Earlier this week, the honorable Supreme Court of Pakistan, while hearing a petition relating to scrutiny of National Accountability Bureau (NAB), its chairman, and other officials, directed that a report be submitted concerning an update on the status of mega corruption scams pending before NAB authorities. In response, on Tuesday, NAB officials submitted a report regarding the details of 150 mega corruption cases before the August Court. The report includes pending inquiries and references against several key politicians including, inter alia, the incumbent Prime Minister, Chief Minister (Punjab), former president, Federal Ministers and numerous top bureaucrats. Details of this list, which are staggering in nature, reveal that several cases, dating back to almost a decade, have not been taken to their logical conclusion, in accordance with law. In fact, as widely reported, a reference has been submitted, before a Court of competent jurisdiction, in only 25 out of the 150 inquiries/investigations.

And although, the report does not calculate the precise amount, it is estimated that several billion dollars, worth of corruption remains pending in the ongoing investigations and inquiries of NAB.

In the aftermath, as a media frenzy has begun to highlight the details provided in the report submitted by NAB, powerful political elites, including the Chief Minster (Punjab) and the Federal Minister for Finance, seem to have taken a personal insult at the inclusion of their (alleged) deeds in this ignominious report. The Chief Minister, in fact, took the time to conduct an entire press conference, from his residence in Model Town, Lahore, highlighting how his family was not a loan defaulter, and in the process took jabs at NABs performance and credibility in prosecuting instances of public fraud and corruption. His narrative was supported by the Federal Information Minister voice of the government – who alleged that NAB had lost all credibility, over the years, and was only interested in maligning the democratic leadership.

The entire saga concerning NAB, before the Supreme Court as well as the media, once again brings into question several key issues of national and judicial relevance: How do we, as a society, view accountability in our political and financial transactions? How can such accountability be guaranteed in a system of partisan politics, through an independent institution? What degree of autonomy must be provided to such an institution for it to work effectively? Should there be political oversight in the process? And what is the ambit of judicial review (interference?) in the independent functioning of the accountability process? Does the Supreme Court have any authority to direct or shepherd the investigation process? Can an independent investigation, in fidelity to the tenets of fair trial, under Article 10A, be conducted if, at first instance, the apex Court makes observations about the culpability of the accused? Can the investigative authority, within its own autonomous sphere of influence, refuse the interference of the honorable Supreme Court? Can its employees, all of whom live and breathe within the governments sphere of influence, withstand the pressures of the political elite? What changes, if any, need to be made to the existing structure of accountability for it to produce meaningful results?

At the very outset, it is important to impress upon the fact that NAB, despite all of its legislative and investigative powers, has underperformed the promise of its creation. Since, promulgation of the National Accountability Ordinance, 1999, and the statutory autonomy envisioned in the said law, NAB has repeatedly been used as an instrument of political extortion. During the Musharraf years (with the exception of General Amjads tenure), several politicians were hauled in by NAB authorities, as a way of intimidating them to join the then ruling party. Charges were cooked up against opposition leaders, and subsequently withdrawn when they bowed at the altar of PML-Qs government. In fact, the dropping of NAB cases and prosecution was the very promise of the National Reconciliation Ordinance, 2007, when a waning Musharraf regime decided to reach out and make alliances across the political aisle. And the familiar story of NAB being used as an intimidation tool has continued during the PPP and PML-N years. In this backdrop, none can be blamed in questioning the motives behind NAB inquiries, and a lack of convictions by the accountability Courts.

On the flip side, it is equally difficult to deny that the political elite has repeatedly attempted to use NAB as a device to victimize opponents, and sanctify their own actions. The very politicians who, while in opposition, were clamoring for greater independence of NAB authorities to institute investigations and cases against government officials, are now, having come into power, vociferously opposing such audacity by NAB officials. And somewhere between this political seesaw, we have managed to reduce NAB into a fumbling organization, that neither possesses the courage to stand up to the ruling party, nor the feebleness to entirely submit at the feet of the government.

This unsure approach to accountability has been made more uncertain by the constant interference of the honorable Supreme Court in the ongoing working of NAB, especially during the Iftikhar Chaudhary years. During the heroic suo moto proceedings that uncovered mega scams such as NICL case, OGRA case, Hajj scam, and the ephedrine scandal, the august Court took a personal interest in directing investigation, ordering arrests, and requiring that references may be filed against the alleged culprits. Judgments of the honorable Court, without recourse to the trial proceedings, made prima facie observations about the culpability of the individuals, leaving virtually no discretion for NAB authorities to conduct an independent investigation. Any time that NAB attempted to reassert its autonomy as guaranteed by the law, it was quickly cut down to size through contempt proceedings and removal of successive chairman. As a result, despite legislative guarantees, NAB officials have learned their lessons to not step out of line with the honorable Supreme Court, and in the process entirely compromised their autonomy and independence.

The solution, in terms of creating an independent and effective accountability mechanism, rests with allowing NAB to conduct its operations without any interference from either the political or judicial seats of power. And this, in a realist sense, is a difficult task in a society where giving up power and influence is unheard of. Asking the political government or the honorable Court not to exert its influence in the operations of NAB equates to asking them to resist the allure of seemingly endless power.

Financial and political accountability, in a society as diverse as ours, is a herculean task, even in the best of circumstances. It becomes virtually impossible when subjected to the insatiable desire of control by competing branches of the State. And in the process, innovative methods of corruption are met with a weak structure of accountability, which is neither fair nor effective.

The only way for accountability to be meaningful in this land is to allow NAB to function as autonomously as possible within the ambit and sphere of its laws. A desire to control the process only succeeds in weakening it. And as a consequence, strengthens the legacy of corruption that has come to take center stage in our politics.