NationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 05

Chinese or Saudi-style accountability?

Prime Minister Imran Khan has expressed his desire to follow the example of China and send 500 corrupt people in Pakistan to jail. National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Chairman Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal also wants powers, which are available to anti-corruption authorities in Saudi Arabia, to bring back looted money. Their desires speak of their frustration with the accountability drive and its utter failure.

It is a fact that Pakistan cannot make laws which are in practice in China and Saudi Arabia. It is also without doubt that Pakistan has not been able to bring back looted money stashed abroad despite arresting former President Asif Zardari, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and others. Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) Chairman Shabbar Zaidi has also admitted the fact that it is almost impossible to bring back ill-gotten money. According to estimates, $6 billion was remitted out of Pakistan every year in last 20 years out of which 85pc was sent out legally. The practice of sending out money abroad still continues as almost every wealthy Pakistani owns assets and property abroad.

Speaking to the China Council for Promotion of International Trade in Beijing, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that one thing he had learnt from China was how the country’s leadership tackled corruption. “One of President Xi Jinping’s biggest crusade has been against corruption and I have heard that some 400 ministerial-level people have been convicted on charges of corruption and put behind bar in the last five years in China,” he said while referring to Xi’s merciless anti-corruption drive launched in 2012, that reportedly netted more than 1.3 million officials at various levels. Imran Khan regretted that processing of corruption cases in Pakistan was “very cumbersome.” He is himself to blame for it because he has failed to reform accountability laws.

Earlier, the NAB chairman had also expressed his disappointment when he said if he was given powers, which are available to the anti-corruption authorities in Saudi Arabia, he could bring back looted money in shortest possible time. Addressing traders and manufacturers at the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, he said the Saudi authorities had taken four weeks to recover looted wealth and he could accomplish the task in just three weeks. He knows it is just wishful thinking.

According to the NAB, it has recovered Rs342 billion from corrupt elements since its inception and during the last 22 months, Rs71 billion have been recovered and deposited to the national kitty. The main problem for the NAB is the cold response from other countries in providing legal assistance required to proceed against suspects having off-shore accounts and properties. Money from white-collar crimes in Pakistan is used to buy properties and farm houses in the UAE, Europe, the US and Australia, but these countries refuse to cooperate with Pakistan.

The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government came to power on election promises of wide-ranging social and economic reforms, with fair and uniform accountability being top of its manifesto. The government’s ownership of corruption cases against politicians has not only maligned its image but also brought the NAB into disrepute.

The common people have realised that the government has launched a vigorous campaign against corruption and many people have been arrested but it has not recovered enough money or brought about change in their lives. The NAB receives over 40,000 complaints every year. Ideally, a complaint is processed within two months. The next step is inquiry, which should be processed in four months. In the investigation section, cases are investigated for further processing and it also takes four months to complete investigations. Critics say only few dozen cases reach the prosecution stage every year and the conviction rate is almost 7pc. It was also admitted by Prime Minister Imran Khan recently, when he assailed low rates of conviction in NAB cases and said it was 7pc in Pakistan while in Malaysia it was 90pc. However, the NAB claims its conviction rate is 70pc.

Analysts say the government will have to concentrate on public issues and their resolution, as it cannot use corruption as an excuse for inaction any more. The PTI had announced revolutionary reforms to improve education, health, revenue generation, investment, employment, agriculture, federation, the environment, tourism and justice, and to eradicate corruption. Prime Minister Imran Khan, in his inaugural speech, had announced making Pakistan a welfare state.

The PTI government had promised 100m jobs in five years. Instead, thousands of people have lost their jobs in the private sector in the first year of its rule. Private businesses are making lay-offs to offset their declining profit margins. A large number of people, associated with different professions, are losing jobs as even the government’s top-most priority area, the housing sector, is badly hit. Real estate, housing, private societies’ developers, builders and construction businesses are in extremely bad shape and a large number of people have lost their jobs in recent months.

Experts say housing societies and builders have started retrenchment as their businesses were affected because of inconsistency in government policies, political situation, alleged harassment by the NAB and the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), the bureaucracy’s reluctance to sign files and take even legitimate decisions, rupee devaluation and high costs of construction.

Analysts say inflation is the highest in the last five years and growth is the lowest in nine years. It has badly affected the lowest income groups, which form the biggest numerical bloc among the working class. Critics believe Imran Khan has no plan to revive the economy and fulfil his election promises. He is accused of pursuing policies that have hurt the middle and lower income groups through cutting subsidies, slashing the development budget, squeezing the rupee, stoking inflation and reducing incomes.

Accountability is a lengthy process and the curse is entrenched in society and politics. It will take decades of concerted efforts to dent the problem, which even exists in the civilized world. The government should reform the NAB under the guidelines of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and leave the accountability process to it. People are fed up with the accountability mantra and demand resolution to their problems. Instead of empty rhetoric, the government should focus on practical measures to resolve their issues.