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NAB, NRO, corruption and democracy

Huzaima Bukhari & Dr. Ikramul Haq

Pakistan has been facing grim challenges of corruption, fiscal crimes, tax evasion, plundering and wasting of taxpayers’ money. No serious effort has ever been made for countering rent-seekers. Lack of accountability and unprecedented tolerance towards corruption has made Pakistan a powerless State—captive in the hands of ruthless forces representing money power. It is thus no wonder that democracy has never taken its roots even after 62 years of independence. Democratization of society is possible only through a credible system of accountability that works across the board—having no sacred cows like the judiciary and army in our country. They claim to have their own systems of accountability but protect each other rather than punish the offenders. If mighty segments of society—politicians, high-raking state officials, judges and big businessmen—are not accountable, then how can democratic dispensation, transparency and rule of law be established? Does the public have any access to their tax declarations showing sources of income from where they have amassed enormous wealth?

To counter the menace of corruption by holders of public offices, tall claims were made about the role of now-almost-erstwhile National Accountability Bureau (NAB). But it only proved to be a tool for political victimization by all the successive governments—military and civilian alike. There is now a national consensus that this institution only protected the mighty but grabbed those who refused to share their ill-gotten wealth or budge before the rulers of the day. NAB played a very dirty role in securing “political allegiance” for Musharraf especially. Since coming into power, Zardari et al –beneficiaries of the infamous National Reconciliation Ordinance 2007—have decided to dump the NAB and bring a new enactment in the House to replace it, but till today no tangible progress has been achieved towards this goal. The news of another body like this, represented by a bi-partisan House Committee, is in the air for the last many months. However, in reality the government is not serious to introduce any credible system of accountability—on the contrary there are plans to extend the scope of National Reconciliation Ordinance 2007 (NRO) to many others who were intentionally left out by Musharraf as his pardon was meant for those who committed crimes prior to his coup on 12th day of October, 1999!! In the form of NRO-II or through judiciary now even they are being pardoned who committed crimes after 12th day of October, 1999—after all, everyone should have level playing field!!!  

Successive regimes in Pakistan tried to put an end to the issue of corruption by appointing corrupt people on higher posts. This phenomenon continues as the present regime is no exception. In Musharraf era, at least two federal ministers, Faisal Saleh Hayat and Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, were under investigation—in fact references were pending against them—when they were inducted into the federal cabinet. In the present PPP government almost every other minister, state minister or adviser is NAB-zada—which is a condition precedent to have a top-slot as reward for past “political victimization”!

The NRO made an amendment in the National Accountability Ordinance by inserting section 33A providing automatic withdrawal and termination of “prolonged pending proceedings initiated prior to 12th October, 1999”. It says “Notwithstanding anything contained in this Ordinance or any other law for the time being in force, proceedings under investigation or pending in any court including a high court and the Supreme Court of Pakistan initiated by or on a reference by the National Accountability Bureau inside or outside Pakistan, including proceedings continued under section 33, requests for mutual assistance and civil party to proceedings initiated by the Federal Government before the 12th day of October, 1999 against holders of public office stand withdrawn and terminated with immediate effect and such holders of public office shall also not be liable to any action in future as well under this Ordinance for acts having been done in good faith before the said date….”.

The above provisions is an open admission that all the governments, prior to 12th October 1999, have been involved in registering false cases under the National Accountability Ordinance against their political adversaries. And the Musharraf government, knowing that these were false, spent enormous money to get them convicted. Since efforts for conviction did not succeed, all the persons, alleged offenders and the proven guilty filers of “fake cases”, were exonerated! It shows how state affairs are managed in this country. We first file “fake” cases, then spend large amounts of taxpayers’ money to get conviction of “innocent people” and in the end even pardon those who were guilty of wrongdoings! This is the image our rulers are portraying of Pakistan in the eye of international community.

Our rulers have never realised that one of the worst consequences of such a policy is its pernicious effect on the general moral fabric of society. Such policies put integrity at a discount and place a premium on vulgar and ostentatious display of power and wealth. This shatters the faith of the common man in the dignity of honest labour and virtuous living. Can democracy ever flourish what to talk of taking root, in any such society?  Democracy embodies some vital elements that are: fair and just electoral process, sovereignty of parliament, separation of powers, independence of judiciary, accountability and rule of law. Our society lacks all these elements and the result is before us: dismantling of NAB, complete lack of public accountability and obnoxious enactments like NRO aimed at protecting the corrupt and plunderers of national wealth.  

