Thursday August 11, 2022

Defanging NAB

By Editorial Board
August 06, 2022

As the main government agency responsible for investigating and prosecuting allegations of corruption, the National Accountability Bureau needed to be purer than the driven snow since any hint of impropriety would call into question its credibility. The person heading it too needed to be as above controversy as possible. Unfortunately on both counts NAB not only failed but failed spectacularly. During the PTI regime, we saw arbitrary arrests, half-baked cases, images of handcuffed ‘suspects’ of corruption – at the behest of a body that seemed to wield far too much power. The fact that NAB’s previous chairman was essentially beset by many questions regarding major moral, ethical failings further cast aspersions on the watchdog’s conduct. The unbridled nature of this ‘one-track’ accountability also earned NAB rebuke from the superior judiciary which minced no words in chiding the body for highhandedness accompanied with little evidence.

NAB’s inglorious past and the accusations that have followed the accountability body over the years – of witch-hunts against political opponents, or arm-twisting and coercion, or using legal powers for political victimization – resulted in a consistent demand by the then opposition parties that the law needed to be amended or scrapped. Now, the coalition government, whose member parties have already been at the forefront of both having been involved in NAB cases and protesting the accountability body’s methods of operation, has made changes to the NAB law twice already after taking over.

The latest changes to an already amended NAB law are interesting in how they can be perceived. Per the amendments, the anti-graft body can now only take action against mega scandals – which have been defined as someone committing corruption worth more than Rs500 million. More changes include the provision that, once a NAB investigation has been completed, no supplementary reference can be filed in a case unless new evidence comes to light. Importantly, the chairperson NAB’s arbitrary powers that allowed him/her to summon any person or ask for any document have been taken away; now only people and documents relevant to the investigation can be summoned. The NAB chief now will also not be able to ask for surveillance of a suspicious person or the help of any agency.

The PTI says the changes to NAB’s powers are evidence that the government wants to benefit its 'corrupt leaders'. While some of the changes to the NAB law are needed interventions – for example, the NAB chief had too many discretionary powers such as arbitrary surveillance – it is hard to ignore the rather toothless picture the accountability bureau now presents. The question is: can accountability somehow just be wished away by the stroke of a pen? And what are the real measures left to deal with corruption – a word that may have been overused by the PTI but which is hardly irrelevant to the country? While FIA, the SBP and other bodies are there to keep a check on some forms of financial corruption, perhaps what is really needed is not a toothless accountability mechanism but one that is so robust as to not be swayed by political considerations, or vindictive justice or petty witch-hunts. An accountability body can only be effective if it is seen as non-partisan and scrupulous. But the government and its political actors too wear the same heavy crown.