Creeping coup against civilian bureaucracy?

The impact of the takeover of civilian bureaucracy must not be ignored, writes Farhatullah Babar

Creeping coup against civilian bureaucracy?
Recently there has been a rapid increase in the number of serving and retired military officials in positions meant for civilians. The most notable example is that of Lieutenant General (r) Asim Saleem Bajwa.

A day after his retirement as corps commander southern command, Lt Gen Bajwa was appointed chairman of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) Authority which had been set up earlier. Weeks later, he was also appointed to a political post as a special advisor to the prime minister on information with scant regard for the principles and propriety of such an appointment. He was also allowed to hold the post of chairman of the authority at the same time.

During his tenure as DG ISPR, Lt Gen Bajwa had painted the army chief Raheel Shareef as a larger-than-life figure and a white-washed hero. Remember, ‘jaane ki baatain jane do’ (forget about leaving), the make belief that the ‘principled’ Raheel had declined extension in service, and how he had donated his one kanal plot to the Army Shuhada Fund.

Appointing Bajwa as special assistant on information may have been prompted by his assumed success story. Little was it realised that the falsity of the images he had created was exposed once Raheel was no longer the chief. It was also not realised that media handling in uniform is not the same as media handling as a politician or when in civvies. Lt Gen Asim Bajwa would now know more than anyone else the huge cost of neglecting this fundamental reality.

To revert to generals in civilian position, in addition to chairman CPEC Authority, some other civilian institutions like the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and National Institute of Health (NIH) are also being led by serving generals. Those manned by retired military officers include Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA), Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA), Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) to name only a few.

It is well known that appointment of military officers in civilian posts markedly increased during military dictatorships. From Ayub Khan to Yahya Khan to Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf - all have thrown civilian crumbs at their favourites in the military to entrench themselves in the power. The appointment of a dozen military officers to diplomatic posts has almost been formalised. In some cases, the military has covertly asserted itself as in the case of appointment of Lt Gen Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan as foreign minister during Benazir Bhutto’s first government. Many believe it was a condition for power transfer.

It is pointless to debate who is responsible for this increasing footprint of the military in civilian positions, the strong and ambitious generals, or the weak and increasingly side-lined civilian authority. Whatever the reason, the grave impact of this takeover of civilian bureaucracy must not be ignored if permanent damage to state structures is to be avoided.

The military has also resorted to highly questionable and dubious means to take over posts belonging to the regularly constituted civilian cadres. One notable example is that of the head of military lands and cantonments (MLC), a department that is responsible to regulate the use of state lands by the defence forces. The MLC department acts as the custodian of the state land under the use of armed forces.

In accordance with the principle of avoidance conflict of interest, the user of the land cannot also be its custodian. That was why the department was kept under the civilian ministry of defence, instead of the GHQ.

All officers of the service group belong to the civilian cadre of Military Lands and Cantonments Group who are selected through the competitive examination for central superior services conducted annually by the federal public service commission. Its head - the director general - is appointed by promotion from among officers of the group.

Within days of takeover in 1999, General Musharraf removed the civilian director general who had been in place only for weeks, without any charge or reason. Instead of appointing a civilian officer of the cadre - as required by law - he appointed a serving major general in his place. It was not a onetime exception. Since then, the post has been permanently taken over by the army. Protests by officers of the cadre, verdicts of the Supreme Court and forceful voices raised in the Parliament have gone unheeded.

The last time the prime minister was prevailed upon to allow the appointment of a serving major general to the post was in 2013. Nawaz Sharif allowed it for another two years but to his credit, he also formally ordered that it was the last time and the post will then revert to its civilian cadre.

To circumvent it, the defence ministry went for the kill. It prepared a summary for the prime minister to amend the rules of the civilian MLC service group to provide some fig leaf for the army to take over the post permanently.

The Senate Defence Committee demanded a copy of the summary to examine whether all pertinent facts had been brought to the attention of the prime minister. It wanted to find out whether the competent authority had been informed of the decision of the PM to revert the post to civilian cadre.

To its horror, it discovered that contrary to rules of business, the summary was taken by hand by someone to the PM without mandatory consultation with other divisions. The prime minister had even been kept in the dark about his previous orders of the subject. The establishment secretary plainly said that his division was unaware and had nothing to do with it. How and who moved the summary against the rules remained a mystery.

It has been reported that since the side-lining of civilians, there has been an increase in the military’s use of land for purposes other than for which it was initially given by the state. Irregularities of using defence lands for commercial purposes have been condoned through executive orders during caretaker governments without parliament’s approval.

The creeping coup against civilian bureaucracy will spell disaster if not checked.

The writer has served on the defence committee of the Senate