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A sorry saga

Updated December 29, 2018


AFTER a violent and politically turbulent year, my abiding image of 2018 is the handcuffed corpse of Mian Javed Ahmed, the former CEO of the Lahore campus of Sargodha University.

It seems the deceased had established an educational institution without having obtai­ned a charter, and was thus unable to issue degrees to graduates. The alumni lau­n­­­ched a protest that came to the attention of our tir­e­less chief justice, who ordered the National Accountability Bureau to investigate.

Take a look: Is NAB putting an end to corruption?

Mr Ahmed was duly arrested and placed in custody in October, only to succumb to heart failure last week. These are the bare bones of the case, but who knows what kind of pressure he was put under. NAB officials are not known for their sensitivity and kindness in dealing with those unfortunate enough to fall into their clutches.

We might well have created a monster that is now running amok.

Recently, NAB’s chairman, Javed Iqbal, claimed his organisation had no political agenda, and that it conducted no ‘revengeful activities’. Well, he could have fooled me. Ever since the accountability saga began under Gen Ayub Khan 60 years ago, the aim of the exercise has typically been to crush political opponents of the government. As far as I can see, nothing has changed since then.

NAB’s head honcho lost his credibility shortly before the July elections when he ordered an investigation into a claim that Nawaz Sharif had laundered $4.9 billion via India. This accusation was based on a column in an Islamabad-based newspaper that caught Iqbal’s attention, in which this figure was cited.

The figure itself is, in fact, entirely hypothetical. It was taken from a World Bank study that estimated how much money migrants sent home per capita. By multiplying this notional figure with the number of mohajirs who crossed to Pakistan from India at Partition, it arrived at the figure of $4.9 billion. As this ‘money’ had not entered the exchequer, the writer concluded that Nawaz Sharif must have been responsible for its disappearance.

Also read: The 4.9 billion-dollar blunder

Now, I can understand the sensationalism of this claim may have led to oversights in failing to check the World Bank’s methodology before the column was published. But it is harder to fathom how the NAB chairman — a retired Supreme Court judge, no less — could fall for such an absurd accusation.

It gets better. After having caused a furore, with politicians like Imran Khan joining the chorus demanding a political lynching, the story was thoroughly debunked. But Iqbal refused to apologise to the ex-prime minister, who sent a legal notice demanding Rs1 billion as compensation for being defamed. But nobody has ever sued successfully for libel in Pakistan, so anyone can get away with character assassination without worrying about consequences.

My concern here is not so much about the dead Sargodha University CEO, or the words and actions of NAB’s chairman. I am alarmed, however, by the politicisation of the whole accountability process. In fact, Nawaz Sharif should be familiar with the way his Ehtesab Commission went after Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari in a nasty, highly targeted campaign.

Other countries have similar anti-corruption bodies — but, normally, suspects are not dragged off to jail in handcuffs for up to 90 days without having been proved guilty. By granting NAB such draconian powers, we might well have created a monster that is now running amok.

Clearly, we want to eradicate graft from society, but to do so, the system and the process must be seen to be neutral and free of political bias. With a budget of Rs2.6bn, NAB can (and does) run a large number of investigations. How­ever, the fact that a few members of the ruling party have been subjected to scrutiny, despite widely publicised allegations, shows that NAB officials know that, while it is open season on politicians no longer in power, targeting members of a sitting government risks having their budget slashed.

One reason it took so long for Shahbaz Sharif to be confirmed as chairman of the powerful Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly is that Imran Khan feared the leader of the opposition would shield his party from the findings of the auditor general. No doubt the PTI also wanted to avoid being the subject of audit objections in the future. So while all politicians say they would like to end corruption, they do not wish their own parties to be subjected to the process.

In all this, with politicians and bureaucrats in NAB’s firing line, nobody speaks of looking very closely at the military and the judiciary. And yet losses to the exchequer need not only occur through commissions and bribes. By taking the country to war — as Gen Musharraf did in Kargil — we lost many lives and billions of rupees. And by torpedoing the privatisation of the Steel Mills, ex-chief justice Ifti­khar Chaudhry caused a continuing loss of scores of billions. Neither of these champions of accountability have had to account for the huge losses they have caused us, and nor have they been asked to justify their actions.

Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2018