How to choose the NAB chief

Political parties have to rise above immediate myopic interests and select a candidate with impeccable reputation

Hasaan Khawar October 07, 2017
The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of the Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets @hasaankhawar

How do countries generally appoint heads of their national anti-corruption agencies? While the process can greatly vary, it might be interesting to look at some examples.

Let’s look at three countries with well-structured and impartial appointment processes. In the first example, the president and speakers of two houses of legislature are involved in nominating agency members. The president then selects a head of the agency and the choice has to be ratified by both houses. In the second case, the president appoints the Board of Trustees of the agency, after a confidential vote by Congress, on a shortlist of 30 candidates. In the third example, the president appoints the chairperson and the appointment has to be approved by the assembly. In two of these cases, there are additional requirements as well, such as the candidate never being the subject of corruption allegations or having high moral reputation and integrity.

Now let’s look at two other countries with supposedly partial mechanisms. In both these cases, the power to appoint the head of the anti-corruption agency rests solely with the head of the state. In one of the examples, nomination once made has to be reported to the government. Furthermore, there are no written requirements related to the character of the appointees.

The countries in the first three examples are Myanmar, Yemen and South Sudan, with seemingly impartial and meticulous mechanisms for appointing the heads of their respective anti-corruption agencies. Are these agencies very effective too? Unfortunately, all the three countries are supposedly extremely corrupt with rankings of 136, 170 and 174, respectively, out of 176 countries, in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index 2016. The last two even lost four positions in this ranking within a year.

Interesting the other two countries with apparently sub-optimal, partisan and non-consultative processes are Singapore and Hong Kong, ranked seventh and 15th in the same index. Although such direct appointment mechanisms can potentially impede impartiality, yet the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau of Singapore and the Independent Commission Against Corruption of Hong Kong are perhaps one of the most effective anti-graft agencies in the world.

I’m not arguing that there is a reverse correlation between stringency of appointment processes and incidence of corruption in a country. In fact these examples were intentionally selected to bring home a point: no matter, how good a process might be on paper, it all comes down to credibility of the system. And this credibility in turn depends upon the choice of the person selected and the political and operational autonomy of the agency. If an extremely thorough process cannot lead to the selection of the right candidate, then it’s of no use.

The current controversy surrounding the appointment of a new chairman for the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is in the air with political parties engaged in all sorts of manoeuvering, looking for the best outcome from their perspective. The National Accountability Ordinance 1999 empowers the president to appoint the chairman in consultation with the leaders of the house and opposition in the National Assembly. A petition has also been filed, challenging the constitutionality of the appointment process.

Considering that NAB is the country’s top anti-corruption agency, this indeed is a matter of national importance but the timing of this decision makes it all the more critical. NAB’s institutional credibility is in question, given the recent developments. How can its credibility be restored, especially since it is critical for establishing trust in our political process?

The answer does not lie in changing the law or even widening the consultations. The political parties have to rise above their immediate myopic interests and select a candidate with impeccable reputation, proven impartiality and most of all the competence to drive the national accountability agenda.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 7th, 2017.

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