What it takes to become a professional accountant

There are few professions that give one a latitude to excel at different jobs. Accountancy is one of them. A master at numbers and a bedrock of key decision making across the business, there are few fulfilling career options like becoming a professional accountant.

You would be right to call me an accidental accountant.

Limited career guidance during our secondary school times meant that we drifted our aspirations to professions that were common in our rural communities. When you were sick, you would go to the doctor or nurse at the local dispensary. When the bicycle broke down, you took it to the mechanic. When you needed to repair the leaking roof, the ‘engineer’ would be called to fix it. And of course, the teacher was always handy when you had some questions to ask.  When you found yourself on the wrong side of the law, you needed a Pleader or a Lawyer (in today’s speak), in the village court. These are the major professions we put our sights to.

At the time, it was difficult to notice that like fresh air, an Accountant is so critical in every setting that you only notice his or her importance only when they are not good enough (in which case costs for non-compliance and inefficiency costs increase year on year). Every business must keep an accounting system of some sorts. And someone will always be assigned such roles like record keeping, cash collection and payments processing, recording the transactions and balancing off the accounts. Any person assigned such a role usually assumes the title of accountant. And that is the face of our profession. Whether it is at a Church or Mosque, home or school, small business or a multinational, local government or large Ministry, nothing can move without an accountant. Whether the accountant at your place of work is the right Accountant, is the big challenge that Accountancy Act 2013 addresses. Not anyone with a title of accountant, is a professional accountant.

Unfortunately, the face of a true professional Accountant is not clear to most executives and the general public. How do you become a professional accountant? Who is a professional accountant? These and more are some of the issues explored in this article.

First, some context.

Around 2000, I visited Makerere University for the first time in my life to check my name on the Bachelor of Commerce (B.Com) admission list. I looked at the displayed list and my name was missing. I was shaken. I had travelled over 240 kilometers all the way from Hoima to just confirm my name. I had received the UNEB results and had performed as a top student in my school. My UNEB results were so good that the headmaster threw me a party and took it upon himself to inform me how my scores Mathematics, Economics and Geography (MEG) were enough for government sponsorship at Makerere for the B.Com course I had indicated as my ‘first choice.’ Mobilizing money for a trip to Kampala to ‘confirm’ my name on the admission list and pick my admission letter was easy. You know how everyone wants to be with the in-crowd. We all want to be in the bus carrying the winning team. I had made it and people were easily giving a hand.

All this trip and excitement of so many firsts came to a sudden end. It is like being woken up from a sweet dream. If you were with me on that day, you would have witnessed how anxiety sucks morale and breaks muscles. Standing on that notice board, my head looking up on the list with so many names but mine, scrolling the list from left to right, down to up, was worrying. I looked over it several times in disbelief. My name was nowhere. May be this is a wrong list. May be they made a mistake. May be…

I had the whole afternoon to find out. I went from office to office, enduring long queues until I landed in the office of the Academic Registrar responsible for undergraduate admissions. Time check, 3:40pm. You know the queues at some MAK offices. My heart was racing like that of someone waiting outside the lab for medical test results for some incurable diseases for the first time.  Finally it was my time to enter.  I explained my predicament. They checked for my name, it was not on the list. Not to break my heart in their presence, I was advised to come the following week. Hope is a great thing. Always give hope to someone at any opportunity. They could have saved me from a heart attack by that feedback “come next week after we have checked.”

And that is how I was able to find my way to my Aunt’s place at the then Nakawa College of Business (NCB), present day Makerere University Business School. This journey of firsts was eventful. I had never seen so many cars and people in one place like I found in Kampala. Getting to Nakawa from Makerere was a big puzzle. I walked the distance from Makerere to Kampala road to catch Nakawa taxis at around the Post Office building.  I was so tired that I reminded the conductor to get me out at Nakawa stage when the taxi had just gone past Spear Motors. They stopped and left me on the road side. I walked back to Nakawa stage and on to MUBS.

The accidental discovery

I visited the library at the then NCB and landed on a pile of old magazines, in there was a magazine called Student Accountant or such a similar name. It was a publication by the Association of Certified Chartered Accountants (ACCA) with head offices in the United Kingdom. I picked interest in Accountancy suddenly. At the time, the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Uganda was just nascent. It lacked a strong legal framework to mobilize students and members. I enquired more about the qualification and the feedback was encouraging. It was clear that accountancy profession is great, but not for everyone as it was difficult to qualify. “That course is very difficult, you cannot pass it.” “You must be very good at numbers to try accountancy.” “You need a first degree otherwise, from Senior Six directly to ACCA, you will never finish.” “There are very few professional Accountants in Uganda for a reason. Accounting is difficult.” And my brother who was undertaking the ACCA course at the time converted me instantly, with his “You are still a boy. ACCA is for men.”

Fast forward, I went back to Makerere. My name was not on the list. But my story was so unique that I had been considered for B.Com external admission on private sponsorship. I got the admission but the terms were not so favorable. In addition, I did not like the arrangement of evening studies for a four-year course, instead of the usual three.

