Pakistan is being torn asunder by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), empowered to arrest its victims on suspicion. Those who get picked up and rot in NAB prisons without bail have to prove themselves not guilty. The NAB targets politicians and it arrests businessmen suspected of siding with politicians. Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the 21st prime minister of Pakistan from August 2017 to May 2018, is being kept in a cell while the NAB looks for something to pin on him.
The businessmen saw the end coming under the NAB, which had no clue about how the economy runs these days. Recently, Pakistan’s harassed businessmen had a good meeting with the army chief. The NAB thereafter publicly excused itself from subjecting them to its brand of accountability which meant billionaires rotting in its smelly jails.
Then the bureaucracy wanted to protest too because the NAB was nabbing the top civil servants in charge of taking big decisions, and keeping them in the doghouse till they pleaded guilty. At the National Institute of Public Policy, Lahore, two civil servants, Shahid Rahim Sheikh and Saifullah Khalid, have come out with a study — “Bureaucratic Decision-making amid Multiple Accountability” — explaining why the civil servants had stopped helping the elected government in the implementation of public projects.
The study begins thus: “Turbulent political developments also destabilised the Principal-Agent relationship between politicians and civil servants. This relationship had taken shape over a decade of democratic dispensation (2008-18). In the whirlwind of political upheaval, the civil servants, it appears, also became increasingly insecure, defensive and indecisive. A very strong feeling [of] receiving an unfair deal took root among civil servants. They feel that while political bosses pressurise them into taking difficult and controversial decisions — often informed by political-economy considerations — when it comes to accountability… regarding the propriety of those decisions, the political bosses disown them.”
The study took account of the number of anti-corruption hounds the civil servants have to defend against while helping politicians with “big decisions”. Bureaucrats are answerable to parliamentary scrutiny, and the propriety of their actions and expenditures is subject to statutory audit by the Auditor General’s Office. They also have to defend themselves before the Public Accounts Committees of the national and provincial assemblies. With so much punitive scrutiny in operation, is Pakistan doing well economically? The verdict is in: Pakistan is ranked 136 out of 190 countries on the Ease of Doing Business index.
That is not the end of the matter. The bureaucrats have to face grilling by additional accountability organisations like “the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), and the Provincial Anti-Corruption Establishments (PACEs)”. These outfits are used by the politicians in power to punish their opponents and it hardly matters if they are competent and honest or not. “The ineptitude and incompetence of the staff and agents of the accountability organisations compound the gravity of the difficulty suffered by civil servants.”
The authors posit that the bureaucratic indecision in Pakistan is due to the impact of the following factors: Multiple accountability bodies; internal conduct and disciplinary procedures and media trial; public interest litigation by superior judiciary; pressures of political economy and the diminishing social respect for the bureaucracy in society.
It all began with a draconian measure. Political accountability (Ehtesab Commission) was thought up by the caretaker government set up by President Farooq Leghari in November 1996 after he dismissed Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto from office. Revenge was uppermost in the mind of the now deceased Leghari. The draconian NAB was continued for purposes of political revenge by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Now Sharif is serving a long sentence for corruption and suffering from seemingly grave ill-health.
General Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999 and immediately beefed up the NAB to punish his political opponents in the two major parties, PPP and PMLN. Now the NAB is taking orders from two quarters to further doom its identity as an instrument of justice. One, of course, is the government of Imran Khan. The other remains unnamed.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 23, 2019 under the title ‘A broken watchdog’. The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan.
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