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Thursday July 25, 2024

Accountability woes

By Dr Syed Kaleem Imam
February 15, 2022

Our religion and the founder of our country both have many examples for us to follow when it comes to accountability. Unfortunately, we have followed a sad path of decline. 'Accountability' was left to the people, while the elites enjoyed the power of prerogative.

In subsequent years, the paradigm shifted to a propensity liability, where an official would be rewarded for being a blue-eyed of the powerful. Because of mutual acquiescence, s/he could not be held accountable for his/her actions. In most cases, selective/vindictive accountability was more prevalent – falling on those in the opposing camp and rarely on those who were delinquent. On a smaller scale, even today, if you don't fall in line with the boss, you are simply sidelined. At a larger scale, everyone who opposed authorities' follies was put behind bars. The sad story began with Faiz Ahmed Faiz, for which we have paid a heavy price – what happened with our eastern wing being one example.

It is clear that there is a marked distinction between the 'haves and have-nots'; talk about equal justice has become a joke. While the elite can afford to hire a lawyer, the poor literally rot in the system. In our land of opportunities, bridges collapse, trains collide, and floods sweep hundreds of poor away, but nobody is held responsible.

Startlingly in our public offices, over 99 percent of the sanctions are imposed on junior officers. Misbehaviour, embezzlement, and corruption are among the most common forms of delinquency. Surprisingly, more than 90 percent of them obtain relief through service tribunals or courts due to flawed inquiries and, in some cases, inaccurate judicial assessments. It is equally astonishing that less than one percent of supervisors and officers are disciplined. Since they are powerful, they are rarely held accountable for their leadership failures, abetment, or inaction.

In my early years of service, there was a joke that a public stakeholder, when asked for a response strategy to counter a critical scene, said he wouldn't do anything, as the moment such an unpleasant incident took place, he would be suspended and removed from the position. These knee-jerk accountability actions often led to many individuals becoming scapegoats.

This was followed by a trend whereby many officials sensing trouble would take leave or change positions before they were held accountable. Many senior officials left Quetta in the 1980s, when they learnt of brewing trouble, and left the situation to the juniors and those in the low tiers of government, as several individuals were killed in the rioting that followed.

It is often also the case that managers at various levels dare to challenge a ridiculous instruction, such as the May 12, 2007 incident in Karachi, when law-enforcement officials were disarmed and told to deal with a serious law and order situation empty-handed. No responsibility has been fixed to this day, due to a scrubbing of accountability or because the orders emanated from the most powerful corridors of power at the time.

It is understood that charity begins at home. Practised religiously, it yields unlimited benefits. Historically, nations and communities that did not shy away from accountability mechanisms advanced. The act of continuously erring, breaking laws, and getting away with it while standing firm engenders dubious reputations and breeds criminality, both of which are likely to harm us all.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attended a party during Covid restrictions and the burial of Prince Philip. The public outcry was so strong that the government almost seemed in danger. So far, five ministers in the UK have resigned. Remember Maradona – the most beloved footballer of Argentina? He was dragged out from his home and sent to prison when found involved in drugs. In Japan, the railways minister resigns if the trains are late for a few minutes. This is accountability!

Individuals who hold public office or work for private companies make major decisions that have a direct impact on the lives of others. In their field, professionalism is imperative, and victories and defeats are determined by their performance. In real-life dramas, some of the best have chosen to walk away when their best wasn't enough, rather than clinching and becoming powerless and seeking out another saddle.

For good governance to take place, citizens must be confident that wrongdoing and criminality will be punished in a transparent manner. And the stakeholders assured that they would be indemnified if their actions were in good faith. Likewise, all due process and hearings must be applied prior to any condemnation of a person or an official.

Fortunately, in a sane move, the 2020 Civil servants (Efficiency & Discipline) Rules has eliminated the three-tiered inquiry process in favour of just the authority and inquiry officer (IO), with a 45-day time limit. The IO is now expected to make a clear recommendation regarding the type of punishment to be imposed. If the IO slumps in procedures, the Authority can act. Now, the plea bargain is construed as misconduct and embezzlement amount recovery as a major punishment.

Though it is the age of specialisation, we have no specialists for accountability. Thus, an enquiry officer from NAB/ FIA or Police venturing in some technical enquiry would largely depend on the information provided by the one who is being quizzed. Defective enquiries result in judges setting the accused free due to lack or insufficient evidence.

Nevertheless, to dispose of a probe properly, accredited professionals with specialisation are vital, as currently the cases do not stand at the next forum or are beset with conspiracy theories. In this context, the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) that has specialists is an effective and inspiring model to follow. The Internal Affairs department in law enforcement has yet to take off due to 'generalists' being assigned to conduct serious inquiries.

Being accountable is often exemplified by doing your best to achieve your goals. Getting your targets accomplished efficiently within the ambit of the law depends on being able to reduce distractions, pressures, and worldly expediency. Not disillusioned by group think, but welcoming dissenting voices as a sense of right and wrong.

The writer is federal secretary,

Ministry of Narcotics Control. He tweets @KaleemImam and can be reached at:

skimam98@hotmail.com

Facebook: @syedkaleemimam