ISLAMABAD: The government has selected three trade officers for posting on top three lucrative stations in foreign missions, in disregard of a merit-based selection policy and under intense pressure from parliamentarians.

In February this year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif approved a selection policy for trade officers’ postings in foreign missions, introducing some measures to ensure merit. However, the policy went through three major amendments within a week to accommodate the nearest and dearest without going through rigorous selection procedure.

Official documents available with Dawn show that postings on three stations — Geneva, Brussels and Washington — will be made only after an interview. This change in policy provides legal cover to the discretionary power of posting to these stations any bureaucrat who has political affiliation with the sitting government.

Acting on the direction, a special selection board, headed by Commerce Minister Khurram Dastagir Khan, was formed to interview a panel of bureaucrats. Several bureaucrats of grade-20 applied for the posts in response to internal circulation by the establishment division.

The selection board was asked to forward a panel of three pre-selected candidates for the three available slots along with two covering candidates for each slot. Accordingly, a panel of nine officers was sent to the prime minister for approval.

The principal candidates proposed in the summary of the commerce ministry included the incumbent secretary of Lahore’s excise and taxation department (as Minister Trade Embassy of Pakistan to Washington); Punjab’s Board of Investment and Trade CEO Ilyas Ghauri (as Economic Minister Brussels); and Omer Hameed as deputy permanent representative/minister WTO Geneva.

The posting of three officers in foreign missions has, since the beginning, been tainted with controversies.

According to the approved summary by the prime minister secretariat, two major changes were made in total disregard of the recommendations of the selection committee. The secretariat has dropped Mr Ghauri, replacing him with a covering candidate Tariq Viqar Bakhshi who is the son-in-law of the chief election commissioner of Pakistan and has never worked in any economic ministry.

The second major change made in the summary was that Mr Bakhshi was posted to a very technical position as deputy permanent representative/minister WTO Geneva. This position was earlier proposed for another Mr Hameed, a strong candidate who has at least a legal background and also worked in the commerce ministry.

Mr Hameed is the son of Senator Ms Najma Hameed, who has strong political association with the PML-N government. As a result, he was posted as economic minister to Brussels.

According to a source, postings at Washington and Brussels might be delayed for the two officers as the incumbent officers might get stay orders from courts against their early recall.

The Islamabad High Court has already granted a stay order to 12 officers against their early recall. Therefore, the stay order for the remaining 25 officers will not be a difficult task, the source said.

A trade officer posted abroad said the PML-N was very vocal in expressing its disapproval of political interference in the selection process by the previous government, but it has now become helpless in continuing the same under pressure from the highest political offices.

The previous government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) appointed 42 trade officers. Mr Dastagir, who was standing committee’s chairman at the time, termed them “political appointees”.

Now, on the direction of his government, he reappointed in June 2014 seven trade officers, who had been recalled after eight foreign missions were closed down to save Rs500 million annually. The seven were among the 42 officers selected by the PPP-led government.

The beneficiaries included Irfan Tarrar posted in Delhi (the husband of health state minister Saira Afzal Tarar,), Wasif Khursheed (the staff officer of Nasir Khosa, the former Chief Secretary Punjab) in Warsaw, Naseem Rashid in Brussels, Rizwan Tariq in Frankfurt, Nadeem Memon in Sao Paulo, and Arbab Kaiser Hamid in Doha. Their tenure was extended until June 2016 in violation of the expressed policy.

The extension was made despite the fact that it was clearly written in their posting letters that their tenure of two years will be counted from the date of joining in their previous stations. Now the tenure was reset by the ministry in total disregard of its earlier policy.

In another development, the commercial councillor in Berlin, Erfa Iqbal, was relocated to Beijing under political pressure from a high political office in Punjab. Moreover, Dr Younus Junaid, who has sources in the Sharif family, has got another unlimited extension to continue his posting in Istanbul.

For the selection of the other posts, a policy has already been approved which dictates that an applicant obtains at least 60 per cent marks in the test to be conducted by an independent organisation, preferably LUMS (Lahore University of Management Sciences). The weightage of the written test was increased to 80pc in the selection criteria from earlier 20pc.

In 2005, the Musharraf government mandated 60pc to clear the test for selection as trade officer. It did improve the quality of appointees. But in 2013, the qualifying threshold for the written test was lowered to 40pc. Under the new policy, the government has also revived the merit in choice of station for posting. However, all the postings made by the PML-N government so far have been made in complete violation of its own policy.

Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2015

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