The story of corruption

How Pakistani society grew rich and powerful in the last 41 years by the sheer nexus between politics, business and crime

The story of corruption

Corruption is not a myth, it is a reality, operating from the highest to the lowest level. Perhaps, this in itself is a reason why we have not been able to overcome this menace that has been on the rise in the last four decades in particular.

Corruption has hit almost every institution and in the process has weakened the four pillars of the State. It has damaged Pakistan’s politics the most. Politics, once the place for ideological romance, has now become a business. No wonder we could not produce more Hasan Nasirs, Nazeer Abbasis or Zulfikar Ali Bhuttos.

While the ideological left-wing parties were crushed by force, the right-wing politics became hostage to establishment or extremists. All this made space for those who entered politics to protect their business. So, in the last 20 years, politicians have mostly gone to prison for reasons other than politics. Their houses were not raided to recover ‘objectionable material’ but to recover documents linked to money laundering, fraud or fake accounts etc.

When ‘corruption’ became a global issue and money laundering was linked to terror financing, it also became a national issue in Pakistan. In the last few years, several world leaders faced corruption charges -- some stepped down on their own, others were jailed and convicted.

When Panama leaks hit the headlines in April 2016, it also hit the political elite of Pakistan. The one who became the main casualty was former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his immediate family. His critics believe that Sharif invited injury by ignoring the advice of some sane voices which finally landed him in prison. He was disqualified and convicted.

Their appeal against the verdict and plea to suspend conviction is now pending. He is also facing two other references.

His biggest opponent, Imran Khan got votes on the mere promise that he will bring back looted wealth and put thieves in jail. This was a clear reference to his two political opponents, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and former president Asif Ali Zardari.

Zardari, who in the past succeeded in getting out of many corruption and criminal cases, is now facing 2013-2015 fake account case linked to alleged money laundering. FIA officials claim Rs45 billion have been laundered via fake accounts and reveal over Rs200 billion may have been moved abroad.

Zardari has been facing problems in the last few years but managed to survive and apparently looked confident enough to come out clean as he decided to stay back in Pakistan during the case inquiry. He has survived though he is perceived as one of the country’s most corrupt politicians. With a tag of ‘Mr. Ten Per Cent’, he became the president of Pakistan.

Perhaps, the only disturbing presence for him is that of Imran Khan as prime minister, who has been against him for long.

Khan finally succeeded in turning ‘corruption’ into an issue which could not become an issue until 2013 despite the sacking of four elected governments. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) did not contest the 2008 elections.

Although the four governments, that of Mohammad Khan Junejo, two of Benazir Bhutto and one of Nawaz Sharif in 1993 (the second was sacked for different reasons in 1999) -- came to an end on charges of corruption, the then presidency and establishment only used it for political reasons. In 1990, establishment’s own corrupt practices were exposed in Asghar Khan case.

Asghar Khan or Mehran Bank case was perhaps the only case to establish how money was distributed and by whom. How the 1990 elections were rigged, how a bank was established, money was deposited and then distributed to rig elections.

Late Air Marshal Asghar Khan who took up this case in 1996 died last year. We may see some outcome in this landmark case.


In the last 10 years, Imran became the voice against corruption, and promised to bring back all the looted wealth, expose money launderers and put them in prison. Since he himself had a clean record and also possessed charisma, people finally started following him and, in 2013, his party emerged as the third alternate. It got over eight million votes which almost doubled in 2018.

In 2013, for the first time, PTI formed a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and irrespective of the controversies around its governance, improved its performance in 2018.

Now, PTI has government in the centre, Punjab and KP and Imran Khan’s dream has finally come true. But, it is also the time to fulfil his promise. Can he do it?

Apparently, it seems quite difficult to eradicate corruption but if we start serious treatment of the disease we may be able to reduce it to a certain level.

Khan could claim credit for sending Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and son-in-law Safdar to jail, ensuring that former finance minister, Ishaq Dar, and two sons of Sharif were declared absconders and accused. All this happened even before he became the prime minister. While Sharif and his family are still fighting their legal battle, tragically, the premier could not create any major political upheaval.

I am not very sure about the outcome of the cases of corruption, particularly when it comes to conviction and recovery of ‘looted money’. The only exception was in the case of NAB’s ‘plea bargain’ in early 2000s, which in a way allowed the corrupt to return a certain amount and keep the rest.

The role of our anti-graft agencies in the last 30-35 years had been only bailing out the corrupt through various means. One has to wait and see the future outcome of high profile cases and investigations which are often politicised and those allegedly involved get benefit of doubt.

Corruption is deep rooted. So far, the anti-graft drive revolves around politicians and their cronies in the bureaucracy. Rarely does one hear of an inquiry or case against other individuals in powerful institutions.


