Fear­ing ac­count­abil­ity

The Pak Banker - - 4EDITORIAL - Saad Ra­sool

CHAS­TISE­MENT of the Na­tional Ac­count­abil­ity Bureau (NAB), by the Prime Min­is­ter ear­lier this week, raises fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about our in­sti­tu­tions and cul­ture of ac­count­abil­ity, and its re­sis­tance by the political elite.

Ac­count­abil­ity - in­sti­tu­tional as well as per­sonal - is a tough ideal to achieve in even the most egal­i­tar­ian of so­ci­eties. In coun­tries where eco­nomic and so­cial dis­par­i­ties are ac­cepted as a cul­tural norm, ac­count­abil­ity of in­sti­tu­tions and pow­er­ful per­son­al­i­ties (who are in­sti­tu­tions in them­selves) is a par­tic­u­larly im­pos­si­ble feat to ac­com­plish. De­spite rhetoric to the con­trary, forces of sta­tus quo, and par­tic­u­larly those who are en­joy­ing mo­men­tary stints of political power, view all moves to­wards ac­count­abil­ity as an af­front to their per­son as well as of­fice.

In Pak­istan, sadly, political elite has a his­tory of not only re­sist­ing the process of ac­count­abil­ity, but also turn­ing in­sti­tu­tions of ac­count­abil­ity into tools for per­se­cut­ing op­po­nents. In this re­gard, the Eht­esab Bureau of 1990s, led by the no­to­ri­ous Saif-ur-Rehman, is now widely re­garded as per­haps the most par­ti­san in­sti­tu­tion in Pak­istan's check­ered political his­tory, which was mer­ci­lessly used, by the then PML(N) govern­ment to sub­due op­po­si­tion, and set­tle political scores.

In the af­ter­math of Eht­esab Bureau, when the NAB was cre­ated through sec­tion 6 of the Na­tional Ac­count­abil­ity Bureau Or­di­nance, 1999, there was a feel­ing that fi­nally an in­sti­tu­tion had been cre­ated that was truly in­de­pen­dent and au­ton­o­mous in (le­gal) char­ac­ter. Un­der the NAB Or­di­nance, the Pres­i­dent "in con­sul­ta­tion with the Leader of the House and Leader of the Op­po­si­tion in the Na­tional As­sem­bly", ap­pointed the Chair­man, as an in­di­vid­ual of such in­tegrity and im­par­tial­ity who would be ac­cept­able to all stake­hold­ers across the political isle. Also, a Chair­man ap­pointed for a term of four (non-ex­tendible) years, could not be "re­moved ex­cept on the grounds of re­moval of Judge of Supreme Court of Pak­istan."

Once ap­pointed, Chair­man NAB, at least un­der the law, can­not be dic­tated to by the political govern­ment - it need only sub­mit a "re­port of its affairs" to the Pres­i­dent, at the end of each cal­en­dar year (Sec­tion 33-D). As a re­sult, un­der the NAB Or­di­nance, the Chair­man NAB, and his Bureau has the sole and ex­clu­sive ju­ris­dic­tion to in­ves­ti­gate and pros­e­cute any and all per­sons who, in the opin­ion of the Chair­man or his au­tho­rized rep­re­sen­ta­tives, have com­mit­ted an of­fence enu­mer­ated un­der Sec­tion 9 of the NAB Or­di­nance. Nei­ther the Prime Min­is­ter, nor any­one else, can in­ter­fere in or as­sume the pow­ers or pre­rog­a­tive of NAB in this re­gard.

NAB's ju­ris­dic­tion to pros­e­cute cer­tain of­fences or cor­rupt prac­tices, per Sec­tion 9 of the NAB Or­di­nance, are broad in na­ture. And NAB may so­licit the help of any and all gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies in the per­for­mance of its func­tions, as and when re­quired. In ex­er­cise of th­ese pow­ers, even re­cently, we have seen NAB op­er­a­tions in Sindh reach out to some of the most taboo political per­son­al­i­ties, and pro­cure the help of Rangers from time to time. Not sur­pris­ingly, the PML(N) govern­ment, and in par­tic­u­lar the Prime Min­is­ter, had no real cavil with NAB till such time that it was pros­e­cut­ing mem­bers of PPP and MQM across Sindh; ev­ery­one must be held ac­count­able, is what PML(N) had to say then.

All that changed, how­ever, when NAB demon­strated the au­dac­ity to in­ves­tiga­tive PML(N) mem­bers in the heart of Pun­jab. And sud­denly, there is talk of NAB's ju­ris­dic­tion be­ing too broad, work­ing be­yond its en­vi­sioned con­tours. One would re­mem­ber that even ear­lier, when NAB of­fi­cials in­formed the hon­or­able Supreme Court that cer­tain pow­er­ful political elites, in­clud­ing the Chief Min­ster (Pun­jab) and the Fed­eral Min­is­ter for Fi­nance, are named in pend­ing in­quiries, the Chief Min­is­ter Pun­jab took the time to con­duct an en­tire press con­fer­ence, from his res­i­dence in Model Town, La­hore, high­light­ing how his fam­ily was not a loan de­faulter, and in the process took jabs at NAB's per­for­mance and cred­i­bil­ity in pros­e­cut­ing in­stances of pub­lic fraud and cor­rup­tion.

Th­ese episodes re­quire a deeper look into our cul­ture and pro­cesses of ac­count­abil­ity, es­pe­cially as it re­lates to the political elite: How do we, as a so­ci­ety, view ac­count­abil­ity in our political and fi­nan­cial trans­ac­tions? How can such ac­count­abil­ity be guar­an­teed in a sys­tem of par­ti­san pol­i­tics, through an 'in­de­pen­dent' in­sti­tu­tion? What de­gree of au­ton­omy must be pro­vided to such an in­sti­tu­tion for it to work ef­fec­tively? Should there be political over­sight in the process? Can its em­ploy­ees, all of whom live and breathe within the govern­ment's sphere of in­flu­ence, with­stand the pres­sures of the political elite? What changes, if any, need to be made to the ex­ist­ing struc­ture of ac­count­abil­ity for it to pro­duce mean­ing­ful re­sults? At the very out­set, it is im­por­tant to im­press upon the fact that NAB, de­spite all of its leg­isla­tive and in­ves­tiga­tive pow­ers, has un­der­per­formed the prom­ise of its cre­ation. And no one can be blamed for ques­tion­ing the mo­tives be­hind NAB in­quiries, and a lack of con­vic­tions by the ac­count­abil­ity Courts.

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