Auditor General Ouko’s ouster unhealthy for oversight

First published Sunday Standard, March 19, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group who saw carried the same issue as their lead editorial on the same day. Two days later, House Speaker Justin Muturi wisely called off the House probe.

Born to parents Dr. William and Martha Ouko, the young Eddie was a quiet, introspective child who often kept the peace among his six other siblings. He demonstrated leadership at a young age by becoming Head of School and captain to both the rugby and football teams at the then Prince of Wales School (Nairobi School).

Armed with a B. Com (Hons) in Finance and Accounting from the University of Nairobi, he worked internationally first for Deloitte, Haskins and Sells in London and then for twenty-five years with the African Development Bank. By the time he left the AfDB as its Auditor General, he was directing anti-corruption and fraud investigations and audits into US$ 100 billion worth of investment across 139 development projects in 53 countries.

Regardless what you think about the allegations of corruption and misuse of office before the National Assembly today, it is unquestionable that Edward Ouko is probably Kenya’s most accomplished and highly regarded Auditor internationally to date.

Readers of a future biography will probably have whiplash trying to compare this part of his life and the last three years as Auditor-General of the Republic of Kenya. There have been no less than fifteen attempts to intimidate, prosecute, cut funding and curtail the mandate of the office over this period. The most recent of these attempts, a fast-tracked petition before the National Assembly continues to suffer from uncertainty over the identity(ies) of the petitioner, lacks evidence and the process to date falls short of the legal threshold of fair administrative justice.

His experience has attracted national and given Ouko’s global status, international attention. In many ways, how this flimsy case will be treated represents a line in the soil under our feet. It directly threatens the independence of an important over-sight institution. It risks the stability of a credible anti-corruption institution at moment when the very soul of our state is being literally robbed in broad daylight. Lastly, it brings into question whether honest accounting and audit professionals have a future in Kenya.

Globally, the accounting profession is only a few hundred years old. Less than four hundred years separates the establishment of the very first association of accountants in Venice in 1581 and our own Institute of Certified Public Accountants formed in 1978. Next year, Kenya will celebrate only forty years of the profession. It is still a young and maturing profession and we must protect it.

With this background, the silence from some quarters disturbs me. Kenya has 18 independent offices and constitutional commissions. It is curious that none of them have publicly or consistently commented on the way the OAG is being pursued. The Government’s chief legal adviser The Attorney General has been similarly quiet even after two High Court Judges issued desist orders to the National Assembly this week.

On the other hand, several individual MPs and Senators have privately expressed their frustration with the petition in the corridors of the National Assembly and Senate. Governance and accountability CSOs and Ouko’s own professional association The Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya have urged the National Assembly to rethink its approach. President Kenyatta’s reassurance during his State of the Nation address of his administration’s support for the effective functioning and protection of independent bodies was welcome. We may have to wait until Tuesday to see if House Speaker Justin Muturi was listening when he may rule on how to proceed with the petition.

The legal complication of contempt of court aside, the petition remains weak. Recommending the establishment of a Tribunal and the stepping aside of Dr. Edward Ouko to the President would be tantamount to the state eating one of its own institutions.

Nile perch have been known to feed on each other and hens eat their own eggs, but cannibalizing an independent office whose mandate is protecting public funds is not in anyone’s real interest. The recommendation would also be tantamount to throwing a curve ball to the Presidency in full public sight at a delicate electoral hour.

Alternatively, assured that it has been fully heard, the House Speaker could dismiss this petition and bring this awkward saga to an end. Should the Speaker be concerned about the most serious of the allegations namely the procurement of the Oracle audit software, he could urge the case be expedited as recommended by the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Dismissal of this petition would eliminate a growing fear that honest and courageous Auditors and Public Accountants are not an endangered species in Kenya. It would also send a global message that we will not destroy professionals and institutions to win elections or inflict revenge on those who speak inconvenient truths to the executive.

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