THE completion of the four-year term of NAB chairman Javed Iqbal early next month has afforded Prime Minister Imran Khan an opportunity to restore the public’s confidence in the accountability process by following the law for appointing his successor. But will he? Recent signals sent by some of his ministers suggest otherwise. Their statements indicate that the PTI government intends to retain Mr Iqbal for another term via extension or reappointment. The problem is that the law doesn’t provide for either of these actions. In order to get around the limitations under the existing law, the government is thinking of changing NAO 1999 either through a presidential ordinance or by bulldozing an amendment bill in a joint parliamentary session. However, the two options risk an immediate and strong legal challenge to the government since they would be a gross violation of previous Supreme Court rulings against laws intended to profit a specific person.

Both the information and law ministers have made it clear that the government would not engage in ‘meaningful consultations’ with opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif to fulfil constitutional requirements. The government’s argument that the opposition leader is facing NAB cases and consultations with him on the next NAB chief would be a case of ‘conflict of interest’ also doesn’t have a leg to stand on. The law doesn’t forbid the prime minister from consulting the opposition leader facing trial. The condition for bipartisan consensus was added to the law and endorsed by the apex court with a view to protecting the office of the NAB chairman from any political controversy. Circumventing this condition will make any new appointment controversial and raise more questions about the neutrality of the anti-corruption watchdog. Such actions would not only bring the government face to face with the opposition parties but also with lawyers.

The government’s apparent attempt to retain the current incumbent is understandable. After all, his successor chosen through bipartisan consensus may not risk his reputation by indulging in a witch-hunt against the opposition as is being done currently. Since its creation, NAB has been in the middle of one controversy or the other. But it has lost whatever credibility or semblance of neutrality it had more rapidly in the last four years under the outgoing chairman than ever before. The way the agency has gone after the opposition ignoring the unscrupulous elements in the ruling party has tarnished the organisation’s image and eroded public trust in its actions. Indeed, the bipartisan selection of the new chief of the accountability agency won’t be sufficient to redeem it. Still, it can be a first step in that direction. Any attempt to keep the opposition out of the process, and retain the incumbent for yet another term will only make NAB more controversial and raise more questions about the government’s claims of across-the-board accountability.

Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2021

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