The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has become active in the home province of the ruling party for the first time in Pakistan’s history. The arrest of former Lahore Development Authority (LDA) Director General Ahad Cheema has panicked the Punjab government and the bureaucracy, which has been reduced to personal servants of the Sharifs over decades.
According to sources, NAB is probing alleged corruption of over Rs1,500b in development projects in the Punjab. Ahad Cheema, a close aide to Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, has allegedly confessed to his crime and told NAB investigators that the land, worth billons of rupees in the name of his family and relatives, belonged to “someone else.” It is said he could turn an approver against his benefactors. Seven other bureaucrats have also agreed to cooperate with NAB in its action against graft. The Punjab government and bureaucracy are openly opposing the arrest of Cheema for fear of more arrests. The Chief Secretary called a meeting after the arrest, which was attended by all top officers. They expressed their concern over the arrest and claimed the bureaucracy was being “harassed despite working under difficult circumstances.”
On the other hand, a Punjab government spokesperson termed the arrest a breach of institutional jurisdiction by NAB. In a statement, he said, “There are a number of precedents where NAB did not arrest an accused for not appearing before it despite summons. The extraordinary step against a senior official has led to unrest in the administrative machinery that runs the province. The arrest means unfair treatment of a dutiful and hardworking official. The consequent turmoil can adversely affect the performance of the provincial administration and governance.” In its response, NAB defended its action and said it was not a breach of constitutional and human rights as the law allows it to probe and collect evidence on corruption charges against anyone without discrimination. It said it was mandated to eradicate corruption from the country under the law. “Ahad Cheema was apprehended under the law after arrest warrants. His arrest was required due to serious allegations of corruption against him. He is accused of corruption worth millions of rupees,” it said.
Ahad Cheema, who received over Rs2.5m salary as Quaid-e-Azam Thermal Power (Private) Limited CEO, has been a favourite officer of the Punjab chief minister and worked on almost all top posts in the province, even though he was a low-ranking officer. He also served as the Lahore Development Authority (LDA) DG, the most lucrative post in the province. He was arrested for irregularities in the Punjab Land Development Company (PLDC) and awarding a contract for the Aashiana-e-Iqbal project to Casa Developers, allegedly owned by Railway Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique. He was arrested after he failed to appear before an investigation team of NAB. He was summoned twice with the relevant record of the award of the contract, which was supposedly entrusted to him by the chief minister, and purchase of 32-kanal land at Mauza Tedha, in Cantonment, Lahore, but he failed to show up.
He also remained Secretary Higher Education Department and DCO Lahore. During his stint at the LDA, he completed major projects in Lahore worth billions of rupees, including the metro bus, Walton flyover and Azadi Chowk flyover. He was summoned after NAB had recorded the statement of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif in the case last month. Fawad Hassan Fawad – former Secretary Implementation to the Punjab chief minister and Principal Secretary to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and current Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi – has also recorded his statement before NAB. Sources say he will also be arrested soon.
In another development, NAB has also launched an inquiry against the Punjab Anti-Corruption Establishment Director General over allegations of misuse of power and failure to provide a record to it. In fact, departments in the Punjab are willfully defying NAB orders to provide it records of major projects. It has been awaiting the record of the Metro Bus Multan, Ashiana-i-Iqbal Lahore, 56 public sector companies, including the Saaf Pani Company, and allotment of LDA plots by Nawaz Sharif, when he was the Punjab chief minister. The defiance forced NAB Chairman Justice (r) Javed Iqbal to issue a warning. “Some departments of the Punjab government are not cooperating with us over investigations against the Sharifs. NAB will deal with the departments with an iron hand.”
NAB is also expected to summon Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif in alleged irregularities in the Multan Metro Bus project. Over a dozen senior officials, some very close to the chief minister, have already appeared before it. They included Punjab Planning and Development Board Chairman Irfan Elahi, Punjab Metro Bus Authority Managing Director Sibtain Fazal Haleem, Punjab Mass Transit Authority General Manager Aziz Shah, Multan Metro Bus Service Project Director Sabir Khan Sadozai, Multan Development Authority Director General Asadullah Khan, Member Infrastructure Dr. Abid Bodla, Additional Secretary Finance Ashiq Hussain Olakh, Additional Secretary Technical Housing Urban Development and Public Health Engineering Department Shahid Latif, Social Infrastructure’s Dr. Bushra Amaan, Member Services Punjab Planning and Development Dr. Naveed Ahmad Chaudhry, Director General Monitoring and Evaluation Dr. Sajid Mubeen and Assistant Chief Technical Muhammad Imran. Sources say seven of them have already confessed to corruption.
Investigations against a large number of officers and the arrest of Cheema have sent a shockwave through the Punjab bureaucracy. The bureaucracy in the province was considered “untouchable” under the Sharifs. It has been their favourite method to appoint junior officers to senior posts to win over their loyalties, humiliate senior officers and obtain desired results. Cheema is a typical example. However, it appears times have changed and NAB will land big catch in few months.