Accountability woes

Published March 9, 2016
The writer is a Lahore-based lawyer.
The writer is a Lahore-based lawyer.

LAST month, the director general of KP’s Ehtesab Commission resigned in protest at certain amendments brought about through an ordinance by the provincial government. On Feb 28, Imran Khan announced that the amendments would be withdrawn and a comprehensive amendment bill presented in the provincial assembly aimed at ‘ensuring’ and ‘strengthening effective and independent accountability’.

Interestingly, it is still not clear what aspects of the law needed strengthening to increase the effectiveness or independence of accountability. Certainly, if one is to examine the amendments that were made under the ordinance, they do not seem to have been made in that spirit.

Some of the (many) changes included prohibiting the initiation of any inquiry on an anonymous complaint, the introduction of fines on the complainant if a complaint is found frivolous, requiring that the chief secretary of the province is intimated prior to the arrest of any civil servant, and that prior to arresting any legislator intimation to the chair/speaker of the relevant body must be given.


Accountability is easy when directed towards others.


In addition the powers of the director general were reduced and those of the five-member Ehtesab Commission were increased (by transferring the power to approve arrest, and charges against an accused from the director general to the commission).

The prohibition on anonymous complaints and the introduction of fines is obviously meant to discourage anonymous complaints. The transfer of the power to approve arrest and frame charges from the director general to a five-member body is obviously meant to reduce instances of arrest. Further, it is hard to see what useful good faith purposes prior intimation of the arrest of bureaucrats or legislators is meant to achieve.

For many years, Imran Khan has decried the fact that there is one law for the common people in Pakistan and another set of rules applies to the elite. Yet, in these amendments, by making prior intimation necessary before the arrest of bureaucrats and legislators, the PTI-led government seems to have done exactly the same thing.

Further, we have not seen the PTI leader claim that the province’s accountability law is being abused — in fact he has repeatedly championed it. Then one fails to see what good faith motive there can be for amendments that would only have made sense if the law was being abused and required additional checks and balances.

In fact, the PTI is not the only party struggling with accountability bodies. The MQM has been complaining for months that the Rangers-led Karachi operation is targeting the MQM unfairly.

Recently, there was also a very public rift between the PPP-led Sindh government and the centre on the powers to be exercised by the Rangers when the Sindh Assembly passed a resolution restricting the scope of offences that the Rangers could investigate, making prior written approval of the chief secretary necessary before raiding any government office, and making prior written approval of the chief minister necessary before certain individuals were taken into preventive detention.

Then last month the prime minister stated that unless the chairman NAB (appointed, by the way, after consultation between the prime minister and opposition leader) addressed the concerns he had expressed, the government would consider taking legal action.

The argument on the other side is generally that the accountability process is interfering with the work of the government, harassing officials, and causing paralysis in decision-making due to a climate of fear.

However, this argument is belied by convenience of its own making. The PTI does not say this of NAB — whom it wants to be more aggressive — but dilutes its own Eht­­esab Com­mis­sion. The PML-N does not say this of Rangers — whom it wants to continue the way it has been going — but threatens NAB. And the PPP wants NAB to be similarly active in Punjab.

Here is the crux of the problem: accountability is easy when it is directed towards others but a lot less comfortable when directed inward. Precisely because there is incentive for incumbent governments to interfere in accountability directed against them, such bodies are required to have a measure of autonomy to avoid the prospect of undue influence.

Politicians are in the uncomfortable (or enviable?) position of having to draft the laws governing their own accountability. Therefore, the incentive to curb the power of such bodies, leave loopholes in the law, afford preferential treatment to some classes, restrict the possibility of anonymous complaints, and take other such steps is easy to see.

Yet, democracy is not just about five-yearly accountability through the ballot, it is also about creating and sustaining institutions that hold governments accountable during their terms of office. Therefore, as democrats, and for the sake of the democratic project, one hopes that political parties will resist the temptation to immunise themselves.

The writer is a Lahore-based lawyer.

skhosa.rma@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, March 9th, 2016

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