Probing ‘Panamagate’

Published April 13, 2016
The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE Panama leaks have stirred up a political hornet’s nest. Over the past week we have seen the Sharif government operating at a level of panic rarely witnessed in recent years. It has had a tough time defending the indefensible. Instead of coming clean on the money trail of his family’s huge alleged offshore and foreign assets, the prime minister wants us to believe that all is owed to some divine help and the business acumen of his exceptionally talented sons.

He has graciously offered to set up a commission to examine the Panama Papers that his henchmen have declared an international conspiracy against their dear leader. So what exactly is this commission supposed to do? Can it impartially probe the mega financial scandal that goes beyond the Panama leaks spanning more than two decades?

With no clarity about its mandate, the credibility of the proposed commission remains questionable. Most of the opposition parties have rightly rejected the proposal and it is not surprising that several former judges, including two former chief justices, have declined to head the probe. It would certainly not be a judicial commission as claimed by the prime minister. Going by past experience, one can hardly hope for any impartial inquiry into the scandal.

What the Panama Papers really depict is the corruption of our political system.

While the focus is entirely on the Panama leaks, the real issue that has to be investigated is the money trail that allegedly leads to the prime minister himself. Although Sharif in his address to the nation flatly denied any wrongdoing, earlier investigations by the Pakistani agencies would appear to contradict this claim.

A 200-page FIA investigation report in the mid-’90s, some two decades before the Panama leaks, had given details of the apartments allegedly owned by the Sharifs and foreign bank accounts said to be worth $70m. The report also made some disclosures about the family’s alleged offshore accounts. Those assets have reportedly multiplied manifold.

Sharif’s family was quick to term the report that was widely published in foreign newspapers as “malicious” and threatened to sue the papers. But their defence against the charges appeared feeble. The financial scandal was just the kind of charge-sheet Sharif’s predecessor Benazir Bhutto faced when she was ousted from power in 1996.

Although most of the allegations of tax evasion, money laundering and default on bank loans were not new, it was the first time that Sharif and his family were linked to offshore companies and bank accounts.

It was the London-based Observer that first published the 1998 consolidated report. The newspaper maintained that it had confirmed the veracity of the charges through its own sources before publishing the explosive story. Other British newspapers followed suit. It was the first time the detail of massive wealth that Sharif and his family had amassed abroad came to the surface.

Should one be surprised that the rise of Sharif’s family as one of the biggest business groups in the country coincided with his soaring political fortunes? The family owned only a small steel mill in Lahore before the late military dictator Gen Ziaul Haq appointed Sharif Punjab’s finance minister in 1981.

When Sharif returned to power in February 1997, the FIA investigation was terminated on grounds that it was politically motivated. Some reports say the administration also tried to erase the evidence of the money trail.

Obviously, one could not expect Sharif to emulate the prime minister of Iceland who resigned from office after the disclosure of his wife’s offshore companies, or British Prime Minister David Cameron who laid bare his entire assets and his tax returns following the information about inheritance from his father. The latter is still not out of troubled waters. But he is glossing over facts that are already known. There is not even an indication of an independent and transparent inquiry into the allegations.

Surely Sharif is not the only political leader who has amassed wealth offshore and invested in foreign lands. Many a leader has effectively secured their future outside this country that they have been ruling. With runaway income securely stashed in offshore tax havens they do not play by the same rules and laws that the rest of us have to follow. It does not matter whether it is ill-gotten wealth or money just taken away to evade taxes — they simply rob their own people and society.

What has given them greater impunity is the absence of independent investigative bodies and the rule of law. Ideally, the National Accountability Bureau, the Federal Investigation Agency and the Federal Board of Revenue should have acted immediately after the leaks. But we all know how independent these institutions are. They have mostly been used by the government of the day against political rivals lending little credibility to their actions. It is hard to believe that they could conduct impartial investigations against a sitting prime minister.

Despite the outrage and outcry over the scandal there is little hope of the law coming to force against the prime minister, his family and other powerful and influential figures. With a fractious opposition that does not seem to have much capacity to mobilise the public there is real danger of the pressure petering out. With skeletons in their own cupboard, the PPP is not likely to push for Sharif’s head. It is only public pressure that could force Sharif to come clean on the money trail about his family’s offshore and foreign assets.

The Panama Papers are not just about tax evasion. They’re not even about money. What the Panama Papers really depict is the corruption of our political system that allows the rich and powerful to gut away with plunder.

With his government facing multiple internal and external challenges, ‘Panamagate’ could not have come at a more inopportune moment for Sharif. He may still come out of the crisis, but will do so badly bruised. He has already lost moral authority and it remains to be seen whether he can make it to the end of his term in 2018. It is hard to predict.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2016


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