Wednesday January 19, 2022

Accountability in limbo

December 09, 2021

We have nothing to hide, we have nothing to worry about, everyone is accountable. With such loud claims, every stakeholder of the state publicly asserts “Zero Tolerance on Corruption”, yet any effort to curb it acquires some other dimension.

Why is it so that high public office holders who shape and structure the state apparatus, when subjected to scrutiny, start hiding behind different pretexts including ‘political engineering’ or ‘witch hunt’? Who doesn’t know that all parts of the state administration are riven with corruption and there is no shortage of reasons to fight this menace? Then why is it so that all stakeholders only keep pointing fingers and there is little consensus on how to tackle this monster? Why is it that the anti-corruption setups of the country are treated as demons whenever they start asking questions? These double standards are a reflection of the moral decline of society which is also visible in our institutions of governance.

It is important to know that a real fight against corruption requires political will coupled with impartial institutions to promote a culture of accountability. Among Asian countries, only Hong Kong and Singapore have been relatively successful in reducing corruption due to these measures. Since 1999, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) remains the key institution tasked with uncovering and fighting corruption in Pakistan.

NAB has received admiration from some but criticism from many since its inception, with people indulging in arguments on the role of watchdog without giving any thought to the fact that genuine accountability grows on the back of ‘democracy’ and ‘morality’. The challenge to find the truth has become extremely difficult since everything has been politicised. I am of the view that nations regress in every field – economic, social, developmental – because of the erosion of democratic norms.

The real problem is that most of us are driven by our sentiments and never try to ponder over facts. This has taken the shape of trendy narratives over a period of time and is working as a contributory factor to suppress the facts. A sad irony is that politics in Pakistan has turned into a honey pot, and the resort to corrupt means is the natural consequence. The follies of democracy in our country are repackaged under different guises. Those who benefit from the imperfections of democracy, when subjected to scrutiny, start repeating their narratives of political vendetta and witch hunts. Then they take advantage of the perception even where action taken against them is perfectly legitimate and is as per the law.

A corruption scandal, once exposed, is followed by protracted stonewalling by politicians along with headlines in the media. Over time, the cases quietly evaporate with manipulation of the criminal justice system of the country. A new government comes in and starts investigations of its predecessors – and this is how the wheel of accountability has been running in Pakistan for decades. But would it be fair to damn one organisation only for this situation? We should not lose sight of the interventions (settlements, NROs and other tacit measures) from top echelons, and the underlying reasons which caused the subversion of years of institutional efforts.

No institution or organ of the state in Pakistan can claim perfection; therefore, expecting something extraordinary from NAB would be unjust. Instead of ensuring essential measures to strengthen the organisation to meet the national and international (UNCAC, World Bank, IMF and FATF etc) requirements regarding corruption and money-laundering, we repeatedly hear that NAB and the economy cannot move together, NAB should be abolished etc. Those subject to certain proceedings by the watchdog continuously keep hounding it on one pretext or the other. While claiming innocence, they certainly want to see the watchdog as a feather duster. If that doesn't smack of an agenda, what does?

In a system where corruption wheels every sector of society, generally no one at the helm of affairs likes institutions like NAB. But anyone who purports to suggest that we do not need an anti-corruption watchdog needs to be reminded of the distinction between one’s own volitions and public interest. Even critics admit that NAB is an effective deterrent to corruption. This, of course, does not mean that the organisation has never faltered. The assignment of the Panama and Fake Accounts cases to NAB by the Supreme Court is a reflection of the confidence in the abilities of an institution for the investigation of sensitive cases.

NAB was founded in 1999 and since then no significant reforms were brought by successive governments in its statutory framework – till 2020. The current government came to power promising accountability. They have recently brought amendments in the powers and structures of NAB, claiming to make it a more effective corruption busting tool. However, the opposition terms these amendments as a measure of control. The effect of these amendments in the long run will be seen later but the immediate effect is that the accused, including those charged in mega scams, are approaching the courts in large numbers for relief. The future of the accountability process which has consumed years of institutional efforts seems under dark clouds of uncertainty. Yet again, the watchdog will become the punching bag.

For the last about two decades, democracy in Pakistan has witnessed a strong connection with anti-corruption activities. Change of government brings about certain shifts in anti-corruption approaches. Very few will disagree that graft war is not the responsibility of one institution but forms part of the state’s obligations. The public becomes the witch hunt and the state a principal victim, in case of failure in discharge of this obligation.

I believe that accountability is stuck in limbo because there is no genuine desire amongst the prime stakeholders of democracy to deal with the situation. The development of a country rests on the strength of its institutions. Pakistan is at a crossroads. It is up to the nation’s chosen representatives to either opt for an effective anti-corruption deterrent or a toothless tiger.

The writer works for NAB Islamabad.

The views expressed here are personal.