Thursday June 30, 2022

‘Nationalising’ NAB

November 15, 2021

There is no doubt that a system of robust and impartial accountability is the cornerstone of liberal democracy; the process of checks and balances safeguards the roots of democratic norms from being dismantled.

But there is a chronic dilemma in Pakistan that the dream of fair and stringent accountability has always been a farce in the country. And, successive democratic dispensations have systematically contributed to politicising and making the main accountability bureau blatantly controversial.

Among the many ill-conceived changes introduced in the NAB Ordinance, the most controversial one is the attempt of the PTI government to strip the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC) of the authority of de-seating the NAB chairman. This ‘decisive’ power has been granted to the president through an ordinance to remove the chairman of NAB.

Now, if the all-powerful NAB chairman refrains himself from being at the beck and call of the incumbents, the ruling party will immediately supplant him. This indicates that the government has finally nationalised NAB. Unfortunately, the sole accountability bureau has ceased to exercise its power independently and effectively in a country ridden with mega corruption and irregularities.

Also, the president has promulgated the National Accountability Bureau (Amendment) Ordinance, 2021, permitting NAB Chair Javed Iqbal to continue in office until his successor is appointed. Such moves gradually derail the hard-won credibility of top organisations in societies and make people doubt their efficacy and the rationale behind their existence. Can a budding democracy afford such controversial measures?

Before that, the government clipped the wings of NAB with respect to investigating white-collar crimes as well as those cases which are under control of different committees of the government. All this begs a major question: do we need a toothless and bloated NAB? Needless to say that Pakistan’s crisis-ridden democracy cannot cultivate its strong norms in society in the absence of timely, impartial, and vigorous accountability coupled with a system of checks and balances. Our compromised accountability mechanism has spawned the telling lack of transparency which has created a fertile ground for mega corruption and embezzlement in so-called democratic institutions.

Fear and accountability can’t go hand in hand; due to fear of losing his seat, the chairman will likely remain beholden to the ruling party while members of the opposition with suspected background will probably be hounded and grilled. This will badly dilute the already crumbling efficacy and professionalism of the anti-graft body. Such a one-sided accountability drive is a norm in highly dictatorial societies. Pakistan with an evolving democratic setup cannot afford it – nor should it tolerate it at all costs.

The nation is alive to the fact that some have been given ‘special treatment’ by the accountability bureau in financial irregularities pertaining to the Peshawar Metro project, sugar scam, etc. If one takes the practical example of developed and mature democratic nations into consideration, one comes to know that a ruling party should not let its own people off the hook if they are allegedly involved in amassing ill-gotten wealth. Impartiality is presumably the essence of accountability; a discriminatory approach in conducting accountability often leads to political witch-hunts which the country’s chequered history is replete with.

Some quarters have been ill-advising the government to disband NAB and empower other ineffective and politicised anti-corruption bodies to take the lead in the ongoing anti-graft drive. We as a nation have a tendency to forget that democratic institutions take considerable time to fully evolve and turn out to be result-oriented.

Parliamentary debates and scathing criticism from the media inform the government to inject the needed reforms in democratic institutions, especially those of accountability. Liberal democracies such as Britain and the US didn’t do away with their accountability authorities because of their patently controversial and ineffective role; their governments brought in reforms and invigorated them as their constitutional histories tell us.

The perennial lack of across-the-board accountability has had adverse trickle-down effects on the country’s foreign policy and economy. Despite having abundant resources and an energetic young population, Pakistan has by far failed to emerge as an influential power on the landscape of South Asia. The country hasn’t fared well to make headways in projecting its geo-political and geo-strategic power due to some deep-rooted internal issues.

And, all these ills and evils are closely connected to the country’s flawed, controversial and ineffectual accountability process. The lack of accountability emboldened the country’s leaders to take part in a disruptive drive against the erstwhile Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s and against the Taliban in 2001. Pakistan’s flirtation with these two wars exacted a heavy economic and security price on the country: the state has lost $150 billion as economic losses and around 80,000 lives as a consequence of the American-led war on terror. Arguably, these losses might have been lower if there had been a strict system of accountability and parliamentary debates before joining such watershed incidents in the region.

The dearth of accountability culture has emboldened some 700 Pakistanis to stash their wealth – reportedly ill-gotten – away in offshore companies; their cash-strapped country badly needs such investment for its emerging e-commerce market and budding industrialisation process. There might be a plethora of reasons for depositing money in tax havens in the West.

One cannot deny the impression that most such businessmen and public office-bearers move their wealth in off-shore firms with the intent to escape taxes or whitewash their black financial resources. The lack of financial accountability coupled with the flight of foreign exchange reserves has compelled successive governments in Pakistan to seek bail-out packages from domestic banks, international financial institutions and friendly countries, surging the total debt of the country to around Rs40 trillion.

One does not need rocket science to fix the dilemma of accountability in the country. In this regard, a committee composed of serving judges of the Supreme Court and high courts should be delegated the power to select the NAB chairperson; such a reform will make the chairperson impartial of political loyalties. Moreover, the state should ensure the induction of more manpower in the bureau and quality training regarding modern tools and techniques of investigation.

Impartial and stringent accountability will help the country deeply entrench its democratic norms, stamp corruption out, recalibrate its foreign policy and foster the febrile economy. It shouldn’t be forgotten that ‘non-partisan’ accountability is the essence of democracy.

The writer is an independent researcher.

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