THE government seems quite keen to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Without an alternative system or appropriate measures in place to strengthen other governmental agencies and bodies that can take over the investigation and prosecution of corrupt practices, it appears that it wants to protect its own skin rather than revamp NAB to prevent the abuse of accountability laws.
Under the first amendments to the NAB laws after the incumbent coalition government took power, the accountability body had been barred from acting on any federal, provincial or local tax matters, and all regulatory bodies had also been placed out of its domain.
The government had further insulated the federal and provincial governments, including their committees and subcommittees, as well as the State Bank of Pakistan by placing their decisions outside NAB’s purview unless it could show that public office-holders had materially benefited from such decisions.
NAB had also been told it could not act on any matter arising out of a procedural lapse in the performance of public or government work or function, project or scheme under the same conditions.
The previous government had already ‘exempted’ bureaucrats and businesspeople from NAB’s purview.
Now, the accountability watchdog has been told that any corruption case involving a sum of less than Rs500m will not come under its jurisdiction; that the government itself will now appoint accountability judges; that the accused will be tried in the territorial jurisdiction of the place they committed the crime; and that NAB will no longer be able to seek help from any government agency in the course of its investigations, among other things.
Though the government recently appointed a respected former bureaucrat to lead the organisation, it appears he will have very little to do.
There is no doubt that NAB had, over the years, cemented its reputation as a failed institution that did more harm than good. It became increasingly controversial over its abuse of powers, its inability to act without favour and its repeated failure to handle cases professionally. Its arbitrary detention of politicians was widely seen as naked harassment.
The expectation from the government was that it would reform NAB to stop it from becoming a tool of political oppression or replace the watchdog with a better mechanism for accountability. However, the recent changes to its governing laws go well beyond an attempt to reform the organisation.
They make it seem as if the parties in power only want to preclude any legal challenges they may face in the future. The haste with which the government is proceeding is giving strength to criticism that it is only interested in protecting its leaders’ interests.
This cannot be condoned. If it does not want NAB around, so be it; but the government must share alternative plans for how it will put an end to the corruption endemic in our state apparatus.
Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2022