In a crisis-ridden democracy marred by massive corruption, rampant money laundering and unchecked financial irregularities in state-owned institutions, the government has geared up to insulate its loyalist public officials and businesspeople from NAB’s purview, under the sweeping amendments brought to the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999. In the presence of dummy opposition in the parliament, the coalition government successfully clipped NAB’s wings to prevent white-collar crimes from being probed, which have benefitted over 90% of high-profile cases. It further barred the anti-graft agency from initiating inquiries on tax matters against federal and provincial government officials unless it has concrete evidence to prove that they had monetarily benefitted from that decision.
Also, the coalition government has revoked NAB’s jurisdiction to investigate any corruption cases under Rs500 million. To cripple an already failed institution, all corruption cases will now be handled by the government’s self-appointed accountability judges in the territorial jurisdiction of the place where the crime has bee committed. That all indicates that the government wants to cease NAB’s power to prevent public officials and their facilitators from being held accountable. Amending NAO means that a public official can hold assets which cannot be probed by NAB until it establishes that dishonest means were employed in accumulating wealth. Technically, it allows the suspect to get away with looted wealth because the burden of proof now lies on the anti-graft body or the person reporting it to the agency. Surprisingly, these sweeping amendments embolden political clout. For instance, the definition of “assets” — i.e. any property held by a suspect, whether in his/her name or in the name of some relative — has now been changed to assets only in the name of the accused. This change is benefitting none other than our very own PM, Shehbaz Sharif.
There is an unending list of mainstream politicians driving uncountable benefits out of these new amendments. Most important is the deletion of Section 21, clause (g). Its beneficiary is a lady, who was disqualified from contesting the election on presenting a forged trust deed that she claimed was written in Calibri font and was received from the UK. This deletion means that evidence from abroad will no longer be admissible against PML-N’s vice president, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, or any suspect for court proceedings.
An institution created for implementing robust accountability through checks and balances for supporting democracy in Pakistan has now been defanged. I believe this country would never see materialising its dream of transparent and stringent accountability. Not just the incumbent government, but its predecessors have also used this bureau to advance their political agendas. Politicising NAB and tainting its image in the eyes of the public has raised concerns over its efficacy and the rationale behind its existence. It’s on record how this bureau was used to give clean chits to those involved in massive financial irregularities concerning Sugar Scam and Peshawar BRT project.
Some fractions of PML-N wanted to disband NAB and empower other ineffective anti-graft bodies to lead the accountability process. However, a more technical process through ill-conceived reforms was adopted to disable this institution on the pretext of misuse of power, failure to handle cases, and harassing under-investigation politicians. With these new changes, it’s clear that the parties in power want to whitewash facts about their looted money and assets beyond means before the next election so that their successor could not hold them liable for any crime.
In absence of an impartial and effective accountability bureau, it’s unachievable to strengthen the democratic norms, clamp down on corruption practices, and foster Pakistan’s dwindling economy. What is important is to understand that accountability is a key to the success of a country.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2022.
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