transformational Leadership in Public Service and significantly, Ghana Integrity Initiatives’ Award of Integrity Personality for 2019.
Intriguingly, key stakeholders such as the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs and chairman of Special Budget Committee, certain members of Parliament, veteran and renowned journalists, certain CSOs, including Alliance for Accountable Governance (AFAG), Ghana Education Trust Fund (GETFund) administrator and certain individuals have expressed serious concerns which border on some deficiencies in the fundamental ethical principles of professional accountants comprising integrity and objectivity, confidentiality, professional competence and behaviour.
It is widely accepted that the professional stature required for the effective performance of an A-G’s work can only be achieved and maintained through public acceptance of that stature, which in turn requires a level of professional conduct commensurate with the status.
The central argument is that unlike other Commonwealth countries, successive Ghanaian governments have since 1960 taken actions through removals, appointments and constitutional changes which have had adverse effects on the independence of the A-G, thereby impacting on the effective performance of the A-G as a watchdog of the public purse.
The writer is a reseracher, chartered accountant and internal auditor. He is also a board member of Graphic Communications Group Limited