PRIME Minister Nawaz Sharif's criticism of the National Accountability Bureau has set off a heated debate in the country on the prevalence of corruption in the country and the role and efficiency of the machinery to fight it. Speaking at a public function in Bahawalpur last week he said that his government will take pre-emptive action if NAB did not stop "harassing" government officers. He said that the fear of NAB was preventing bureaucrats from taking decisions, signing on project files. Nawaz Sharif also threatened to "clip the wings" of the National Accountability Bureau if it did not stay within limits. Observers have expressed surprise over the PM's statement as Nawaz Sharif in his previous statements had criticized NAB for not doing enough to fight the spreading cancer of corruption in the country.
But now he has turned around and accused the accountability watchdog of exceeding its mandate. The Prime Minister's outburst has been described by opposition parties as politically motivated and self serving. Senator Farhatullah Babar has pointed out that that the Prime Minister did not pay any heed when PPP accused NAB of transgressing its authority in Sindh. But now that NAB has made a move to take action against corrupt elements in Punjab, he is crying foul. NAB has been very active for some time and brought to light mega corruption cases in Sindh involving Dr Asim Hussain and other PPP stalwarts. For some time NAB has turned its attention to Punjab and is looking into PML-N's projects -the LNG deal, Metro Bus, Orange Train, LDA City and Raiwind Road construction. The government is said to be specially disturbed over NAB's investigations into certain mega projects being carried out in Punjab. NAB has also arrested five influential people allegedly involved in the embezzlement of Rs850 million. In addition, there are other reports of ongoing investigations into kickbacks involving blue-eyed bureaucrats in some high-profile projects.
It may be recalled here that the current Chairman NAB, Ch Qamar Zaman, was appointed through a bipartisan agreement between PML-N and PPP on October 10, 2013 and is due to retire in October 10, 2017. NAB chairmanship is a tenure-based constitutional position of four years and the holder of the office can be removed only by the Supreme Judicial Council. The National Accountability Bureau operates under the National Accountability Ordinance 1999, and its sole purpose is to eliminate corruption using what is described as a holistic approach that encompasses "awareness, prevention and enforcement". Apparently, it is the enforcement part of its mandate that is giving sleepless nights to the rulers.
It is clear that the Prime Minister does not have the executive authority to sack the NAB chairman. So, the move now is to curtail his powers through legislation. The parliamentary oversight is likely to be tightened under the fresh amendments to the National Accountability Ordinance 1999 being finalized by the government. There is also a proposal to completely scrap the Ordinance, a relic of the martial law government, and replace it with a new law to be passed by Parliament. It will not be difficult for the government to muster the required majority for the new law as, besides its allies, PPP which is not happy with NAB will also support it. No doubt, there are flaws in the current accountability law. But, instead of removing its shortcomings, an attempt is being made to emasculate the accountability process. This is against the basic spirit of democracy which is inseparable from transparency and accountability. In an environment which is corrupt to the core, providing good governance is the need of the hour. So, instead of joining hands against accountability to save the sacred cows, the politicians need to act in the larger public interest.