The narratives in the public and political spheres point towards corruption as the single most important impediment to governance and the functioning of the economy in Pakistan. This narrative is not nascent. It has prevailed in governance spheres for decades now.
Many past elections witnessed campaigns by major political parties accusing rivals of corruption, therefore unworthy of people’s votes. Owing to this centrality rendered to corruption and misconduct, the urge for accountability has always been felt at all levels of society. Realising this urge, almost every government in Pakistan has promised to hold the corrupt accountable. And in fact, there have been several actions taken under the pretext of accountability. Unfortunately, none have been true in spirit.
In academia, not much has been written about the evolution of the accountability system in Pakistan. A brief overview, however, of the accountability legislation has been noted down by Supreme Court judges in the Khawaja Saad Rafique v NAB case. The SC judgment discusses the history of accountability laws at length in paragraphs 64 and 65.
From the Public Representatives Offices (Disqualification) Act, 1949, to the National Accountability Ordinance of 1999, there are almost a dozen laws (and amendments) on accountability. But none have effectively established anyone accountable. The judgment also describes these laws to be politically motivated and instrumental in victimising the opposition.
Interestingly, in the long history of governance marked by swings between military dictatorship and civilian rule, the makers of these laws have been both military dictators and “democratically elected” governments. So, there isn’t any single strand that can be blamed for having done this in the past. Even those, who claim to be the champions of democracy today are the ones who have been in this undemocratic business for long. While Imran Khan and his PTI can argue that they did not set the precedent of politically motivated accountability systems, they quickly bloomed in this business.
Keeping all political discussion apart, in the current scenario, the problem is that the accountability process is not effectively functioning. On top of this, accountability institutions are under severe criticism from almost all quarters of society except the government. It is crucial to understand that the criticism never means that the accountability process should be abandoned, rather it necessitates that the process needs reforms to make it effective.
A key problem with the current accountability system is that it operates in a conventional mode. The primary law that provides for the premises of the system has its roots in the 20th century, whereas the society it operates in is of the 21st century. I have opined previously that the involvement of citizens and of citizen-led civil society organisations is a modern trend in accountability that can be adopted by Pakistan as well. It can render effectiveness to the accountability system and help the government shed off the criticism it faces daily from various segments of society.
In sum, reforms are needed in the whole accountability process to make it effective. One way to do so is by adding an aspect of civil society in the process, and by empowering and involving citizen-led civil society organisations. A step in the right direction will make reforms in accountability legislations and create space for civil society to act for accountability. Another is that the right to information (RTI) laws be made effective and functional for civil society organisations to access accurate information to campaign for accountability. Similar systems in certain developing countries have worked well and are likely to do so in Pakistan as well. Adding the aspect of civil society to the process of accountability is crucial in today’s governance paradigm.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2021.