Off with NAB

Published May 9, 2022

Ahad Cheema, a civil servant who did three years on unproven charges of “assets beyond means” before he was released on bail in April last year, was spot on when he told a TV show host that the damage caused (to the country’s political economy and business environment) in the recent years by the dreaded anti-corruption watchdog, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), would be irreversible. He rightly pointed out that the impact of a similar anticorruption witchhunt by NAB under its creator Gen Pervez Musharraf in the early 2000s (on the national economy and bureaucracy) took a very long time — almost a decade and a half — to dissipate.

The anti-corruption campaign of the previous government against its opponents as well as businesspeople and bureaucrats seen to be linked with them has made the economy suffer massively. NAB inquiries and cases against senior civil servants paralysed officialdom, with the officials avoiding signing off projects or making decisions that could result in NAB cases against them later. Likewise, the businessmen were also caught in the dragnet as the NAB instituted frivolous cases against them even when a transaction had nothing to do with the government.

Remember the NAB inquiry against one of the top business groups for purchasing a hotel in London? The case was advertised extensively by NAB through media to vilify the group due to political reasons.

The former prime minister and PML-N leader Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has on numerous occasions reminded people that Pakistan and NAB can not survive together. Recently, he repeated his demand that the coalition government led by his party president Shehbaz Sharif dissolve the agency that has perhaps caused the most damage to the country’s economy in two decades of its existence. “The NAB employees (have) looted and tortured people for years. It’s time they should be held accountable,” he said in Islamabad a couple of weeks ago.

In its over 20 years of existence, the dreaded anti-corruption watchdog has earned nothing more than a widespread mistrust of people from all segments of society, especially businesspeople

In its over 20 years of existence, NAB has earned nothing more than a widespread mistrust of people from all segments of society, especially businesspeople. The anti-graft agency has always been surrounded by one controversy after another since its early years. The uncalled inquiries and cases against prominent businessmen as well as bureaucrats on mere unfounded charges in the last five years under its present chairman have robbed the agency of whatever credibility it was left with.

The previous government took the ‘accountability drive’ against its political opponents, and businesses and bureaucrats that appeared to be somehow linked with them, to the next level. The way the accountability agency was used by the previous PTI administration for the political persecution of its opponents, as well as bureaucrats and businessmen, illustrates the willingness of the NAB bureaucracy to go to any length to do the dirty work of the sitting government.

“if you have seen Ahad Cheema’s interview you would know how irreparably NAB has damaged the economy and business environment in the country,” a leading businessman told this correspondent on the condition of anonymity. “The way NAB law has been used to force businesses into submission through vilification and character assassination on unproven and flimsy charges has led most businesspersons to the conclusion that NAB should be disbanded to prevent losses to the economy, and business confidence and environment in the future.”

The previous Imran Khan government tried to fix its accountability faux pas to move the wheels of the economy by ‘reducing’ the scope of the NAB law to proceed against bureaucrats and businesspeople. For example, in order to allay the fears of the business community, the government decided to exclude all matters related to taxes from the jurisdiction of NAB and transfer them to the Federal Board of Revenue.

More importantly, private transactions were taken out from the ambit of the NAB law but with a few exceptions, divesting the agency of investigating any person or transaction unless the person or transaction is connected with a public office holder. Yet most business leaders still believe that the law can still be misused or abused as in the past against them.

“Let me remind you of one interesting corruption inquiry launched by the agency under its present chief. When a Polish travel blogger did a Kiki challenge on a Pakistan International Airlines aircraft to promote Pakistan’s soft image, the present NAB chairman was quick to order a corruption inquiry against the blogger and PIA staffers. How the hell he could do that? Where was corruption or bribery in that? If that can be done, they can do anything they please if the NAB law remains,” said a former president of the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) said who refused to give his name.

In the same way, the law was amended to ensure that no inquiry would be instituted and a case made out against a civil bureaucrat on charges of “misuse of authority” unless there is supporting evidence proving possession of “assets beyond means”. Also, it forbade NAB to make cases against the officials on mere procedural lapses and for their “acts done in good faith” in the absence of corroborative evidence — again accumulation of assets beyond means.

Thus, the law still gives NAB enough room to launch inquiries and cases despite these minor changes as expressed by the former LCCI president. Moreover, NAB continues to retain its powers to detain suspects in its custody for 90 days for investigation purposes without bail. Little wonder then that the Supreme Court of Pakistan too was forced to censure the accountability agency for arresting people in haste and only starting to collect evidence later.

Legal experts say the accountability law, in breach of the constitution, allows NAB authorities to make a case against a person for committing an act that was not an offence when they committed it, and punish someone for an offence greater than that prescribed when they did it. The law allows the agency to make cases with retrospective effect from 1985. How can an agency created in 1999 investigate an act done 14-15 years before its formation?

With most stakeholders unanimous in their opinion on the adverse impacts of the NAB on the economy and public sector performance, it is time to wind it up. Instead, the other existing agencies like FIA and provincial anti-graft agencies should be strengthened to fight corruption in society. Expecting to rein in the agency by curtailing its powers is no solution to the “offences” committed by NAB in the last two decades. It has to go in the larger interest of the economy and investment.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 9th, 2022

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