Government’s who-dunnit moment

December 8, 2019

Bureaucrats say government leaders themselves are to blame for the extension fiasco

The case regarding the extension or reappointment of the chief of army staff (COAS) in the country’s top court was a first of its kind. Before November this year, nobody had dared to challenge such an order. The matter was particularly intractable since the law was silent on the matter.

On November 27, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet and the military chief sat together to ponder over the questions the Supreme Court of Pakistan had raised regarding the extension or reappointment of the chief of army staff. All eyes were on Law Minister Farogh Nasim and Attorney General Anwar Mansoor Khan who pleaded the case before the apex court.

The controversy surrounding the issue started after a mysterious petitioner, Riaz Rahi, approached the Supreme Court triggering a nationwide debate on General Bajwa’s extension in service. As Rahi suddenly disappeared from the picture, the chief justice fixed the petition for hearing.

Senior government officials in the Ministry of Law and Justice, the AGP, the president and the prime minister’s offices claim that people in key offices mishandled the issue. They say the subordinate staff was not to blame.

Though the federal government appears to have been taken to task for mishandling the extension issue, a federal secretary told TNS that the procedural flaw was a secondary issue. He claimed the real problem related to the Constitution (Article 243) and the Army Act which do not clarify the matter.

After General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani (retired), Gen Bajwa is the first general to receive an extension in service. Officials who drafted the summary for the extension at the Ministry of Law say that a key federal office did not follow the proper procedure, ignoring repeated requests by subordinates to follow the rules. They claim that PM Khan signed the extension notification in August this year without taking approval from the cabinet. Next President Arif Alvi signed the notification after around a dozen of the cabinet members did not endorse the matter.

The Supreme Court has now thrown the ball in the parliament’s court after hearing the government’s legal team, which informed the judges that President Alvi had approved the summary on the advice of the prime minister and a notification dated November 28, 2019 had followed.

In presence of Azam Khan, PM‘s principal secretary, the man responsible for handling such issues, some bureaucrats say the federal government itself is to be blamed for the fiasco.

Senior lawyer, Akram Sheikh, says amending the Article 243 of Constitution, if the apex court orders so in its yet-to-be announced detailed judgment, would be a tough nut to crack for the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s government. “It seems that the parent law [Article 243] needs to be amended to give a legal cover to such extension matters in the future,” says Sheikh.

All eyes are on the Supreme Court’s detailed order which is likely to come next week. Farogh Nasim, who took the oath as the Federal Minister for Law and Justice again this week, says the government shall soon initiate the process to ensure the necessary legislation. “The government aims to amend the Army Act. It needs a simple majority in the parliament for this purpose. However, all options are on the table,” says Nasim.

Journalist Mazhar Abbas says the crisis is not over yet. “The next six months are crucial. Both the army’s and the civilian government’s eyes are on the parliament. This will be a test case for the PM,” says Abbas.

“To give legal cover to the army chief’s extension could be the biggest bargaining chip ever for the opposition. The PTI will have to engage its opponents in the parliament in the coming months,” says an opposition senator on the condition of anonymity. The senator also predicts that the parliament would ultimately validate the extension.

No matter what the situation is in six months, experts say public support for civilian and institutional supremacy is growing. General Bajwa may very well get an extension if the parliament legislates in this regard but experts say the Supreme Court has set a new precedence.

The writer is a special investigative correspondent for Geo Television Network in Islamabad

Army chief extension: PTI government’s who-dunnit moment