Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Fighting corruption

January 11, 2016


The writer is a lawyer and academic.
The writer is a lawyer and academic.

MOST developing countries are perennially cursed with the bane of corruption. Pakistan is no exception except that here, instead of a ‘corrupt’ government being removed electorally or politically, the democratic order itself is dispensed with by the powerful military.

But military governments haven’t fared any better in bringing transparency or efficiency to public institutions. Yet the exponents of ‘lean and clean’ governance are proposing a military solution to combating corruption along with terrorism. This would be folly because corruption is incidental to institutional inadequacies and leadership failures. It cannot be eliminated by coercive apparatuses. If that was possible, corruption wouldn’t have survived many a military government. The dynamics of corruption and deterioration of public administration can be better understood if the inadequacies and failures of the civilian and military rulers are juxtaposed.

The bane of our civilian dispensation has been largely a cultist politics that is driven by person-specific populism and pivoted on state largesse. The resulting culture of patronage has spawned the clientele in political constituencies, business and landed interests and public services. No wonder, every government has added a new legion of rent-seekers, in addition to protecting the existing ones.

A military solution to combating corruption would be a folly.

Similarly, barring initial grandstanding, military rulers have also fallen back on the politics of expediency and patronage in their quest to obtain legitimacy and political support. Even when ‘legitimacy’ and assistance were procured respectively from a compliant court and a collaborative bureaucracy, the generals co-opted a myriad of business, landed and political interests to sustain their prolonged rule. No wonder they failed to carry out the ‘promised’ accountability of the tainted politicians, businessman or bureaucrats.

Thus, the narrative that relates corruption to the subjective ills of civilian leadership or expects its elimination under the stewardship of generals is fallacious. Corruption is a sociopolitical phenomenon which is rooted in the systemic and subjective failures of public institutions. A brief review is in order.

The roots of corruption could be traced to the early 1960s when the civil-military bureau­­cracy dominated the public sector. It was then the financial scandals involving issuance of shady permits and licences surfaced, and cost hundreds of ‘corrupt’ bureaucrats their jobs.

The early 1970s saw major reforms in the civil services, presumably to humble the mighty bureaucrats who had dominated public service. Instead, the reforms removed the constitutional protection to civil servants and made them vulnerable to the whims of rulers.

Further deterioration was caused to public service during Gen Ziaul Haq’s regime when the bureaucracy was co-opted as a junior partner of the military. Corruption re­­ce­ived a new boost when official discretion merged with public wealth, in the absence of checks.

With the revival of ‘controlled’ democracy in the 1990s, the public services saw a further decline as rival political forces used the bureaucracy as sword and shield in their ‘tribal’ confrontations. Many a loyal bureaucrat also helped collect rents for their political benefactors. And in many cases the politicians and bureaucrats rose and fell together.

Finally, Gen Musharraf’s local governments produced a new model of governance that made public functionaries the virtual ‘surrogates’ of politicians. It is not uncommon to see senior bureaucrats being more loyal to their ministers than to their service code or the public. The situation is rather grim in Sindh where the pernicious bureaucratic-political axis is visible as much in the poor state of governance as in the opulence of errant bureaucrats.

Other countries, including Victorian England and late 19th-century US have also suffered the ills of corruption. But they overcame the ills by strengthening the regulatory, administrative and political structures.

We may also launch a three-pronged attack on corruption. One, dismantle the unholy alliance between public and political functionaries. A way to achieve this is to minimise the discretion and maximise transparency and accountability in public institutions. Two, revamp the federal and provincial anti-corruption laws and machinery. The existing legislation is discriminatory, and discretionary. For instance, powerful judicial and defence personnel are out of its purview. Inquiries take months to initiate, let alone bring the culprits to book. Even an escape latch is provided in the form of plea bargain.

Moreover, the federal anti-corruption agencies are too hierarchical and sclerotic. Therefore, cases take years to finish; even then the conviction rate is dismally low. Likewise, provincial anti-corruption departments are pliable, dominated as they are by chief secretaries and chief ministers.

Finally, it is imperative to protect the public servants’ fundamental and statutory rights — their job security, posting, transfer and promotion — in order to restore their confidence in, and loyalty to, the state, rather than the rulers. Only then the beast of corruption can be tamed, if not eliminated.

The writer is a lawyer and academic.

Published in Dawn, January 11th, 2016