WITH the passage of drastic amendments to the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999, by the two Houses of parliament last week, the failure of yet another project to hold effective and impartial accountability of public office holders has been formally pronounced.
The National Accountability Bureau was created under the NAO some 23 years ago soon after Gen Musharraf staged his coup against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government. Much like its predecessors, NAB was transformed into a tool of political management soon after its inception.
Although both NAO and the institution created under it — NAB — have lasted much longer than any of the preceding laws and institutions established for the stated objective of across-the-board accountability of public officials, NAB has attracted much more criticism than most of its predecessors.
Using populist slogans of rooting out corruption and holding powerful public officials accountable, almost all civil and military governments have used the laws and institutions of accountability against political opponents to achieve their goal of eliminating or subduing their political rivals.
Pakistan’s first constituent assembly had passed the much-dreaded Public and Representative Office (Disqualification) Act, 1949 and it was used for the trial and disqualification of public office holders — up to 15 years for ‘undesirable’ public office holders.
In 1959, the martial law government of Gen Ayub Khan promulgated the Public Offices (Disqualification) Order and the Elective Bodies (Disqualification) Order. For Ayub Khan, the latter did a ‘great’ job by helping him get rid of all political elements who did not agree to voluntarily retire from public life.
It remains to be seen whether NAB will still be used as a political tool.
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 — mostly fabricated — against the prime ministers sacked by them to block their re-election.
The working, and later failure, of all these accountability mechanisms and institutions over the years proved that it was political victimisation and not across-the-board accountability that was the objective.
NAB has the dubious distinction of having its performance criticised repeatedly by the superior judiciary both in the latter’s observations and judgements. In fact, a compilation of all such pronouncements would make for a damning public indictment of an institution that was created with the noble aim of eradicating corruption from the body politic of the country.
It was not merely the performance of NAB that was questioned by the courts, the very law, the NAO, was also criticised by the honourable judges; parliament was advised to make suitable amendments. Displeasure was also expressed when some prominent public officials were photographed behind bars and their arrest was publicised.
Most of these observations and judgements appeared while NAB was investigating the political rivals of the PTI government. During the PTI’s tenure, the opposition politicians continuously complained of victimisation while the PTI government aggressively pursued its one-point agenda of elimination of corruption which, even by former prime minister Imran Khan’s own admission, could not be successfully implemented.
NAB actions against some senior civil servants and businessmen also sent shock waves through the bureaucracy and businesses. To the PTI’s credit, it tried to amend the NAO to create a sense of security in bureaucratic circles and the business community but the amendments could not be sustained due to the crisis of confidence in the PTI government’s relations with the opposition at that time.
The stage was therefore set for a major overhaul of the NAO and NAB when the PTI government was replaced by a PML-N-led coalition government recently. Although the National Accountability (Second Amendment) Bill, 2022, recently passed by parliament is still awaiting the formal assent of the president, it is only a matter of time before it becomes law.
Editorial: Changed laws
The amendments passed by parliament have addressed almost all those issues which were either criticised by the courts or the victims of the NAO. The deputy chairman has been empowered to become the acting chairman while the office of the chairman is vacant. The appointment process for the chairman has been streamlined by providing for the initiation of the process two months before the expiry of the term of the NAB chief, and it is obligatory for the government to complete the process of appointment within 45 days. A parliamentary committee will handle the appointment of the chairman if the prime minister and the leader of the opposition fail to reach an agreement.
Tax matters have also been excluded from the scope of the NAO and the period of remand has been reduced from 90 to 14 days. The procedure for the appointment of judges of the accountability courts has also been refined. The terms of the NAB chairman and prosecutor general have been cut from four to three years. NAO has been made inapplicable to cabinet ministers and a number of other office holders who have made policy decisions in which no monetary gain is evident. The powers of arrest have also been rationalised.
The PTI has criticised the newly passed amendments to NAO and some of their observations may also carry weight but, sadly, they have themselves deprived their substantial parliamentary strength from coming into play by resigning en masse from the National Assembly.
The amended NAO heralds yet another era in our quest for effective accountability and only time will tell whether the new phase will be any different from the previous ones. The real test will, however, be in the way NAB is used. Will it continue to be used as an instrument of coercion and political victimisation, or will it be allowed to emerge as an independent professional institution to hold the real culprits to account and fight the menace of white-collar crimes?
The writer is the president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Twitter: Tweets at @ABMPildat
Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2022