• Thursday, May 23, 2024
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The gathering storm

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Anthony Cardinal Okogie of Nigeria has caused quite a storm in the Vatican with his widely publicised article “Who will guard the guardians?” (first published in the Guardian Newspaper). The Cardinal not only raised some fundamental and profoundly disturbing issues, he has unwittingly opened up a tantalisingly beguiling Pandora’s Box.

As for the chartered accountants who have been protesting in St. Peter’s Square against the dominance of the four largest accountancy firms to the detriment of the small practitioners, they consider themselves the guardian angels of the accountancy profession and its traditional values of honesty, integrity and accuracy. But who is to guard them? Who is the guardian angel of the guardian angels as they are confronted with the imminent danger of extermination? The debate has been fast and furious.

Matters took an entirely different turn when the Holy Father, Pope Francis I, intervened. The pontiff did not pull any punches when he addressed the aggrieved chartered accountants. “I want to talk with you, my brothers and sisters,” he said, “but I appeal for dialogue, not monologue. I am only a humble priest and I make no claim to understanding the intricacies of your profession. However, I can tell you that the Catholic Church is worried by what is going on in the global economy, particularly the financial sector, and the role of the chartered accountants, bankers, hedge fund managers, venture capitalists, etc.”

There was persuasive evidence that the Holy Father knows a great deal more than he was prepared to admit. He had obviously been properly briefed. The pontiff’s initial concern was about unemployment and household indebtedness amongst the poor, particularly Catholics. Now it has become both an epidemic and pandemic. The Vatican is now prepared to join forces with both the World Bank and United Nations in order to tackle the monster which is undermining global peace and security.

As more and more chartered accountants are driven by desperation into the arms of payday lenders, both the United Nations Global Office of Fair Trading and the World Bank Competitive Commission have published the following report (dated January 13, 2013): “There are fundamental problems with the way the payday market works and widespread breaches of the law and regulations causing misery and hardship for borrowers. Payday lenders are earning up to half their revenues not from one-off loans, but from rolled-over or refinanced deals where unexpected costs can rapidly mount up (to an APR in excess of 4,200 percent).”

The Holy Father has repeatedly declared on both Vatican Radio and Vatican TV: “I love the poor, and all those who suffer injustice unconditionally.” However, the pontiff becomes irritated and perplexed by the bombastic and self-serving, self-glorification of the rich and powerful.

Here is a quote from American property billionaire, Donald Trump (Financial Times, February 23, 2013): “I have done a great favour to Scotland and even Great Britain … (especially Catholics and distressed/oppressed chartered accountants). A lot of people were devastated when their houses were ruined and their values destroyed when they (the four largest accountancy firms) put up a windmill near their homes/offices. But they had no voice. Now they have a voice: ME and The Pope. I have empowered them to fight. And people are fighting these ugly monstrosities.”

Ironically, the problem of dealing with a gathering storm is that it is almost impossible to forecast the outcome – storm in a teacup or the perfect storm? Either way, the Holy Father remains calm and serene – confident in the knowledge that he has been divinely anointed.

The pontiff is not inclined towards hasty decisions. Instead, he has appointed a committee of eight cardinals to recommend a holistic and comprehensive reform of Catholicism and Vatican. The only item off-limits is the sanctity of the Holy Trinity – God, Christ and Virgin Mary. Everything else – from chastity of priests, female bishops, contraception, same sex marriage, to the doctrine of papal infallibility – is on the agenda. Even the mode of worship is not a red-line item. It was the Holy Father himself who disclosed with wry humour and plain speaking: “Dancing Started Ten Thousand Years Ago” – “In the Neolithic period, people had to hunt together in order to feed themselves and find food in the wilderness. Dancing during these occasions helped them to concentrate in the face of hardship and danger. They also danced to share their happiness if the hunt was successful.”

Now, we are in an entirely different age. Particularly in Africa where over 1 billion people speaking over 2,000 different languages are trapped, we must find a solution to the grime of grinding poverty, massive corruption, monumental mismanagement and total lack of social compassion. The rulers have become dangerously subversive while the oppressed have resorted to their only weapon – resilience against adversity.

However, the apparent calm before the storm is a matter for concern. It raises the fundamental question: Are we heading for a record fall? Put differently, are we living on borrowed time?

Before we draw any conclusions, perhaps we should pay greater attention to the frustration of the new generation and their simmering hopelessness as well as joblessness. Here is a very carefully crafted cry for help by an applicant for a job with one of the “Big Four” accountancy firms: “I recently applied for a place in your Human Resources Graduate Scheme and I was progressed to the third stage of recruitment, which is the telephone interview, after successfully completing the online application form and tests. I was told to expect a telephone interview within two weeks but this never happened. When I called to enquire, I was told that due to the high number of applicants and high standard of candidates this year some people were already at the end of the recruitment process while I was still in the middle of it. As a result, the position might be filled before I reach the next stage. I was extremely disappointed to hear this because of all the work and time I have invested into this application.”

As confirmation that misery is not always a shared commodity, French telecoms multimillionaire Xavier Neil confirmed on Bloomberg television that his stake in WorldNet, France’s first internet provider which he founded in 1993, is a staggering $10 billion. He makes no secret of his disdain for global frustration or the despair of the French in particular: “The French are always complaining. That is the malaise: that they are always complaining. They complain on principle. They were authorised to do so in 1789 as part of the terms of settlement following the French Revolution and they have decided to continue to complain. We have a pleasant country, with enormous social protection, and a tax system that is not all that horrible. It is a fantastic place to live. It is not the world’s best country but I love it.”

J.K RANDLE

Randle is a former president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria (ICAN) and former chairman of KPMG Nigeria and Africa Region. He is currently the chairman, JK Randle Professional Services.

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