Jan 27, 2010

Corruption's many chimeras

Anjum Niaz

The writer is a freelance journalist with over twenty years of experience in national and international reporting

Today we live among phantoms, among bogeymen, among illusions. We delude ourselves that Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry will purge Pakistan of corruption. Others daydream that Asif Zardari will gift democracy to Pakistan as if it was his personal fiefdom. Many among us hallucinate that General Kayani will bring back the spectre of military dictatorship. Some simpletons fancy Prime Minister Gilani telling his president and his cabinet to confess their sins and cough up the supposed loot.

In Greek mythology, a chimera is a "fire-breathing she-monster usually represented as a composite of a lion, goat, and serpent" or "An imaginary monster made up of grotesquely disparate parts." Corruption is our chimera, a monster that molests our minds and has no cure.

Blithely unaware of how to put the NRO beneficiaries in the dock, there are a thousand questions that none has the answer. Tell me where in the world does a government run by a president seize his wealth and freeze it? How can a prime minister handpicked and controlled by the president request Swiss authorities to transfer $60 million purportedly belonging to his president? How can a government whose own top power horses stand accused order their subordinates to come and scrutinise them? How can the Central Executive Committee of the PPP demand the persecution of the widower of their slain leader?

If we expect the emasculated, impoverished and comatose National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to execute the orders of the Supreme Court, then think again. The babus at NAB are mere fossilised file-pushers with no spine or will of their own. Its chairman, Naveed Ahsan, a Musharraf appointee, is a typical bureaucrat who does exactly as ordered by his bosses. That's his training, he once told me. Ahsan is not programmed to act but only follow instructions. A visit to the NAB's office in Islamabad will dispel anyone of grandiose hopes that this innocuously harmless outfit will deliver millions of dollars stolen from the country back into the treasury coffers.

Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry's judgment refers to the $1.2 billion that the post-Abacha government in Nigeria wrested back in a deal with the heirs of the deceased Gen Abacha who siphoned off $3-4 billion when he was the ruler in the 90s. The ruling also refers to the Philippines former president Marcos whose ill-gotten wealth was returned to the country. But in both instances, it happened after the two had been deposed.

How can a sitting head of state and government (that's what Zardari is) be expected to stand up, say sorry, present his allegedly laundered billions to the people of Pakistan on a platter? How can his corrupt cronies swear before the court of the people that they have sinned? The day that happens, heavens will open. Pakistan's fortunes will change forever.

The soberly serious columnist Arif Nizami recently wrote on these pages: "Some US diplomats based in Islamabad have been openly briefing media persons and opinion leaders since the Supreme Court verdict on the NRO that Mr Zardari has been weakened to the extent that in his dealings with the army he is no longer of any use for Washington. They also do not see him lasting beyond March."

Nizami's last sentence is a clincher, cleverly packed inside his column that few would care to notice. The Americans know when it's time for the top gun in Pakistan to be packed off. I remember well that November afternoon in 1996 when the US Charge d' Affaires John Holzman in Islamabad said something to me which went over my head. I let it go. Hours later, while Pakistan slept, President Farooq Leghari dismissed Benazir Bhutto's government on corruption charges. Was Holzman — a good man with excellent diplomatic skills (rare now) — trying to tell me something but I was too dumb to get it? Later, I asked him why he didn't just say it! He just smiled. So what I'm trying to say is perhaps Nizami knows something that we all don't know or care to know?

Notice the timing of Farooq Leghari getting vocal once more. Is it merely a coincidence that he has linked the president's role in Murtaza Bhutto's death or is he being manipulated by 'invisible hands,' to speak up at this moment when a net to catch the president is apparently being laid? Leghari's candid talk in a TV interview is damning for the president. We should not be surprised if Leghari were perhaps to become a witness should someone file a case in the Supreme Court. Though he has admitted that he does not have evidence beyond what he said on record. But you never know…

Some influential voices in the media, law and human rights are censuring the judgment against the NRO. The Supreme Court is under attack by them. They editorialise in undisguised anger. In their hand wringing, they predict the downfall of democracy and the rise of dictatorship, an unholy alliance between the judiciary, the army and the media. It makes for a deadly combination, they contend. So far the debate in the media has thrown no solutions to the issue of corruption. It seems that democracy (read Zardari) is more precious to these few opinionated than accountability. To be fair to them, they advocate accountability across the board. But how? That they don't know.

Almost all the top dogs of our military, bureaucrats, politicians, industrialists and socialites have left behind or will be leaving a tidy package for their progeny to lord over. While these departed and still-alive-and-kicking corrupt are accountable before the highest court of our creation, their kids are certainly kicking it up living off their dads' dough around Pakistan. Recently some Pakistani students on the verge of completing their degrees in the US got asked as to what next they planned to do. Almost all chimed in "Why, of course go back!" They said they came to the US to study but why they should slog it here looking for jobs when back home their 'inheritance' awaited them. I can bet you that some among these students will return to double their fortunes by wheeling and dealing with our power elites. They have the money, clout and family name to milk this nation, leaving enough wealth for their next generation. Ours is an incestuous society – we are all related to each other through blood and marriage; through old boys' network and business connections in some way or the other.

And we are all corrupt!

The day our high society jettisons hypocrisy and embraces truth speak, we will have a fighting chance to reform. The day we admit that we are guilty of corruption or our kith, kin and friends have made money through unlawful channels or have misused their official privileges or have taken bribes or have stuffed their charlies in jobs they don't deserve, the streets will automatically clean up, the roads will be cleared of potholes and the stink in the air will vanish.

Prior to the NRO judgment, almost all castigated the reprehensible act brokered by the US and the UK between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. The so-called opposition in parliament speechified and spieled against Zardari and his cronies' corruption. But today Chaudhry Nisar's oration on the floor of the house as the opposition leader is mere chalk talk that lacks substance while big boss Nawaz Sharif looks flummoxed.

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