NAB seriously needs to be overhauled!

To run a democracy smoothly, its leaders must hold themselves and the public responsible for their actions. Processes are required to discipline the general population and the government officials if they infringe the laws on the statute books.

Accountability laws should be twofold: horizontal (state institutions hold checks and balances on each other) and vertical (the population oversees the actions of the government). All the potential offenders must know consequences, civil and criminal penalties of willful lawbreaking so that they might be deterred from trespassing. Without a system to check the tendency to break the law, crimes cannot be reduced and people will continue to wreak havoc with impunity. To fight corruption within the upper echelons, the US created an independent body Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 1921.

We in Pakistan stand in greater need of an accountability office as we have been seeing allegations of corruption and bribery among high-ranking government officials. To meet the same requirement, President Pervez Musharraf set up the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in 1999. It was meant to probe allegations of corruption against former officials and to ensure that the corrupt officials who commit fraud and indulge in embezzlement are brought to book.

However, this investigating and prosecuting body was doomed to failure from the start. Pervez Musharraf was blamed for a witch-hunt and pressurising opponents to switch their loyalty through NAB officials. Since its creation successive ruling parties have used this body to blackmail opposition parties. But never was the so-called anti-corruption body authorised to haul up a premier or another top bureaucrat before it. Allegedly, at least a dozen cases of fraud and exploitation against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif are lying dormant with the NAB. So the accountability of fraudulent characters has become nothing more than a sham.

Though this administrative department of the state has always been patently flawed, it suddenly drew the ire of the national media on its handling of the case of Mushtaq Raisani, the finance secretary of Balochistan, in May last year. The NAB seized over Rs730 million from his house; the man was accused of embezzling billions of rupees from local government development funds. However, the bureau accepted the influential bureaucrat’s plea bargain request for returning Rs2 million. The political class has been slamming the body for striking a deal with the first high-profile arrest made during the incumbent government’s tenure. They blamed the NAB for fuelling and facilitating corruption in the country.

As the media went on flashing the story of the mega scandal of corruption, the Supreme Court took suo moto notice in October. The apex court bench expressed its regret at the sorry state of affairs: a person accused of corruption worth billions of rupees is released on voluntarily returning a small amount of illicit gains, whereas someone guilty of embezzlement on a much smaller scale is put in prison. The head of the NAB was ordered to explain his position on allowing an offender found guilty of massive corruption to go off after voluntary return (VR) of a part of the ill-gotten money. Also, the court stopped the NAB from exercising such powers in the future. Even the politicians from the ruling camp have been slating the policy of voluntary return of the misappropriated public funds.

As regards the workings of the NAB, the public is faithless; they do not have any faith left in the accountability bureau. To restore their confidence and eliminate the culture of corruption, the government must take remedial action by closing the glaring loopholes in the law. The special powers of the NAB to pardon those guilty of money-laundering should be scrapped. It should become an independent body with no influence from the political parties as it may never conduct a free and fair inquiry and dispense justice when a case is filed against the incumbents. The apex court, not the prime minister, should be authorised to appoint the chief of the NAB. Also, the SC should carry out a review of the accountability laws.

(The article has been co-authored by Muhammad Hanif who is a lecturer of English at Minhaj University Lahore)

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Iftikhar Shah Bukhari

The writer is a lecturer of political science at Minhaj University Lahore