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February 18, 2016

Whither accountability?


February 18, 2016


Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has threatened to clip the wings of the National Accountability Bureau if it doesn’t stay within ‘limits’. After the PPP-led Sindh government’s protests against selective and biased accountability by NAB, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s reversal of its good accountability law and now the federal and Punjab governments’ sharp reaction, the future of accountability and NAB seems to be in doldrums.

Perhaps the prime minster was angry about the extension of NAB’s investigations into certain mega projects being carried out by the federal and Punjab governments. The accountability agency had made it compulsory for details of all development projects worth over Rs500 million to be submitted prior to approval. The chief minister of Punjab and the prime minister, according to the Online news agency, were extremely upset over the arrest of Amir Lateef of Kalson Private Limited, the contractor of the Orange Line Metro Train Project in a Joint Venture Project (JVP); Lateef was allegedly arrested “on charges of fake payments in another project, according to NAB sources”.

According to Online, NAB has also arrested five other influential people allegedly involved in the embezzlement of Rs850 million. There are also other reports of ongoing investigations into kickbacks involving blue-eyed bureaucrats in some high-profile projects.

The current NAB law and the NAB chairman are by-products of a bipartisan consensus. Therefore, the parties that had evolved a consensus – the PML-N and the PPP – should not have had any objection or reservations over the proceedings of NAB and the matters should have been left to the courts to decide. As NAB, and the FIA, became active and focused on Sindh to catch the big fish, the PPP accused the PML-N government of ‘selective’ accountability and a witch-hunt. The PPP was extremely upset over Dr Asim’s arrest by the Rangers, and subsequently by the FIA and NAB, on charges of abetting and financing terrorism and massive corruption; the agencies are finding it extremely difficult to substantiate the charges.

The PPP’s reaction was justified to the extent that Dr Asim was being implicated in terrorism-related charges. Against the hyper-activism of NAB and FIA and on the Rangers’ crossing limits, the federation and the province moved towards a constitutional collusion – resulting in the rejection of the Sindh Assembly’s resolution as well as Sindh government’s summary that sought limits on the scope of the Rangers operation in Karachi. The federal government rejected the hue and cry of the Sindh government over the paralysis of its provincial administration, in violation of the 18th Amendment.

Ironically, riding the high moral tide of its campaign against corruption, the PTI government in KP brought a fairly good accountability law to establish its pious credentials. But as the provincial accountability agency started acting against some of the high-ups of the KP government, the chief minister struck back and rendered the accountability law toothless. Coincidently, it sought similar safeguards from its nominated head of provincial accountability authority what the Sindh government had sought against the intrusion of the Rangers into civilian departments, and made it mandatory to seek permission from the chief secretary when arresting an official and from the chief minister (speaker in KP) in case of a politician. Interestingly, the Jamaat-e-Islami, JUI and other parties joined hands in rendering the KP accountability law worthless.

NAB is under attack for the wrong reasons, except for assuming authority to review the projects before their approval by the competent authorities. After it came under persistent criticism for targeting Sindh and PPP alone, in order to mend that imbalance it decided to extend its operations to Punjab and at the federal level. That should have been appreciated. But with the PM’s rather undesirable reaction, the project of accountability of civilians by civilians has almost come to a naught. NAB, according to sources, is under tremendous pressure to release the favourites in the Punjab government and stop meddling with the ‘path of development’.

The other issue so critical to the style of governance of the Sharif brothers is that they don’t want any checks and balances on their personalised corporate style of governance. The prime minister was quite vociferous in criticising the role of regulatory authorities and purchase, procurement and transparency in granting contracts that they want processed without any procedural hindrance. Their preference for quick mega projects is laudable and understandable before the next elections. But, since the issues of clumsy governance and red-tape remain unaddressed, the urge to remain unchecked is more dangerous and is not permissible in private enterprises. The prime minister should give full attention to civil and administrative reforms to make the business of the state and private sector easier and quicker while keeping necessary oversights by regulatory authorities.

The issue of corruption is universal and there are highly credible good practices that can be adopted to curb it. In Pakistan, corruption has assumed a highly moralist character by portraying it as the mother of all ills. Since Pakistan’s creation, the issue of corruption has been used to silence political dissent, persecute politicians and derail democracy – and bring in martial laws that have resulted in even worse corrupt practices. Today’s politicians are just keen to neutralise public sentiment against corruption – which is rampant in every sphere of life and across all institutions. Searching for a messiah or finding brutal ways to eradicate corruption is also counter-productive.

No doubt there are flaws in the current accountability law. However, there is no a better way than to appoint its chief with bipartisan consensus. The Charter of Democracy (CoD) provided a genuine basis for even-handed accountability of all – without exception for our so-called sacred cows. Instead of joining hands against accountability and transparency in governance, the politicians must come clean on this issue of great public importance.

Democracy is inseparable from transparency and accountability. Providing good governance is the most challenging test of all politicians. They must come clean on this for the sake of democracy.

The writer is a political analyst.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @ImtiazAlamSAFMA



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