The menace of corruption goes back to 1977 when the country’s third Martial Law was imposed within 30 years of its Independence. Politics was more ideological despite the bad governance of Bhutto era and there were not many stories of corruption in the media. One of the most serious allegations against Bhutto was that he got 70/71 Clifton residence on government expense, a charge even Zia’s establishment could not prove.

Corruption was certainly not news in those years. Pakistan’s political elite was exposed for being unable to set the right direction during a period of political turmoil -- from 1948 to 1958. The Muslim Leaguers were particularly accused of lust for power and bad governance but even after the 1958 martial law, none faced charges of corruption.

However, the two martial laws of Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan strengthened the hold of civil and military bureaucracy on decision-making, curbed the media and silenced the voice of dissent.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s era from 1972 to 1977 is regarded by his critics as a period of bad governance. He was accused of politicising bureaucracy and trying to break the hold of civil and military bureaucracy. To some extent this argument is valid as he tried to go fast but, in the end, became victim of his own policies and politics.

The bureaucrats in those days knew their job well and were more professional, but, it would be wrong to suggest they were not politicised. After all, it is they who managed the basic policies of Ayub’s martial law, got into politics and started corrupting the institutions like media and judiciary.

In the 11 years of Zia, corrupt practices became the order of the day, starting from the stories in the national and particularly in international media regarding Narco power, smuggling of drugs, weapons and how billions of dollars poured in. No one knows till this day where they went. The money never reached the actual Mujhaideen in Afghanistan. Involvement of some big names in promoting drug and Klashnikov culture in Pakistan was also in news. It was the beginning of the policy of ‘corrupt Pakistan, its political and intellectual elite’.


You may find these stories in some of the books published in the last 10 years. One could also have written a book on how Pakistan was looted and reshaped in the last 40 years, based on certain documents, facts and outcome of inquires held. What stopped me was my editor’s advice who told me, "You have documents, evidences and facts, but you don’t have money to hire lawyers to defend you in a court of law. Remember, there is a clear nexus between crime, politics and the institutions we look up to for justice."

I was working in The Star those days and two stories got me in trouble. One was on Awami Markaz, Karachi’s land which I did for The Friday Times and the other one was on Narco power which I did for the Newsline.

The idea of writing a book occurred to me when I got hold of some of the documents which also included a classified document sent to the then Federal Interior Ministry about some officers involved in human smuggling to the US on forged documents. I also got a copy of a 34 billion scam of a land on Super Highway, involving some big names. I did stories on few of them in The Star, Herald and Newsline.

In the last 36 years of journalism, I am witness to ‘nexus stories’ and was amazed to see how people got rich overnight, some became respectable citizens, politicians and retired officers. Many of them today live in fancy houses and remain untouchables. This is how Pakistani society has grown in the last 41 years, if not more.


One of the biggest successes of the Karachi Operation that started in 2013 is the exposure of nexus between crime and politics leading to terror financing. Had the 1986 Operation against drug and arms barons not been stopped by Islamabad, Karachi could have been saved from the bloodbath it witnessed in the last 35 years.

A former deputy commissioner who had probed Aligarh and Qasba massacre after a raid on the biggest drug dens based in Sohrab Goth in 1986 revealed, "It was all planned."

Corruption was the order of the day in those years and one of the classified documents of the US, a copy of which is still with me, had even revealed the names of some officers allegedly involved in ‘human smuggling’.

Perhaps, the biggest disservice of Zia’s era was that he institutionalised corruption in a bid to prolong his tenure. Politics was not a business prior to General Zia but he brought businessmen into politics, and Mian Sharif who was never involved into politics was handed over his ‘nationalised factories’ on the condition that Gen. Zia would allow his sons to opt for politics.


Now, Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), investigating alleged money laundering case, can unearth one of the biggest financial scams and raise serious questions about private banks being used for ‘fake accounts’. We have not yet recovered from the political and moral loss caused by the Mehran Bank scam. This is just the tip of the iceberg as to how this country has been looted by both political and non-political elite in the last 40 years.

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Even if some see that light, we still may not be able to find out the whole truth, as the probe against corruption in Pakistan doesn’t go beyond politicians.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan since 2007 has exposed certain faces, re-opened some dead cases, took up money laundering cases and constituted Joint Investigation Team in Panama case as FIA had limited powers. Also, FIA doesn’t have technical expertise to investigate financial crimes and has limited access to certain institutions nor has it powers like the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).

One only has to wait and see the final outcome of the case against former president and MNA Asif Ali Zardari and one of his two sisters, MPA Faryal Talpur. Will it be different from the past cases or something close to Panama case? It can land Zardari in trouble.

It is heartening to see rise of anti-corruption movements across the world, something which has raised hope in Pakistan’s case as well. But, I wonder which institution is powerful enough to launch a massive, across-the-board accountability and anti-graft operation. To be very honest, I am not too hopeful about investigations, probes, so called JITs and the final fate of the cases.