Mildred Chiri, is there depth in Auditor-General’s popularity?

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Mildred Chiri

Chris Chenga
Are Auditor-Generals meant to be popular? Well, one can suppose that it really depends on who is passing the opinion; pun intended. To an interested public, Mildred Chiri has grown notably famous.

There is irony in her garnered fame though. Accountants are superficially perceived to be boring personalities exercising their trade in a banal profession.

Thus, there is reasonable intrigue in exploring the root of Chiri’s popularity — a lady who has hardly divulged much of her personal life due to its irrelevance to the office she held — and querying whether or not the attention drawn towards her lately is of credible reference to her job?

Chiri has been the Auditor-General for 13 years. She was at that time appointed as Comptroller and Auditor-General on February 24, 2004 under what was Section 310 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.  She was recently, however, removed from her office in a controversial manner.

According to Section 313 of the amended Constitution, a number of procedural activities seem to have been excluded from the process of removing the incumbent Auditor-General. Assuming that Chiri had neither shown mental or physical incapacity, nor conducted her work with gross incompetence or misconduct, then her removal would only be constitutional if Minister Chinamasa and the Parliamentary Committee responsible for public accounts had brought forward another credible cause for her continuation as AG to be investigated.

Only at the instigation of the Ministry of Finance and the public accounts committee would a tribunal subsequently be appointed by the President, to further engage into investigating whether or not that are credible grounds on which to pursue the removal of the AG from office.

These procedures have not been conformed with, hence the peculiar intrigue of events taking place at the AG office.

As become customary in Zimbabwe, this matter has aroused politicized suspicion with predominant inclination being that there is a partisan bias towards AG appointments. But, to what extent does such manoeuvring have political justification?

Of course, all appointments by nature of selection have an element of preference. Notwithstanding, appointing an Auditor-General solely on a partisan bias is strategically short-sighted, and is not legislatively erudite. Such a political move would grossly overstate the effect that the position of AG has in either concealing, or more cynically, perpetuating malpractice in public accounts.

To understand this point one has to appreciate the structural ecosystem in which the AG functions, let alone the standard of professional conduct and due diligence of the craft. .

The AG’s office is responsible for auditing the annual reports on State finances. This broadly entails assessing financial statements, evaluating key performance indicators, evaluating controls, and issuing audit opinions for public sector institutions.

The AG’s mandate also encompasses all provincial and metropolitan councils and local governments. Now within carrying out these job responsibilities, it must be clear that the auditor general’s role is not to implicitly reveal or disclose corruption.

Thus, to the counter extreme as well, the Auditor-General’s role is not one that a partisan appointee will either conceal, or perpetuate malpractice in public accounts.

This is a significant nuance missing from popular discourse! The Auditor General can only attest to whether or not standardised procedures have been followed in operations and financial reporting.

Indeed then from the level of assurance given by the Auditor-General, only the Public Accounts Committee, which is the parliamentary body in which the Auditor-General’s office partners and reports to, can any aggressive move towards acting on suspicion or further inquisition can be made to reveal corruption and malpractice. The Public Accounts Committee is mandated to examine the financial affairs and accounts of Government Departments and state owned enterprises.

It is the body that examines all reports of the Auditor-General. Members within this committee include Hon. Eddie Cross and Hon. James Maridadi just to mention few. It would be disingenuous to discount the financial literacy and vocal enthusiasm of the opposition’s representation in this committee.

This does not downplay the potential of an Auditor-General’s office being partisan battle ground. As versed by Jason Lakin, a country director for the International Budget Partnership in Kenya, “any particular point of view is, like most things in Kenya, now subject to interpretation through a partisan lens”.

If you critique the office of the Auditor-General, you are likely to be seen as abetting a political campaign to discredit the office. “If you praise the office, you may be accused of glossing over very real challenges”. In a context that draws parity to Zimbabwean politics, some audit engagements may have predetermined outcomes that may be in favour or disfavour to partisan positions.

For instance, political pressure may motivate a governmental request for a special audit.

