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Impartial accountability?

LIKE free and fair elections, a fair system of accountability has also remained elusive in Pakistan. Numerous efforts have been made in the past to institute a credible mechanism of accountability but almost all such efforts failed to win the trust of the people and establish a system which could continue at a steady pace without being interrupted by political exigencies.

From the Public and Representative Office (Disqualification) Act (PRODA) of 1949 to the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO), 1999, at the federal level and KP’s Ehtesab Commission Act of 2014 at the provincial level, around a dozen laws have been promulgated and some half a dozen institutions created in the name of accountability in the past 70 years — and then wrapped up. The mere fact that so many accountability laws had to be repealed in the past indicates the poor level of trust in or satisfaction with the system of accountability which these laws sought to create.

The latest, and probably the most enduring, accountability mechanism to date is the one created in the form of the NAO and the resulting institution, the National Accountability Bureau. Although NAB was created by Gen Musharraf’s military government and was extensively abused later by the same government to achieve his political ambitions, the initial intention behind its creation, unlike the institutions that preceded it, was not bad. This is probably the reason why NAO and NAB are still around even after 20 years.

The relatively small number of politicians in the NAB accountability cycle is perhaps no consolation.

Since 2002 when NAB was used as the key instrument to twist some PPP MNAs’ arm to create a faction called PPP-Patriots for supporting the pro-Musharraf PML-Q, NAB was not criticised so vehemently as it is today. ‘Political victimisation’ seems to be the rallying cry as the top leadership of the two principal political parties, the PML-N and PPP, are being rounded up or vigorously investigated by NAB. Although politicians are not the largest group being investigated by NAB, they certainly are the most visible and their protests are the loudest.

The latest NAB quarterly update of July-September 2018 indicates that of the total 241 ongoing enquiries, only 45 or a mere 19 per cent pertain to the category of ‘others’ which, among the various categories, includes politicians. Civil servants form the largest segment with 73pc ongoing inquiries while businessmen have only 8pc inquiries against them. The same is the pattern for ongoing investigations and prosecution in the accountability courts.

The relatively small number of politicians in the NAB accountability cycle is perhaps no consolation as the major complaint pertains to the alleged partisanship of the accountability drive. Although NAB does not release the statistics for politicians in various stages of accountability and their party affiliation, desk research based on the press releases of NAB and media reports since July 2018 certainly indicates a pattern of greater focus on the PML-N and PPP.

Of the 79 ongoing inquiries, investigations or prosecution of cases of politicians, the largest number, 29 or 37pc, pertains to PPP affiliates followed by 21 or 27pc linked to the PML-N. The PTI has a share of 10 or 13pc in various stages. Among the government servants and businessmen are a number of persons who are facing NAB accountability or arrests because they are alleged to be involved in cases primarily relating to one opposition politician or the other. The low number of ‘others’, therefore, may not depict the real scale of politicians’ involvement in NAB cases.

Arrests by NAB raise questions of the even-handedness of the institution. Desk research shows a total of eight high-profile cases of politicians who continue to be in NAB custody in the July-September 2018 period and all but one case pertains to the opposition parties, with four from the PML-N and three from the PPP. The actual numbers may be slightly different as NAB does not make such statistics public, but these numbers do indicate a pattern.

One may justifiably argue that since the PPP and PML-N are among the three largest political parties and had been ruling the country or a province for a much longer period than the other parties, it is not strange that the number of politicians (from these parties) facing NAB cases is greater. But there also seems to be a direct relationship between an opposition politician’s activism and the initiation of the accountability process against him or her. The most recent and obvious case seems to be that of PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb who had been not only a very vocal spokesperson but also an effective activist on behalf of her party in the period immediately preceding her inclusion in a NAB inquiry.

The arrest of Shahbaz Sharif and keeping him in custody for a longer period despite signs of recurrence of his blood cancer, parading senior professors and former vice chancellors in handcuffs, publicising pictures of senior government officers behind bars and initiating action over such obviously absurd media stories as Nawaz Sharif sending huge amounts of money to India are some of the steps which have tarnished the image of NAB.

NAB is an important national institution and its recent activism especially on old mega corruption cases and against sitting senior public officials is welcome but an exercise in serious stock-taking and self-assessment by NAB is in order. A greater responsibility, however, lies with parliament to reform the NAO. The Supreme Court has repeatedly drawn the attention of the government to reform the law by reviewing such objectionable provisions as lack of bail provision, long period of remand, voluntary return of proceeds of corruption, plea bargain etc.

The experience of several countries, especially developed societies, indicates that accountability is most effective when administered through a steady process like a perennial stream. Spurts of accountability campaigns like hill torrents may serve some timely political purpose but they do not address the curse of corruption.

The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Twitter: @ABMPildat

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, "Impartial accountability?," Dawn. 2018-12-22.
Keywords: Fair elections , Political exigencies , Accountability mechanism , Political ambitions , NAB accountability cycle , political victimisation , Politician activism , Supreme court , PRODA