NAB must be sent packing

Genuine accountability will elude us as long everyone is not equal before the law, writes Farhatullah Babar

NAB must be sent packing
What Justice Baqir of the Supreme Court (SC) said the other day about accountability and its watch dog the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is neither new nor strange. That accountability in Pakistan has always been used selectively for political witch hunts has been fairly well known. What is new, however, is that for the first time NAB has been formally indicted in a verdict delivered by the highest court in the country. This is a special moment and calls for deeper introspection.

In an 87-page verdict on the conduct of NAB in the Paragon Housing Society corruption case, the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court said, “It is a classic example of trampling of fundamental rights, unlawful deprivation of freedoms and liberty and the complete disregard for human dignity as guaranteed under the Constitution.” The judge also referred to the frequent allegations that NAB was flagrantly used for political engineering and people had little faith in its credibility and impartiality.
It is a fallacy to argue that some institutions have their own built-in accountability mechanisms. Everyone paid out of state exchequer must be subjected to a uniform accountability mechanism

Endorsing a common observation it said, “The Bureau seems reluctant in proceeding against people on one side of the political divide, even in respect of financial scams of massive proportions while those on the other side are being arrested and incarcerated for months and years without any sufficient cause.” Further, “It certainly is not serving national interest, rather causing irretrievable harm to the country, nation and society in multiple ways.”

That NAB has been trampling on human dignity has been officially and publicly acknowledged. Last year, the then National Commission on Human Rights Chairman Justice Ali Nawaz Chowhan publicly stated that he was disallowed by NAB from visiting its detention centres to look into complaints of inhuman and degrading treatment meted out to the accused. These centres have become more like Guantanamo Bay prisons.

The partiality of NAB was also dramatized by the observations at another five-member bench on the day the detailed judgment in the Paragon case was delivered. Headed by the chief justice himself, the court raised serious questions about transparency in the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) headed by a serving lieutenant general.

The court observed that NDMA favoured one company, its documents were totally contradicting and it did not know how to submit its reports. Payments were to be made to the company in dollars online, but the NDMA made payments to it in cash, it noted.

The court bemoaned that it sought report from the NDMA thrice in how the billions were spent in dealing with the pandemic and locusts. When the court warned that it will not let anyone steal money, the inference was obvious: money indeed was being stolen in the NDMA.

These are still merely in the realm of observations about NDMA and not the court verdict. It is noteworthy that the Chairman NDMA has not been appearing in person before the court. Who knows? The observations may change once he appears before it in person.

However, the observations cannot be dismissed lightly when seen in the backdrop of refusal by the NAB to investigate allegations of absence of transparency in NDMA. No one believes that NAB will investigate it because the organization is headed by an army officer. The sacred cows are assumed to be incorruptible and nothing may come out of it finally. Just like nothing came out of the NAB case against four ex-army generals named in the golf course scam on Pakistan Railways land in Lahore sometime back.

Besides not touching serving and retired military officers in civilian departments, NAB also has been taking instructions from the army on how to conduct itself. When sometime back the businessmen met the army chief complaining against NAB excesses, the GHQ apparently issued command instructions to it. Promptly, the NAB chairman declared that it would no longer take up tax evasion and loan default cases against businessmen.

Whenever questions are raised about NAB by political parties, the government responds by saying that its chairman was appointed by consensus of those very parties which are now agitating against it. That is true, but will someone also look into how that so-called consensus was manipulated by manipulators from behind the scenes who have employed accountability as a tool on their larger chess board of power? This is not to absolve the political parties of their responsibility but to indicate how the appointment of top accountability czar was manipulated. It will be worthwhile if some investigative reporters undertook this exercise.

After the Supreme Court’s detailed verdict, the NAB chairman, himself a former judge, has lost all credibility - if there indeed was anything left of it. He ought to know what such stinging indictment must mean. Short of the verdict being overturned, there is no escape for him to step down, disband the bureau and erect a new structure resting on foundations of equity. The political parties have already demanded it.

Genuine accountability will elude us as long everyone is not equal before the law. As long as some are more equals than others as in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. As long as there are sacred cows who exercise power without accountability.

Accountability is a farce unless it is across the board for everyone, including judges and generals. It is a fallacy to argue that some institutions have their own built-in accountability mechanisms. Everyone paid out of state exchequer must be subjected to a uniform accountability mechanism.

Without it “irretrievable harm to the country, nation and society in multiple ways” will continue to be don and the mayhem persist.

The writer is a former senator