AMID the current political turmoil, accountability and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) figure most prominently. On the one side is a passionate section of the population eager to punish and even ‘hang’ anyone who, in their opinion, has plundered national wealth. NAB is the prime instrument through which they wish to realise their wishes, as the institution has been at the centre stage of this accountability drive during the past few years. On the other hand is a sizeable and growing lobby which believes the accountability process is not just and even-handed and is turning into a tool of political victimisation.
A number of politicians, businessmen and civil servants have been complaining and protesting about how the process of accountability is being conducted, but the most authoritative statement on the issue was given by Chief Justice of Pakistan Asif Saeed Khosa while speaking recently at the start of the new judicial year. Mincing no words, he said: “We … feel that the growing perception that the process of accountability being pursued in the country at present is lopsided and is a part of political engineering, is a dangerous perception and some remedial steps need to be taken urgently so that the process does not lose credibility … The recovery of stolen wealth of the citizenry is a noble cause and it must be legitimately and legally pursued where it is due, but if in the process the constitutional and legal morality of society and the recognised standards of fairness and impartiality are compromised then retrieval of the lost constitutional and legal morality may pose an even bigger challenge to the society at large in the days to come.”
It was very surprising that despite the fact that these powerful words were spoken by the country’s topmost judicial authority at an important event, the concerned institutions did not take much notice nor was there much of a change in NAB’s conduct.
NAB is the latest of the accountability mechanisms with which Pakistan has experimented during the past 70 years or so. In the initial few years, its performance and political neutrality remained above board; that is, until Gen Pervez Musharraf, at the beginning of whose tenure it was set up, acquired political ambitions of his own. NAB then became the premier institution through which politicians were arm-twisted into switching their loyalties to Musharraf and his favourite political party, the PML-Q. Since then, though NAB has done some commendable work, its reputation as a neutral state institution has never recovered.
Settling political scores has been the real objective of accountability mechanisms in Pakistan.
NAB is not the first such institution which has been blamed for one-sided accountability and political engineering in Pakistan. This country has a long history of enacting laws and creating institutions ostensibly for the sake of accountability but whose primary aim was to target a particular section of society, especially the one which was not on the right side of the government of the time.
Pakistan’s first constituent assembly passed the controversial Public and Representative Office (Disqualification) Act, 1949 (Proda) that provided for the trial of public office holders and disqualification from holding public office for up to 15 years. The law was thoroughly misused against political opponents.
In March 1959, the martial law administration of Gen Ayub Khan promulgated the Public Offices (Disqualification) Order (Poda) along the lines of Proda. It then went a step further and also promulgated the Elective Bodies (Disqualification) Order in August 1959. Ebdo was meant to get rid of all those political elements that could offer resistance or come in the way of Gen Ayub’s political ambitions. The system did not spare anyone against whom even the slightest charge of misconduct could be investigated. Ebdo also provided for the possibility of voluntary retirement, in which case the inquiry against the public official was to be dropped. Over 6,000 persons were hit by Ebdo, the majority of whom either opted to retire or were disqualified.
In the post-Musharraf era, both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto used their own peculiar accountability devices to destroy their political opponents. Even the presidents of the country acted in a partisan manner when they established special accountability cells within the presidency to institute cases against the prime ministers sacked by them.
The Ehtesab Bureau established from 1997-1999 by then prime minister Nawaz Sharif under senator Saifur Rehman earned special notoriety for torturing and aggressively convicting political opponents, especially Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Zardari. This history sadly tells us that impartial accountability was perhaps never the objective; the idea was to settle political scores in the guise of accountability.
The NAB law was improved after it was amended to provide for the bipartisan appointment of the NAB chairman by the prime minister after meaningful consultation with the leader of the opposition. But 20 years down the line, after experimenting with various brands of accountability, NAO 1999, or the NAB law as it is more commonly known, needs to be reformed because the process of accountability must inspire across-the-board respect and credibility. If the NAB law has not been reformed so far, NAB is not to blame: it is the responsibility of the major political parties represented in parliament to amend the law and bring in needed reforms. The PML-N and the PPP had agreed on these reforms in their Charter of Democracy but during their terms of government between 2008-2013 and 2013-2018, they failed to amend the law.
Even now, a broad agreement seems to exist among the major parties, including the PTI, about the need to improve the NAB law but political confrontation does not allow them to pass the required amendments. Just a few days ago, among a number of ordinances bulldozed through the National Assembly by PTI legislators was one stipulating that those convicted under the NAB law of having committed corruption of over Rs50 million will be incarcerated as class-C prisoners.
As long as political expediency and the temptation to harm political opponents remains the priority, the accountability process will continue to be perceived as a tool of political engineering, to borrow the term used by the chief justice of Pakistan.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, November 10th, 2019