Pakistan’s military regime launches long-awaited crackdown on corrupt officials, politicians and businessmen

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zafar Bangash

Sha'ban 23, 1420 1999-12-01


by Zafar Bangash (World, Crescent International Vol. 28, No. 19, Sha'ban, 1420)

Pakistan’s new military regime launched its promised crackdown on corruption on November 17, when it arrested a number of politicians, businessmen, bureaucrats and former military officers accused of corruption or willful default of bank loans. The move has been widely welcomed in Pakistan, the only complaint being that the net was not cast wider. There is near-universal support for the process of accountability launched by the military regime which, unlike previous accountability processes, is seen as being transparent and genuinely intended to arrest the crooks.

The arrests were closely followed by an announcement by the new chairman of Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB), lieutenant-general Muhammad Amjad, that special courts would be established to try cases of corruption. Armed with new powers under the Accountability Ordinance signed into law by president Rafiq Tarar, general Amjad said at his first press conference in Islamabad on November 20 that new evidence had been unearthed about the wrongdoings of both the deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his predecessor, Benazir Bhutto.

Bhutto has constantly repeated her claim that she is innocent and victim of a conspiracy hatched by her nemesis, Nawaz Sharif, now himself the target of charges of corruption. However, she has refused to return to Pakistan to clear her name in court. She “languishes” in the opulent surroundings of London, living off the billions pilfered from the poor in Pakistan. In early November, she visited Toronto to lecture and insist that she is not a crook. Few, except the Muslim-hating western commentators who cling to any straw to beat the Muslims with, believe her.

The real drama, however, is being played out in Pakistan, where rangers and police teams have been working overtime going after the big fish. The military had set a November 16 deadline for defaulters to clear their debts, promising that no questions would be asked about the funds used to clear them. By that time, a mere Rs 8 billion out of a total of Rs 211 billion (54 rupees equal $1) had been recovered. Among those arrested in the first wave are several former provincial chief ministers, former federal and provincial ministers, businessmen and civil and military bureaucrats. Prominent among them is Anwar Saifullah, a minister in the previous regime and son-in-law of the former president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, whose family has milked the country dry while having members conveniently lodged on all sides of the political divide.

The government has named 29 individuals for corruption and loan defaults although 11 of them have already fled the country. These include, besides Benazir Bhutto, Masroorul Haq, a former naval chief, and Waqar Azim, a retired air vice-marshal. That former military personnel are among those named on corruption charges has been hugely welcomed in Pakistan. Some businessmen complained that arresting their colleagues would undermine investor confidence. Stealing, presumably, is part of the Pakistani businessman’s style of operations, as well as fleeing the moment there is the slightest uncertainty.

The law and order situation has, however, improved dramatically. The sectarian violence that had shattered the peace of ordinary citizens has come to an abrupt end. In Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and commercial hub, life is back to normal. A year ago, there were police and ranger check posts at every street intersection, with armed troops stationed at every 100 yards. Now the barricades are deserted, although not dismantled; there are only traffic police on the roads directing the chaotic traffic in the usual cacophony of sirens and horns.

When asked why the accountability process was not progressing more quickly, general Amjad said the bureau did not want to take action in haste as had been done in the past. He agreed that NAB’s pace did not match the public’s expectations, saying that “there are circumstances which are beyond our control which prevent us from unearthing evidence speedily and getting the culprits punished as quickly as the public wants,” he said.

General Amjad, however, is a no-nonsense soldier, who was known for his seriousness even while a student in Lawrence College, Ghora-Gali, in the early sixties. Sources in the GHQ told this author that when asked to head the NAB, general Amjad said he would only accept if he were given a free hand to go after all guilty parties, even military personnel. Pakistan’s new military chief, general Pervez Musharraf, agreed.

There are known to be at least 7,000 loan defaulters in the country. However, the deputy governor of the State Bank, said that “action against 320 has been planned” for now. He elaborated that there were 30 percent of defaulters who owed Rs 100 billion or more to the banks and the DFIs. After the highly publicised arrests on November 17, a number of leading politicians, among them many former ministers, rushed to pay their income and wealth-taxes that had remained unpaid for years.

Notwithstanding western criticism of the military regime, the people of Pakistan have welcomed the takeover and have expressed support for the crackdown. There is widespread disgust at the manner in which democracy has been practised in Pakistan. The feudal lords have traditionally treated democracy as a handmaiden; they do no work but live off the sweat of the peasants. They treat their workers as serfs whose life and honour are used and abused at will. Those who run foul of them end up in the private jails of the feudal landlords; many simply disappear without trace. For the first time, these parasites are on the run and some may soon be in the dock. Whether the military regime will be able to go after all of them is a moot point; for now, at least some of the feudals are being hauled to account for their misdeeds. The new Accountability Ordinance also calls for defaulters’ disqualification from politics for between 14 and 21 years.

To cynics, however, this all looks very familiar. General Ayub Khan said very similar things when he took over in October 1958. Initially he, too, went after the big crooks and had politicians barred for seven years, but soon it was business as usual. The big question is, whether the military regime will prove able to live up to the promises it has made.

Muslimedia: December 1-15, 1999

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