In 2016, special audits into diamond firms were requested by Government in an instance where the outcome could be exploited for partisan capital. Nevertheless, in these instances of special audits by the AG —  assuming the engagement is not tendered to a private firm with specialty in the respective field — engagements are financed by the government’s Consolidated Revenue Fund.

Hence, audit procedures are inherently as expansive or restrictive in their scope as the apportionment of finance they receive.

That very apportionment as well, is ultimately the responsibility of parliamentary oversight subject to both parties.

So sure, partisan interest may lay in the eventual audit outcome; however, the Auditor-General here is merely subject to an ecosystem that has significant Parliamentary oversight and responsibility with both parties having a greater effecting hand on the outcome than the specific auditor on the engagement.

More simply, hoping for a partisan biased auditor can hardly be the tie breaker for a politically consequential audit outcome!

On these structural grounds, looking at Mildred Chiri’s precarious situation, if there are hopes for a partisan appointment being made with the intent of concealing or perpetuating corruption and malpractice, a serious overstatement exists in terms of the office’s perceived capacity to bring about such a culture, whilst circumventing any partisan opposition.

An Auditor-General does not operate in an environment exceptionally vacuous of level fielded parliamentary determination.

Concededly, one can imagine the appointment of a deficient Auditor- General in terms of technical skill and procedural diligence.

However, the Auditor General’s office, just like all practicing auditors in the profession, is subject to peer review and continuous technical development.

For instance, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Zimbabwe (ICAZ) continually engages and partners with the AG office in terms of technical capacity building and professional standard benchmarking.

These mutual ventures are not restricted to local practice. Along with ICAZ, the AG’s office is involved in professional integration with global partners such as the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.

Since commencing re-engagement with global IFI’s such as the World Bank and IMF, the AG’s office has been involved and been a beneficiary of capacity building funding and technical transfer initiatives such as the Public Financial Management Enhancement Project.

Thus, a partisan derelict appointee would find it rather difficult to sustain such professional pressure and peer ridicule.

Indeed the natures of our politics do not make such an appointment beyond imagination. But, it would be poor partisan strategy to place such a professional derelict amongst a class of stakeholders whom in many instances have significant bearing, and professional capital to lend towards assuring Government’s structural and fiscal commitment; both in fact and appearance!

Frequent criticism — often tilted towards a misguided partisan nature — has been consistently raised towards the subsequent inaction after audit reports are published.

Popular outcry is that consecutive audit reports have shown regular instances of malfeasance in public agencies; enterprise or governmental.

Yet, little traction has been made in regards to resolving these incidents, whether punitively for retrospective conduct or correctively for prospective purposes.

Perhaps this narrative can add credence to the effective limitations that are on the Auditor-General’s office itself.

Indeed the Auditor-General’s office is to only offer recommendations and raise concerns beyond its audit reports. These are not authoritative. Any further active extent is of a parliamentary obligation.

In this consideration then, the expectations of an enforcing Auditor-General can be seen to be over weighed. It is not the Auditor-General with the teeth to bite corruption and malfeasance.

That is dog-fight to be won between incumbent parties with seats in parliament. Thus again, clinching a partisan AG appointment would somewhat be an overstated political strategy.

Conclusively, there seems to be no credible explanation to the abrupt removal of Chiri as Auditor-General; at least not any explanation that this writer can offer. It really does remain a strange matter.

But, there also isn’t much traction either to the partisan assumption that is predominantly held. The growing popularity of Chiri itself is perhaps a reflection of the public’s own partisan appetite more than the incumbent parties themselves.

Structurally, it does not seem logical to pin Chiri’s as a partisan asset, or liability, in a supposedly on-going battle that will eventually either restrain or enable an unfettered culture of corruption and malpractice in public institutions.

Indeed that is not to discount the exceptional work that Auditor-General Chiri has done during her tenure. Numerous professional peers and stakeholders do vouch for her. However, to assume that her diligence is the cause of partisan existential concern, particularly to motivate a power play that pushes legislative bounds, is more likely just entertaining a legislative and audit illiterate public thirst for partisan drama!

This public thirst for partisan drama is overreaching in trying to canonise an otherwise exceptionally humble Auditor-General, who will hopefully serve for longer in office and will find her precarious situation resolved sooner rather than later

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