The race for NAB chief

October 3, 2021

As the time for the appointment of the new NAB chairperson approaches, the anxiety around lack of initiation of the consultation with the opposition leader is palpable

The race for NAB chief

Prime Minister Imran Khan’s meeting with Hussain Asghar, the Deputy Chairperson of National Accountability Bureau (NAB), mid-September at the Prime Minister Secretariat was read by many as anything but routine. Perhaps, the environment in which it took place was to blame – with a couple of weeks left for the retirement of the incumbent NAB Chairman, legally scheduled on October 8. The meeting was bound to generate speculations. Since the NAB chairperson is the official overseeing the anti-corruption drive, this is a vital role that also ends up affecting the political landscape of the country.

The incumbent Chairperson of NAB was appointed by the suggestion of Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the former prime minister, during the last Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) regime. Abbasi himself was arrested in a NAB case during the chairperson’s tenure. Later, Abbasi’s party and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the then opposition who also had played a key role in the appointment of the incumbent chairperson, had to face corruption cases during the tenure of Justice (retired) Javed Iqbal. Both these parties – now in opposition – allege that NAB is an “institution controlled by the powerful, invisible players of the establishment”. It is NAB, they say, which played a key role during the last almost four years to oust some key political leaders of mainstream parties including the heads of PML-N and PPP, ex-prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif and ex-president Asif Ali Zardari respectively.

“Nobody knows what transpired in the meeting but initially we were expecting that the Prime Minister might seek a resignation from Hussain Asghar as the PM was briefed against him, but this did not happen. On the other hand, when the meeting concluded both were seen smiling and relaxed,” an officer who works under the PM tells The News on Sunday (TNS).

Few would know that PM Khan had been an admirer of Asghar’s performance as chief of Anti-Corruption Establishment in Punjab back in 2018-19. PM wanted him to get an extension in the police service as Hussain Asghar was retiring in 2019 but he had rejected the offer. Based on his performance, the PM suggested he chair the NAB the year after his retirement from police service.

For many days, it was being said that the PM had been briefed on the case against the deputy chairperson of NAB. Almost a month ago, on August 13, NAB Lahore had forwarded a complaint to the office of Justice (retired) Javed Iqbal, incumbent Chairperson of NAB, against Hussain Asghar for his alleged involvement in the recruitment of ghost employees during his tenure at the Punjab Constabulary. The complaint was based on an audit objection. Traditionally, audit objections are not entertained as formal complaints.

Apparently on the pretext of this controversial complaint, an attempt was made to oust Hussain Asghar from the race to become the NAB chief.

Hussain Asghar did carry a good reputation, some elements close to the chairperson of NAB and power players were speculating that Hussain Asghar may become the choice of the Prime Minister for this prized slot. The same elements are at times also accused of playing ‘a key role’ to ensure the continuity of the tenure of Justice (retired) Javed Iqbal, the incumbent chairperson of NAB, after the completion of his legally “un-extendible” four-year term on October 8, 2021.

“The real question is whether the problem lies in the process of appointment or whether the problem resides in the environment in which the chairman has to work after being appointed. Are there overwhelming pressures?”  asks Salman Akram Raja.

The tenure of Justice (retired) Javed Iqbal remained engulfed in key controversies largely for two reasons. The first involved the furnishing of allegedly fabricated, and some weak, cases against the opposition politicians and the second one was a video scandal, wherein the incumbent NAB chairperson was recorded engaging in objectionable acts reportedly in the premises of Missing Persons Commission which he heads, brought forward by a lady named Tayyaba Gul on social media.

The prospect of extending the tenure of incumbent NAB chief, seen against the backdrop of procedure and precedent, seems weak. Such a move would run into legal challenges as the NAB ordinance clearly mentions that the tenure of the chairman is “not extendable”.

In this regard, the example of the two-liner ordinance for the reappointment of Syed Asghar Haider, the incumbent prosecutor general of NAB for “an indefinite period” is also being cited. The ordinance for the prosecutor general’s extension was issued on February 15 but it also drew criticism for the Tehreek e Insaf (PTI) government. Interestingly, this controversial ordinance (which has been challenged in the apex court) had the tacit approval and the backing of the incumbent chairperson of Justice (retired) Javed Iqbal. Many connect the current scenario to this: they say that the present chairperson, by backing the extension of NAB’s prosecutor-general, was allegedly planning to create a precedent. Another factor that is coming up in discussion is that of the formulation of new NAB rules which empowered the incumbent chairperson of NAB to continue to serve with full powers until the appointment of the new chairperson.

Although the government is yet to approve the rules, these proposed rules run contrary to the basic NAB Ordinance 1999 which clearly maintains that the tenure of the chairman is “non-extendable”.

“There is no great problem in the current law for the appointment of Chairman NAB. One can always do things differently. However, there is one issue: in the event of no consensus between the PM and Opposition leader there should be a process for moving the process forward, perhaps through a bi-partisan parliamentary committee”, says Salman Akram Raja, a Supreme Court lawyer and constitutional expert.

“The real question is whether the problem lies in the process of appointment or whether the problem resides in the environment in which the chairman has to work after being appointed. Are there overwhelming pressures?” he asks.

Irrespective of the position this proposal requires legal amendments as the NAB Ordinance 1999 in its subsection (b) of section 6 clearly says that,

“There shall be a Chairman NAB to be appointed by the President in consultation with the (leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly) for a (non-extendable) period of 4 years on such terms and conditions as may be determine by the President and shall not be removed except on the grounds of removal of Judge of Supreme Court of Pakistan.”

Although the government has the power to bring in a new ordinance, either for the continuation of the incumbent NAB chairperson’s tenure or for the appointment of a new one, consultation with the leader of the opposition is a mandatory requirement as this law mentions.

“The present NAB Chairman has been thoroughly discredited in the eyes of the people. He has been blackmailed by the government to victimise the political opposition. He must not get any extension in service. A transparent selection process as envisaged by law should be initiated between government and opposition to nominate a new neutral chairman,” says Najam Sethi, a senior political commentator and TV anchor.

When asked what the possible reasons are for the government not initiating any consultation process with the opposition yet Sethi says, “If the government tries to railroad legislation to bypass the opposition and handpick a new chairman, I am sure it will be challenged in court and overthrown”.

Irshad Bhatti, a regular participant on a political talkshow, however, says that, “both the government and the opposition have leaders accused by NAB in their ranks. They can’t appoint any neutral man in this position”.

“In my view, the government should not consult with the opposition for this appointment; likewise, the government should not appoint the new chairman of its choice. There should be a formula: the Supreme Court or anybody else should appoint a neutral head as the Chairman,” he adds.

The insiders also claim that there are three more names in circulation for the slot of the NAB chief besides Hussain Asghar. Justice (retired) Sheikh Azmat Saeed, Lieutenant General Humayun Aziz (who retired from the military last December and is close to the establishment) and Dr Shoaib Suddle (a former Chief of Intelligence Bureau (IB) and IG of Police with good international repute) are also there.

An official privy to the developments also claimed that Azam Khan, the principal secretary to the Prime Minister, has also been arranging some private meetings with selected retired bureaucrats and police officers individually with the PM for the slot.

As the time for the appointment of the new NAB chairperson approaches, the anxiety around lack of initiation of the consultation with the opposition leader is palpable. A lot depends on the decision that the PM takes. It is a high-pressure situation and until the strategy is finalised, speculations are bound to circulate in the capital.

The writer, an   investigative journalist for The News and Geo TV, is the author of The Secrets of Pakistan’s War on Al Qaeda. Twitter: @AzazSyed

The race for NAB chief