Accountability in limbo? Separating fact from fiction

Corruption is a termite that is eating up the pith of our society

MA Chishti December 09, 2021

We have got nothing to hide, we have got nothing to worry about, everyone is accountable. With such loud claims, every stakeholder of the state publically asserts ‘zero tolerance on corruption’, yet any effort to curb it acquires some other dimension. Why is it so that high public office holders who shape and structure the state apparatus, when subjected to scrutiny, start hiding behind different pretexts including ‘political engineering or witch-hunt’? Who doesn’t know that all parts of the state administration are riven with corruption and there is no shortage of reasons to fight this menace, then why is it so that all the stakeholders only keep pointing fingers and there is little consensus on how to tackle this monster? Why is it so that anti-corruption setups of the country are treated as demons whenever they start asking questions? These double standards are a reflection of ‘moral decline’ of society which is also visible in our institutions of governance.

Corruption is a termite that is eating up the pith of our society. It is important to know that a real fight against corruption requires political will coupled with impartial institutions to promote a culture of accountability. Among Asian countries, only Hong Kong and Singapore have been relatively successful in reducing corruption due to these measures. Since 1999, National Accountability Bureau (NAB) remains the key institution tasked with uncovering and fighting corruption in Pakistan. However, NAB has received admiration from some but criticism from many since its inception. Every now and then, people indulge in arguments on the role of watchdog without giving any thought to the fact that genuine accountability grows on the back of ‘democracy’ and ‘morality’. In rituals of lying to public, the challenge to find out the truth has become extremely difficult since everything has been politicised. I am of the view that the nations regress in every field — economic, social, developmental — because of the erosion of ‘democratic norms’.

The real problem is that most of us are driven by our sentiments and never try to ponder over facts. With the passage of time, this phenomenon has taken over a shape of trendy narratives over a period of time and working as contributory factor to suppress the facts. A sad irony is that politics in Pakistan has turned into a honey pot. Resort to corrupt means is the natural consequence. The greedy people always look to benefit from public works, jobs and government’s contracts. The follies of democracy in our country are repackaged under different guises. Those who benefit from the imperfections of democracy, when subjected to scrutiny, start repeating their narratives — again and again and again — of political vendetta and witch-hunting. Then they take advantage of the perception even where action taken against them is perfectly legitimate and is as per the law.

A corruption scandal, once exposed, is followed by protracted stonewalling by politicians coupled with headlines on media. Over a period of time, the cases quietly evaporate by manipulating the criminal justice system of the country. A new government is selected, and then it starts the investigations of its predecessors and this is how the wheel of accountability has been running in Pakistan for decades. But would it be fair to damn an organisation only for the situation? We should not lose sight of the interventions (settlements, NRO and other tacit measures) from top echelons and without realising the underlying reasons which caused subversion of years of institutional efforts.

No institution or limb of the state in Pakistan can claim perfection; therefore, expecting something extraordinary from NAB would be unjust. Instead of ensuring essential measures to strengthen the organisation to meet the national and international (UNCAC, World Bank, IMF and FATF, etc) requirements regarding corruption and money laundering, we repeatedly hear voices like ‘NAB and economy cannot move together’, ‘NAB be abolished’, etc. The critics who are subject to certain proceedings by the watchdog continuously keep it hounding on one pretext or the other. While pretending their innocence, they certainly want to see the watchdog a ‘feather duster’. If that doesn’t smack of an agenda, what does?

In a system where corruption wheels every sector of the society, generally no one at the helm of affairs likes the institutions like NAB. But anyone who purports to suggest that we do not need an anti-corruption watchdog in this state needs to be reminded of distinction between one’s own volitions and public interest. Global existence of such institutions is sufficient to understand that they are not curse, rather probity in governmental affairs. Even critics admit that NAB remains an effective deterrent to corruption. This, of course, does not mean that the organisation has never faltered in the discourse. Assignment of Panama Leaks and Fake Accounts Cases to NAB by Supreme Court of Pakistan is a reflection of confidence in the abilities of an institution for the investigation of sensitive cases.

NAB was founded in 1999 and since then no significant reforms have been brought by the successive governments in its statutory framework till 2020. The current government came with the pledge of accountability and appeared to be the visible facilitator of graft war. They have recently brought amendments in the powers and structures of NAB claiming it to be a move of making it a more effective corruption busting tool. However, the Opposition terms these amendments a measure of control and repression. What shall be effect of these amendments in the long run is a big question but immediate effect of the changes is that the accused in large numbers, including those charged in mega scams, are approaching the courts for relief. Future of accountability processes, which have consumed years of institutional efforts, seems under darker clouds of uncertainty. Yet again, the watchdog will be a punching bag in future without reverting to the facts.

For the last about two decades, democracy in Pakistan has witnessed a strong connection with anti-corruption activities. The change of government brings about certain shifts in anti-corruption approaches. Very few will differ that graft war is not a responsibility of one institution but forms part of state’s obligations. The ‘public’ becomes the witch-hunt and the ‘state’ a principal victim, in case of failure in discharge of this obligation.

The moral fibre and professionalism of the chosen people form the soul and substance of democracy. I am of the opinion that the accountability stuck up in limbo because there is no genuine desire amongst the prime stakeholders of democracy to deal with the situation. The development of a country rests on the strength of its institutions. Pakistan is at crossroads. It is up to the nation’s chosen representatives either to opt for an effective anti-corruption deterrent or a toothless tiger.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 9th, 2021.

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