Restraining NAB

Published August 22, 2019

UNTIL now, the government had been in total denial that it had any control over NAB’s ‘anti-graft’ drive, which has created a culture of fear that many see as affecting the economy.

But at long last, it appears that the government is going to admit that it has some influence over the movement of the accountability bulldozer.

The federal cabinet has acknowledged the reality — though not in so many words — that the bureau’s campaign is crippling the economy, hampering investment and causing administrative inertia.

It is explained that following a recent discussion on allegations by businessmen about harassment by NAB, the cabinet has decided to ‘make some procedural changes’ in the bureau’s working to stop it from scaring and threatening investors.

The government has conceded that the business community is anxious because of the investigations launched by the bureau (into past contracts and deals between the government and private investors — local and foreign both).

Clearly, there is no spending or investment in the country to speak of, for which the prevalent ‘climate of fear and harassment’, has been repeatedly blamed.

As the economy gasps for fresh air, the anti-corruption agency hogs the headlines with its feats — mostly the sheer humiliation it heaps on opposition politicians or those businessmen and bureaucrats linked with them.

It seems anyone even remotely connected with these decided villains risks a probe by NAB.

There are also allegations that intense pressure was exerted on certain businessmen and bureaucrats to turn approver in corruption cases against opposition leaders.

The frequency of these allegations has led to calls for restraint, despite the large support for the anti-corruption drive in the country.

The bureau’s work in recent times has smacked of a selective campaign and political vendetta, jeopardising the fairness of the entire accountability process.

Steps such as the constitution of a debt commission comprising officials of the military intelligence agencies and NAB to investigate the projects and agreements that are believed to have led to the rapid accumulation of public debt since 2008 are being viewed suspiciously as a tool to be used against the government’s opponents.

The government is yet to make public the details of the actions it plans to implement in order to restrain NAB officials from harassing the business community and civil servants.

But it is clear that simple ‘procedural changes’ in the working of the bureau are not going to help restore business confidence or break the administrative inertia essential for economic recovery.

The NAB law requires a wholesale review by parliament to restrain it from opening an investigation without proper inquiry and sufficient grounds, and arresting suspects without hard evidence against them, as well as to bar it from encroaching on the territory of other state agencies with a similar mandate.

For this to happen, the Imran Khan administration must tone down its anti-corruption rhetoric and agree to sit down with the opposition.

Published in Dawn, August 22nd, 2019

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