NAB – behave, or else

Najam Sethi TFT Issue: 19 Feb 2016

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is unhappy with the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for not closing the file on corruption cases launched against the Sharif family by the Musharraf regime. This followed the transformation of PMLN’s Ehtesab Bureau into NAB by the military government following the coup of 1999. Ex President Asif Zardari is angry at NAB for not closing the file on corruption cases launched against him by the PMLN’s Ehtesab Bureau after the PMLN won the 1997 elections, and for going after his supporters in the Sindh government on the pretext of terrorism funding at the behest of the current military establishment. And the great anti-corruption campaigner, Imran Khan, has now gone so far as to try and dilute the law governing the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa accountability commission that his party set up with such fanfare not long ago because his own commission has started to target corruption in high office beginning with the KP PTI chief minister Pervez Khattak. In short, politicians of all shades are banding together to take the sting out of their own accountability commissions headed by hand picked bureaucrats or retired generals. What’s going on?
The notion of political accountability (Ehtesab Commission) was mooted by the caretaker government set up by President Farooq Leghari in November 1996 after he dismissed Benazir Bhutto from office. But this quickly degenerated into a political witch-hunt against Ms Bhutto and Mr Zardari because President Leghari could not afford to let them get back into power. Mr Sharif appointed a henchman, Saif ur Rahman, to beef up the Ehtesab Bureau and go after his political opponents. And when General Musharraf seized power in 1999, he made NAB into a powerful military tool to bring all his political opponents in the PPP and PMLN to heel. In short, accountability in Pakistan under three regimes has only served the political purpose of the government in power. It has not been even-handed or transparent. No one remembers the name of the inconsequential judge who briefly headed President Leghari’s discredited Ehtesab Commission. Mr Sharif’s Goebbels, Saif ur Rahman, was jailed after the coup and let off after cooperating with the military government, only to disappear into the sands of Qatar. Two of Mr Zardari’s appointees, a senior bureaucrat and an ex-Navy chief, quit after being hauled over the coals by Iftikhar Chaudhry’s aggressive supreme court that was out to get Mr Zardari after its popular restoration. And Mr Nawaz Sharif’s current appointee, an ex-army bureaucrat, has been pulled in different directions by the supreme court, the military establishment and the sitting government to deliver on conflicting interests, leading to speculation that he too may not last his term. Certainly, the public threat to “sort out” NAB – hold it accountable – was first hurled by Pervez Rashid, the federal minister who speaks for the prime minister, and has now been repeated by Mr Sharif himself. Apparently, moves are afoot for the PPP and PMLN to join hands and amend the NAB law so that a “bi-partisan” parliamentary committee can oversee NAB’s operations, akin to the sort of dilution in the law sought by Imran Khan’s government in KP.
The original spirit behind the various accountability commissions was always politically motivated. That is why, despite some eminently commendable anti-corruption recoveries, the process has been tainted. Additional internal pull and push pressures within NAB have been generated by the civil-military divide – it is still stuffed at the decision-making level by retired military officers whose primary loyalty is to the military establishment whose contempt for “bloody civilians” is institutionally inbred. It is also remarkable that, despite three long bouts of military rule spanning nearly thirty years, not a single senior serving or retired army officer has been punished for corruption by NAB, the exception being an ex Navy chief who was conveniently made to cough up (and then let go) after stories of his corruption became legion. Indeed, army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, found a novel way just before he retired to protect several retired generals accused of corrupt practices by “re-hiring” them into the military so that they could not be subject to civilian laws of accountability and prosecution.
To be fair, though, the military establishment under General Raheel Sharif, has told NAB to go after any military target if so warranted under corruption charges. That is why a NAB investigation is now underway in a DHA scam allegedly involving a brother of ex-army chief Kayani. Whether this will amount to anything significant in the end is another matter. Certainly the involvement of DHA military officials in facilitating the scam has not so far been adequately investigated.
The military now wants to extend its “anti-terrorism corruption” drive from Karachi to Punjab. Considering how the Zardari regime has fared in Sindh at the hands of the Rangers, Corps Commander and NAB, it doesn’t require rocket science to understand the dangerous implications of this for the PMLN.