By Christian C. Ekeigwe
Accounting has had a storied role in human society, which, to some in our time, is unremarked. Many people think of accounting only in terms of debit and credit and balancing of transactions. But accounting has fulfilled a far more important role in society than balancing the books of accounts.
At the core of the utility of accounting is its role in clarifying uncertainties in transactions, making it possible for people to make informed decisions. At individual, organizational, and societal levels, the affordances of good accounting are the substrate for the wealth pyramid and prosperity.
The two contrastive examples of the Florentine and British empires show the significance of accounting for progress. The Florentine empire flourished when it did good accounting, then its merchants learned to cook the books which resulted in feral disputes, loss of trust and capital flights that led to the collapse of the empire.
On the other hand, when the English adopted good accounting, it helped them build the British empire. These histories are eloquently told by the eminent modern accounting historian Jacob Soll (2014) in his book The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations.
Accounting, as an instrumentality of nation building, fueled and decorated great civilizations long before the British Empire. According to Soll (2014), “whether building a road or fighting a war, leaders from ancient Mesopotamia to the present have relied on financial accounting to track their state’s assets and guide its policies.”
Accounting nurtured nation building by guiding policies and guarding the truth in a way that promoted secure capital formation. Through its auditing arm accounting ensured that accurate numbers remained inviolate for decision making as auditors became guardians of truth.
The trust engendered by accounting/auditing reconciled strangers to agreements based on trust in the numbers and the spirit of accountability, and enabled cooperation to raise previously unthinkable amounts of capital by a large and diverse group of people who would never meet each other, facilitating great projects that fueled economic development and prosperity.
It can be argued, therefore, that accounting and auditing produce unique trust and cooperation which made forming and operating economic enterprises feasible, reliable and cheap. Without accounting, the world would not be at its current level of civilization.
Despite the occasional contretemps of audit failures and accounting scandals, society, for good reasons, still trusts in accounting/auditing and admires it as the decoration of our civilization. But if we pause for a moment, we will see that the notion that accounting did this greatness all by itself is wrong.
Have we ever wondered who this hero/heroine variously called book-keeping, accounting or auditing is? With the dominant sentiment of numbers, these are abstract ideas, just like numbers that cannot even arrange themselves into meanings and value.
Abstract accounting does not count; abstract auditing does not audit. People called accountants do. So, when we think of the storied accomplishments of accounting we ought to think of the real great men and women who embody and deliver its affordances.
These are the beauteous decoration of our civilization.
The centenarian Pa Akintola Williams, the mentor, and doyen, sage and luminary, in the pantheon of civilization, is eminent among these great men and women – he was, as a person, our civilization’s nonpareil “beauteous decoration of accounting.”
Pa Akintola Williams lived the accounting promise of trust, for in his years of accounting practice he did not mislead society and clients into trusting the untrustworthy; he did not profane the accounting promise of trust. As a custodian of our core values, he maintained responsible prosperity so he would not exploit the vulnerabilities of society for self-enrichment.
He practised accounting in the public interest and upheld the public trust. While we accept that the verity of a man is not measured by perfection, we know, with abundant unassailable evidence, that Pa Williams proved to be “a fine accountant,” indeed and in deed, eternally pristine the way capitalism inhered accounting in its history to be a moral ballast in the economy and the markets, providing aversive, stabilizing influence in times of chaos and degeneration.
His brilliant professional and moral fortitude, intrepidity and integrity was coruscating in the society, spotlighting the direction of progress, attracting the best and brightest who became his protégés over decades, and in whom he imbued his dream of responsible professionalism and sanctity of accounting work.
This pristinely fine quality of an accountant is so important to the prosperity of society that, according to the Washington Post (2022), “The Accountant Shortage Threatens Capitalism’s Future.”
Since there is literally no shortage of people who can count and audit, the headline should have read “The Shortage of Fine Trusted Accountants Threatens Capitalism’s Future.”
Today, as we mourn the passing of Pa Williams and think of his legacy of responsible financial reporting, an aptly impeccable diction and enunciation of the Washington Post headline might be, in my opinion, “The Exit of Pa Williams the Pristine Fine Accountant Threatens Capitalism’s Future.” It is that profound.
This is because what is ailing capitalism today is not a shortage of counters and auditors but a shortage of trusted fine accountants like Pa Williams who himself practised accounting sedulously with true professionalism as work with inviolate sanctity.
As Howard Gardener aptly stated, one does not need to be religious to see work as sacred, and that particularly applies to the nature of accounting work. And if you want to be agreeably religious, remember that work is the first divine gift to man with the stated purpose being development for human flourishing according to the purpose of his maker, God, hence the sanctity of work.
The accountability that accounting and auditing bring ensures that the primal purpose of work is fulfilled through the work of fine accountants like Pa Williams.
My last personal encounter with Pa Williams was fortuitous at midnight of a day in about 1986/1987 at Akintola Williams Deloitte & Touche office on Wetherall Road Owerri.
He was returning from a visit with Chief Bob Ogbuagu during a Lions Club meeting in Aladinma, Owerri. As they were passing Chief Ogbuagu showed him the signboard with the firm’s name. According to Pa Williams, he saw lights still on that late at night and told Chief Ogbuagu to let him go and see what was happening there.
I was busy typing the financial statements of a Plc for the company’s board meeting coming up the following day, to be chaired by an eminent central banker. Pa Williams with his dear wife Oye and Chief Ogbuagu walked in quietly from behind and observed me typing like it was raining (my first training and job was as a secretary/typist).
He cleared his throat to get my attention. When I turned and saw him, I literally died for a moment in awe. He “talked” me back to life and asked why I was working so late. “Are you the Secretary”? I replied “No sir, I am the Branch Manager”. “You are a Chartered Accountant, and you are typing so well like a secretary.
Don’t you have a secretary?” I explained that the secretary needed to get home, and that he also left late. He thanked me, commended my diligence and versatility, brought out a diary from his jacket pocket and asked my name, wrote it down and said, “I will speak to the Partners in Lagos.”
Later that year, I got invitation to apply for the firm’s international exchange programme and was selected to go to the Boston office of Touche Ross & Co for eighteen months, during which I studied to become a Massachusetts CPA (licensed certified public accountant). Pa Williams and his partners changed my life and prepared me for what I am today.
I was recruited in the Port Harcourt office in 1980 and posted to the Owerri office. Soon I was enfolded in Akintola Williams Deloitte & Touche (1980-1992) where my generation was forged in the firm’s smelting furnace of discipline to produce professionals replicating the fine accountant in Pa Williams, a generation that adopted his core values of diligence, integrity, and responsible prosperity that does not harm society, a generation that upholds the public trust, a generation that accounts in public interest, just like our professional maker, Pa Williams, did.
As Pa Williams’ protégés, it is our unflinching desire to live his dream for our generation, the life he taught us, to be fine accountants, to account in the public interest, for the greater good and to ensure generational transfer of wisdom in our time, just as we received sagacious wisdom from Pa Williams.
Accounting will miss Pa Williams
Accountants will miss Pa Williams
The markets will miss Pa Williams
Society will miss Pa Williams
I miss Pa Williams, more than many.
Christian Ekeigwe, FCA, CPA (Massachusetts), CISA wrote from Lagos, Nigeria