While the government’s crackdown on corruption in high places has pleased many Pakistanis, it is also, warns Rahimullah Yusufzai, causing political confrontation and fuelling instability
As a former president of Pakistan and two ex-prime ministers languish in prison on charges of corruption and misuse of power, two more premiers awaiting trial could meet a similar fate.
Pakistan’s battered image has been further damaged by the imprisonment of those who held power. When such trust, placed in those who rule by the electorate and parliament, is misused, it is a serious breach of confidence. Although the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which was mandated in 1997 to carry out anti-graft measures in Pakistan, suffers from credibility problems, some of the high-profile arrests it made were welcomed by most Pakistanis, who have always backed demands to punish the corrupt.
However, the fact that it is opposition leaders who have mostly been arrested raises questions about the claim that accountability is being applied across the board. The head of NAB, retired Justice Javed Iqbal, argued that the opposition parties – the PPP and PML-N – having been in power for years, were more liable to face corruption cases than the present ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which only came to power for the first time a year ago.
Asif Ali Zardari, widower of the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who himself served as president of the country from 2008-2013, has been imprisoned for maintaining fake bank accounts and is currently on trial along with his sister Faryal Talpur, who is an influential member of the provincial assembly in their native Sindh province.
In addition, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is serving a seven-year jail term after being convicted of failing to provide the money trail behind funds and properties owned by his family outside Pakistan. Also facing charges concerning their properties and assets abroadare Sharif’s two London-based sons, Hussain and Hasan, his daughter and political heir Maryam, and his son-in-law, retired army captain Mohammad Safdar.
Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, who served as chief minister of Punjab province and is head of Pakistan’s main opposition party, PML-N, is out of prison on bail but his bank accounts and properties are frozen while he too faces serious charges of corruption. One of his sons, Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, has also been arrested, while his other two sons and son-in-law couldnot be apprehended as they managed to escape abroad.
The second prime minister recently taken into custody was Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who belongs to Nawaz Sharif’s party and was charged with causing losses to the exchequer in a multi-billion rupee deal for the import of liquefied natural gas. He is facing interrogation after being placed on judicial remand and could be put on trial in the coming days.
Two other former prime ministers, Yousaf Raza Gillani and Pervez Ashraf, both belonging to the PPP led by Asif Ali Zardari and his only son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, are being tried on several counts of misuse of power and could land in jail in future.
It does not stop there. Several former ministers are also in prison or about to be imprisoned, and former and present chief ministers are being investigated for misusing power. Then there are ex-bureaucrats who have already been convicted on charges of corruption or could face conviction in future. A few have turned approver to save their skin. Businessmen, too, are being held to account.
In certain cases, whole families have come under scrutiny as anti-graft bodies probe deeper into their finances and assets. Some of the charges are vague,such as accusations of having assets beyond their known sources of income. Others are more specific, as they relate to projects in which kickbacks and commission were allegedly accepted, causing huge losses to the public purse.
As if this wasn’t enough, an important former provincial minister, Rana Sanaullah, who is also affiliated with the PML-N, was apprehended on drug-trafficking charges. The Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF), which has military officers in senior management positions, claimed thatsurveillanceof Sanaullah’s vehicle resulted in drugs beingdiscovered there.
A former female member of the Punjab Assembly, Fauzia Ayub Qureshi, another PML-N member, was the next to be charged with drug-trafficking when the ANF claimed to have seized 130 kg of hashish from her home. To add further drama, her son Tayyab Ayub Qureshi reportedly provided the tip-off that led to the raid.
It seems almost every politician who has held power, almost every civil servant in a lucrative position is guilty of corruption and misuse of power. The sight of influential men, and some women, being arrested, taken to jail and then brought before the court is no longer rare. While this has pleased many Pakistanis, who want those in power to be held accountable, the anti-graft campaign has enraged others, who believe this accountability is selective,and amounts to political victimization of the government’s rivals and critics.
It is obvious Prime Minister Imran Khan is spearheading the anti-corruption campaign, though his government insists that the rounding up of rival politicians was instituted before his party came to power in July 2018.
Before his electoral triumph last year, Khan’s 22 years in politics were mostly spent crusading against corruption. He even named his party PTI (Movement for Justice in Pakistan) to reflect its quest to deliver justice to the people. Its pioneering slogan was to make all those who remained in power accountable for their deeds.
It may have been a coincidence that Imran Khan reached home in the small hours of July 25 after his maiden three-day visit to the United States – the very day the combined opposition had called a nationwide strike to reiterate its allegation that the July 2018 general election was rigged in favour of the PTI. Khan tried to counter this in a speech at Islamabad International Airport, where PTI members and supporters in large numbers warmly welcomed him home,in which he pledged to continue the ruthless pursuit of accountability. He said he had asked the US and other Western governments to help Pakistan recoup the money looted and stashed away abroad by ‘thieves and robbers’, and promised to transform the institutions destroyed by them.
Even if the prime minister didn’t mention ‘thieves and robbers’ this time, everyone knew he was referring to former rulers such as the Zardari and Sharif families. This has been Imran Khan’s combative style during his year in office and it is clear he has no intention of slowing down his drive for accountability, despite the fact that this has pushed his political rivals in the PML-N, PPP and other opposition parties to form an unlikely alliance, aimed at bringing about the downfall of his government. His political opponents are warning him that he could meet a similar fate once out of power, but the cricketer-turned-politician isn’t backing down as he is confident he has not indulged in corrupt practices.
However, recovering funds kept in foreign banks or used to set up offshore companies for laundering black money is going to be difficult, as past experiences have shown. The crackdown on powerful politicians is causing political confrontation and feeding instability. Measures taken against civil servants are prompting them to delay making decisions and starting projects, while businessmen and traders arenot prepared to cooperate with the government in documenting the economy. Indeed, they called a countrywide strike some weeks ago to oppose payment of taxes.
It remains to be seen whether the Imran Khan government will beat a hasty retreat to remain in power, or if those accused of corruption will agree to return the looted money to save their skin.