If I were to become a dictator in this country, the first thing I would do — in the short period between my appointment and quick dethronement and assassination — would be to abolish the Integrated Financial Management Information System (Ifmis), which the government uses to process its financial operations and transactions.
Last week, we were all agog as we watched, on national television, Kiambu Governor Ferdinand Waititu grope and scrabble while struggling to explain to a Senate committee what, at that point, looked like blatant irregularities and errors in his county’s financial statement.
It emerged that Kiambu’s financial statement contained huge allocations and expenditure for functions that counties don’t perform — including funding State House, free primary education and mediation for the South Sudan conflict.
Cornered, the governor, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, fumbled and lumbered before hostile and argumentative senators.
At one point, he was forced to resort to the ignoble expediency of blaming his predicament on his ‘political enemies’. The committee ordered a special audit on the books of Kiambu County.
However, two days later, in a dramatic turn of events, the tables turned when it emerged that Waititu had been fried for mistakes that were not of his own making.
The errors and mistakes in the financial statement of Kiambu County originated from inaccuracies in reports generated and complied by Ifmis.
Furthermore, it also emerged that the problem was widespread, with similar errors and mistakes having been found in financial statements of other county governments.
Predictably, the Ifmis department at The National Treasury weighed in to shift blame to the county governments, saying the errors and mistakes in the financial statements happened because some devolved units did not follow the correct procedure when recording budget and expenditure data.
In this country, public officials do not accept their mistakes.
A matter with serious implications for efficiency and transparency in public financial management had been reduced to a tit for tat between Treasury and county governments over how to follow procedures and fill in forms and templates.
I had expected the Waititu incident — and indeed, the cases of errors and omissions — to spark sufficient outrage to set the stage for fresh calls for the abolition of Ifmis.
I expected to hear voices calling for the system’s replacement with a more robust system and, more importantly, one anchored on what the accountants call double-entry book-keeping.
Indeed, what we have witnessed is but a microcosm of the crisis in accounting within the national and county governments.
And Ifmis does not make things better because it is grafted upon the antiquated cash-based accounting system that is not famous for either delivering transparency in government accounting or facilitating accurate financial reporting.
If I were a governor, I would threaten to buy and implement my own Oracle Business Suite, which works more efficiently than the national government’s Ifmis — which, by the way, is also an Oracle Business Suite, albeit a bastardised version.
Why is it not a scandal that public financial management is run on a system that is incapable of doing something as rudimentary as generating basic and accurate data?
Put differently, what is the point of having a system that cannot generate accurate information on something as basic as what you budgeted for and what you spent in the financial year?
If such blatant errors can occur and remain in the books all the way to the point where the financial statements are tabled before the Senate, how do we know that unscrupulous accountants and budget officers are not exploiting loopholes in Ifmis to hide money in obscure corners?
The matter before the Senate is not a minor one because proper and efficient public financial management can only happen when you have a robust system that is adept at accurately recording, classifying, analysing and reporting transactions.
In places like South Africa, government ministries and provincial governments must produce audited accounts within three months after the end of the financial year.
Here, you will be lucky to see anything as basic as a ledger of assets owned by a ministry. In some ministries, what you have as an assets register is a piece of paper usually stuck at the door of every public office.
The reason we are seeing errors in the budgets of counties is that what we have is not a fully fledged integrated system where databases are linked in a general ledger. Ifmis is at the heart of the accounting crisis that the government is in.