NAB’s flawed pursuit

Updated May 10, 2018

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ACCOUNTABILTY reduced to a farce damages institutions and undermines the public trust in a much-needed process.

Unhappily, the chairman of NAB, Javed Iqbal, a retired justice of the Supreme Court no less, does not appear to understand the damage that careless or perhaps deliberately mischievous investigations by his organisation can cause to an already suspect accountability process.

A startling press release by NAB on Tuesday set off a furore in the country. NAB had apparently discovered a two-year old World Bank report via a months-old newspaper column in which it was alleged that several billion dollars of remittances were sent from Pakistan to India and that these were part of a massive money-laundering scheme by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The World Bank report was discredited immediately after its publication.

The Bank itself has admitted that the methodology used to calculate remittances globally were mere estimates and not a measure of actual money flows. Indeed, it is implausible for the Bank to measure money flows to India that the financial system of Pakistan itself does not detect. The sums alleged are also wildly disproportionate to the size of the Pakistani economy and the official remittances that are reported.

Even an amateur ought to have suspected something was amiss in the allegations.

What is deeply troubling, however, is that NAB is now acknowledging that it is mobilising its investigatory resources on the basis of flimsy reports in the media. Will monitoring social media and launching corruption probes on the basis of the freewheeling allegations in that medium be the next step? After a fierce reaction by the government, including Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s speech in parliament, NAB has backtracked a bit.

But it is telling that its initial reaction to the outcry was one of defiance, going so far as to ask why the World Bank had corrected its 2016 report if it was wrong. It is possible that NAB was misled or swept up in the anti-corruption fervour that has been whipped up, committing an honest mistake that quickly escalated into a public relations disaster for the institution. But NAB’s recent focus has been overwhelmingly on the political class and within that class on the PML-N.

Mistakes, when they occur, ought to point in many directions; otherwise, suspicions of a witch-hunt or partisan probes gain credibility. NAB must put its house in order.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2018