It is an undeniable fact that corruption is increasing in our society with every passing year and the claims of the government that it is highly committed to eradicate this menace is just an eye wash. Unfortunately, Pakistan has become a place where rampant and institutionalised corruption has become a way of life. In tandem with this silent conspiracy is the fact that the laws against the racketeers are not enforced and if they are, the penalties are laughable (re cases of Mansoorul Haq, Mian Iqbal Farid and many others handled by NAB).

In every-day life, there are many glaring examples of how corruption has become institutionalised. Take the business of cars. Even today, when economy is in deep recession, some locally-assembled cars are selling at premium! Who is making money in this whole game? Why Pakistanis are forced to buy decade old models at exorbitant prices in the name of protecting local manufacturers? Are they not remitting money abroad through the mechanism of transfer pricing? On the clear, metalled highway from Lahore airport, in the unending line of spanking bungalows, one can see the emergence of a society flushed with money. The dazzling suburbs of Defence Housing societies had not been there before 1977. The story of their emergence even after 30 years is shrouded in mystery. Under the shadow of martial laws, many in uniform and in plain clothes found favour with the men who matter in the land and were given State lands at throwaway prices—this   practice continues till today.

Money (all kinds of it), from whatever source it comes, is the catchphrase in our society: aid money, drug money, foreign money, American money in exchange for fighting war against terrorism(sic), and ‘black’ money (which one can ‘whiten’ by just ‘remitting’ through normal banking channels!). One just needs to go to a licenced money exchange company, pay the premium and telegraphic transfer will be arranged in one’s account. A very simple way of money laundering and no questions asked even by the tax people [section 111(4) of the Income Tax Ordinance 2001 gives full protection to such sham transactions]. Is there any other State in the world that gives such patronage to the criminals? Answer must be an emphatic NO. And the proof of its being spent is available everywhere: in the ostentatious sprawl of new urban development, in the gleaming rows of foreign cars on the streets, in the smugglers’ markets brimming with the latest in foreign electronic gadgetry and in the shops crammed with foreign goods. Who says this is a poor country? The government is poor but the people are very rich—see the number of rural people going to umrah these days spending lavishly after getting good support price for bumper wheat crop.

The chief preoccupation of this nation is money. Everybody is yearning for living lavishly when their fellow countrymen are dying of hunger and diseases in open camps. This mad race for money and lavish living explains why the society as a whole is indifferent to corruption. “How do you make your money”? I asked a young industrialist from Karachi. “Easy,” he replied, describing his own success story: “We import everything and with some good contacts in the government, you can fix a few deals with Customs high-ups, sit back and enjoy the fruit for the rest of your life.” A dangerous result of all this is that in our society rights have become privileges and privileges have become rights. The public has a right to services like education, health and transport, but the system behaves as if it is offering a privilege. The public servant is duty-bound to serve the public — instead he behaves as if it is inconvenient to do so. Most people working for the state are no longer interested in performing their job but in finding ways to extract a premium from the hapless citizen. The premium or, more accurately, bribe is now an accepted practice.

Tragically, it has become a free for all and laws that are designed to prevent it fall by the wayside. The general attitude is of helpless resignation, an acceptance of the defeatist principle that if one is to survive one must play the game. It then becomes dangerously akin to the law of the jungle where the fittest survive, the weak fall out and the predators emerge as despots. The bleak side of the picture is that the persons who are capable of checking this distortion, the politicians and bureaucrats, are unlikely to oblige: for it would sever their financial lifelines. Various inquiry commissions were set up in the past to probe various causes of corruption. What they suggested, nobody remembers. The latest development in this direction was announcement of anti-corruption committees (headed by zila nazims) comprising elected representatives of the people! Later, in one province at least, the Khadim-e-Aala started proceedings of corruption against them!! This is accountability a la carte Pakistani—unique and self-styled.

If the system is to be prevented from sinking into greater chaos and ultimate collapse, corrective actions must be taken forthwith, the starting point being a clear recognition of the role of the State—especially its organs of legislature, judiciary and administration to work pro-actively. The State will have to vehemently devote its entire energies to enforcing the laws that protect the public from cheats and racketeers rather than reinforcing a system which protects and encourages them. This requires a bold and clean leadership capable of restraining the ballooning state and proclaiming this unpalatable truth, and setting standards for the rest of the citizenry. Unless such a leadership emerges and acts fast with the help of masses, no positive results can ever be achieved in fighting corruption no matter how many institutions like NAB are dismantled or new ones formed on their ruins.


The writers, legal historians, authors of many books, tax advisers, are members of Visiting Faculty of Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).

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