I paid a visit to the ACCA offices located on Entebbe road at the time. And the rest is history. I completed the ACCA course in a record time of two years. Won prizes as the top student for several papers including law and strategy. And emerged among the top three finalists in our year.  And today, I am a proud CPA and member in good standing of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Uganda.

Becoming a Professional Accountant?

To become a great accountant, aim for Excellency in any setting you find yourself in – be at school or work. This mindset means you put in your best at any challenge thrown at you. Doing your best at what is directly in front of you gives undivided attention and delivers great results. It has always done it for me.

At Munteme Fatima College (MUFACO) in Hoima where I spent four years of secondary education, I set a record (I am trying to do my best to get it broken) as the top candidate in the Uganda Certificate of Education (UCE) final exams. In those days, we were the tadoba students. I vividly remember how we would dip our legs in the basin, light the tadoba (small candle) for night preps. We knew at an early age that there was no shortcut or lift to the top. You had to use the stair case. You cannot imagine how happy I was when Fr. Cosmas Adyebo, our then school Principal, came calling my name to deliver the good news. I had passed with first class and I was the only one that year and the second to do so in the entire 20 plus years’ history of the school, never mind that I was among top students in the whole district. If you have been to Hoima district, and then to Munteme Fatima College you can then appreciate what it means attaining first class at Ordinary level national exams in that part of Uganda.

One of the most common characteristics I have observed in our senior professional accountants from Joseph Baliddawa to John-Muhaise Bikalemsa (JMB), Fulgence Mungereza to Pius Bahemuka (RIP), and all great accountants of this nation is that they are very well informed. A professional accountant must be up-to-date about the latest happenings and news about accounting, the economy and business world. You must continually update your skills and knowledge in the context of a changing political, social and business environment. You must also keep identifying and optimizing ways for personal-improvement. This means attending all continuous professional development hours.

My reading ethic at MUFACO as well as an active member of the debating club exposed me to reading. These are skills I later found invaluable. I passed Advanced level at the now defunct Hoima Progressive Secondary School, where I set a record in the Uganda Advanced Certificate in Education (UACE) exams in Mathematics, Economics and Geography (MEG), 1998/99 exams.  With the senior six certificate under the belt, I was ready to face the world. I registered directly for ACCA, which I had come to accidently learn about, and the bet paid off.

It paid off because in 2002, just after completing level II exams, ACCA partnered with Oxford Brookes University for a Bachelor of Science in Applied Accounting BSc (Hons) – Applied Accounting. Just before completing the ACCA exams, I was already mid-way the Oxford Brookes University research project, which I passed easily.

The Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Uganda now has a similar partnership with a local University that enables students who started CPA qualification directly from “A” level to attain a degree in accounting. Though once a discouraged and frowned upon route to professional accountant, I was lucky that it saved me three years of University education. Most people who we did ACCA together already had a first degree. It was like repeating the degree, only this time to attain a professional qualification.  To me, this was a career game changer. It got me ahead of the pack by three years.

There is nothing that does not have disadvantages. You must weigh the options. I could have missed the real campus experience and some deeper exposure to fundamentals, but it shortened my career path. I was able to become a Certified Public Accountant as well as qualify for MBA degree at Makerere University in a very short time. And got the opportunity to work with two of the big four audit firms, a bank and now as a board member at several top organizations.

A professional accountant in Uganda is one who is a member in good standing of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Uganda, as provided in the Accountants Act, 2013, Laws of Uganda. Members of other professional accountancy bodies, with mutual recognition by ICPAU are also professional accountants. To become a member, you must have enrolled as a student of CPA and passed all the papers successfully.  Passing a professional accountancy or holding a degree in accountancy does not qualify someone as a professional accountant since one must undertake relevant continuous professional development approved by the regulator of accountancy profession in Uganda, the ICPAU.

Completion of the CPA course is one of the requirements for ICPAU membership enrolment. In addition, one must attain at least three years’ proven accountancy work experience.   Now more than before, becoming a professional accountant is very critical. Section 34 of the Accountants Act 2013, provides that all heads of Finance in private and public sector entities are required to be members of ICPAU. The clock is ticking.

In summary, it takes perseverance or grit, networking and focus. The CPA qualification may seem expensive, but it is worse it. You must read hard and aim to pass every exam at the first sitting. As you study, try to read widely and also form discussion groups as these give you networking opportunities. You get to meet great people who provide career insights, employment and business opportunities. We are all social animals. Never ever postpone doing any exam. Studying to attain a professional qualification especially accountancy in old age is inconveniencing and very difficult. The earlier you do it, the better. And when you qualify, you start a new journey that defines a real professional accountant: it is easier to get to the top than it is to stay there.

I congratulate the Institute on this 25th anniversary. Thanks all for your role in the journey.

Mustapha Bernabas Mugisa is a strategy and risk expert, with interests in fraud examinations and cyber security. He can be reached on www.mustaphamugisa.com or strategy@summitcl.com.

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