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Old Thursday, May 30, 2013
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Default Politics of accountability

Politics of accountability
By Ayesha Siddiqa

As if Mian Nawaz Sharif didnít have enough in his plate, he was landed with another tough decision regarding appointment of the chairman of the prime accountability organisation, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). On May 28, the Supreme Court declared the appointment of Admiral (retd) Fasih Bokhari chairman NAB by President Asif Ali Zardari in October 2011 as null and void. The PML-Nís Chaudhry Nisar filed the case within days of Bokhariís appointment on October 16, 2011. His plea was that the leader of the opposition was not consulted. In the end, Bokhari had no argument except to cite Nawaz Sharifís past statements applauding his services.
The decision on who to appoint as chairman NAB is going to be tough because people are likely to watch and make up their minds on whether the PML-N government is serious about its promises of delivering or if it would treat public funds with disrespect. It is a fact of the matter that accountability structures in Pakistan are historically politicised. In the past, accountability mechanisms were used to terrorise and blackmail opponents or save those in power. The Bureau, like older accountability structures was, in fact, established to coerce and buy politicians.
Now, the timing of the decision tends to put an additional burden on the new governmentís shoulders as it has raised many eyebrows. Although the former naval chief did nothing in the past two years except waste public resources and his credibility by not doing anything, people will wonder if the decision is linked with controlling the organisation and getting rid of a man who represented opposing political interests. Thus, if the government is now seen as planting people who are reputed as subservient to a single party, it is bound to make people doubtful about the new leadershipís intent.
If accountability organisations continue to be tools of political influence and mismanaged, then it will make a lot of sense to get rid of the organisation and save the approximately Rs150 million spent on NAB annually. Over the years, NAB has gathered a lot of moss in the form of highly incompetent people. Its senior management includes people who have serious complaints against them and have questionable capacity. In the past couple of years, in particular, the place had become a parking space for mostly retired military bureaucrats. This helped because the media would shy from grilling a retired senior commander about unauthenticated claims of saving billions and doing prevention of corruption despite that the team had no intellectual and professional capacity to carry out such activity. In some cases, the senior management did not even have moral capacity. In fact, prevention as a concept was used to extend powers into areas in which the Bureau had no expertise (any new Chair must beware of the snake pit NAB has become).
Nevertheless, if there is a real intent to have accountability, then the government will have to carry out surgical restructuring of the entire accountability mechanism, which is not just restricted to NAB but also includes provincial anti-corruption organisations and the Department of the Auditor General of Pakistan. The one who runs these organisations is critical to the ultimate shape of the system. Thus far, the debate on who heads these organisations is restricted to whether it should be a judge, a bureaucrat or a general, without emphasising the credibility of the person. In the previous parliament, the PPP and the PML-N were stuck on the issue of whether to restrict the selection of the NAB head to a serving or retired judge. The PML-N made a case for judiciary. However, sticking to this position at this time could raise serious doubts. Also, it is a reductionist approach to argue that only people from a certain profession may have the credibility to do accountability. A better idea would be to select the chairman NAB and the auditor-general after a process of rigorous hearing by select committees of the parliament. One who can establish himself/herself as morally upright and professionally competent should get the job. The 1973 Constitution talks about appointment of the auditor general but does not mention his/her professional and moral capacity. This must change.
Sadly, heads of accountability organisations are usually senior citizens at the tail end of their careers or those who have retired. Under the circumstances, their attention is always on traveling abroad and enjoying perks and privileges. Since these are political appointments, it is necessary to link these with professional competence than age. The lesson from the Election Commission of Pakistan should be enough to learn that age does not ensure competence.
But the most important issue pertains to the autonomy of accountability organisations, which is missing in Pakistanís accountability set-up. There is a need to make the auditor general and NAB independent of the government. The previous parliament was considering a new accountability bill, which put NAB under the ministry of law. This is unacceptable as it would kill autonomy (putting a serving or retired judge under the ministry of law would also undermine the judiciary). The accountability organisations should have an independent budget debated and approved by parliament. However, such autonomy makes it even more important that those selected are people of proven good reputation and of an age where work is not a burden. Similarly, the auditor generalís department awaits restructuring in the form of separation of audit from accounts and greater autonomy and power to examine public expenditure.
Surely, autonomy will not make sense until the technological and human resource capacities are enhanced through better training. Last year, NAB recruited about 260 people who are undergoing sub-standard training that may produce mediocre or below average investigators but not of the calibre that the accountability system deserves.
States cannot progress without impersonal institutional structures. The new government/s ought to appreciate the frustration of the common man and his/her hunger for a better Pakistan. Providing electricity is necessary but improving the accountability mechanism is equally critical. How the process and system is managed could lead to greater hope or more disillusion.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 30th, 2013.
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