Accountability of political and other public figures has been a buzzword in Pakistan for a long while. However, under Imran Khan’s watch, it has acquired the intensity of a gale.
Ironically, however, sifting through the suspicious baggage of financial and pecuniary shenanigans of political figures was begun under those who are, presently, most prominent in its line of fire. Some say it’s poetic justice, more than irony, that those who invented the accountability sword to draw blood of their political rivals are themselves falling on it.
It was Nawaz Sharif—now serving a seven-year sentence for corruption in only one of dozens of cases of wholesale plunder of Pakistan’s national resources against him—who set up in the early 1990s in his first stint as PM, what was then known as Ehtesab (Accountability) Bureau to primarily dog the notorious husband of his main political rival, Benazir Bhutto.
Nawaz’s accountability contraption was headed by a businessman friend of his, by the name of Saif-ur-Rehman—who went after his quarry, Asif Ali Zardari, with the zeal of a Spanish Inquisitor. So aggressive were his tactics of harassment that he, soon enough, became known as Ehtesab-ur-Rehman.
But as soon as Nawaz was toppled—for corruption of myriad kinds—and replaced by his nemesis, Benazir, Rehman fled to the safety of Qatar. Zardari, sure enough, was not only set free from prison, unscathed, but overnight made a minister in his wife’s cabinet. The booty of Pakistan was again his to plunder, to his heart’s content.
However, the roller-coaster of Pakistani politics off-loaded Benazir in three years time and put Nawaz once again in the saddle of power. Rehman, the matador, was quickly back to his niche and Zardari returned to his former prison cell.
But the bizarre game of political musical chairs pulled the rug from under Nawaz, in October 1999, when he was kicked out by yet another Pakistani Bonaparte, General Pervez Musharraf. Zardari was forced into exile from prison and his tormentor, Saif-ur-Rehman, sought shelter once again with his Qatari patrons. He reportedly carries on his myriad shady businesses from his Qatari sanctuary, to date, while his mentor, Nawaz, is languishing in jail.
It was Musharraf who reconstituted the Nawaz-era accountability claptrap into a new mould, giving it its present name, the National Accountability Bureau, better known to every Pakistani by its acronym—NAB.
Musharraf not only gave the NAB its new name but also enlarged its net of accountability by bringing civil and military officers under its ambit. However, while many low and high-level bureaucrats have been nabbed and made to pay the price of their misuse of office or authority, hardly any military officer has ever had to face the NAB music. Musharraf also tried to make the NAB more democratic and broad-based in its format by legislating that its chairman would be elected not by the government alone, but through a consensus of the prime minister of the day and leader of the opposition in the parliament.
Musharraf’s intent was to ensure that NAB’s wide ambit of authority wouldn’t be misused or abused by the political party in power. However, little would he know that the corrupt duo of Zardari and Nawaz—whom Musharraf himself granted a new lease of life under his dubious National Reconciliation Order (NRO)—would return to their game of plunder with vengeance after his own political demise in 2008.
In their 10-year stint in power—between 2008 and 2018—Zardari and Nawaz made sure that their ‘consensus’ wouldn’t put an inconvenient or troublesome man at the head of NAB, until in their overconfidence, they made the fatal error of choosing its current chairman, the squeaky-clean retired Justice Javed Iqbal.
Imran Khan’s political career took off after his clarion call to the nation to rid Pakistan of its endemic culture of corruption. He has sworn to go after the corrupt duo of Zardari and Nawaz; in his latest address to the nation, Imran renewed his pledge to not spare anyone guilty of looting and plundering Pakistan.
The badly haemorrhaging economy Imran inherited from Zardari and Nawaz is there to buttress his crusade against the likes of these two notorious robber-barons. In Justice Iqbal he has a willing ally to nab the guilty and hold them fully accountable.
Imran’s political opponents may cry themselves hoarse as ‘victims’ of a witch-hunt. But facts on the ground are not going to put him on the backfoot. The two culprits borrowed more from the outside world in 10 years than all previous governments did in 60. They have little to show where all that money disappeared. Imran has just launched a high-powered, broad-based Commission of Inquiry to look into the web of corruption Zardari and Nawaz in power had spun.
A common Pakistani agrees with Imran that the sword of accountability must fall on the mega-corrupt politicians. Nawaz is already in jail and Zardari is staring at his Waterloo. But there is, as yet, no answer to the question why only politicos are caught in the dragnet when political power, over decades, has equally been shared and abused by generals and Bonapartes? When will they, if ever, have their comeuppance?
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat