Nobody seems to be happy with the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Neither the government, nor opposition, or Supreme Courts, or the media – not even the NAB itself. The government is unhappy with NAB for being too interfering. This, in an ideal world should be a good thing, but then the opposition is not happy with NAB not interfering enough. The Supreme Court is unhappy because NAB encourages legal ‘bargaining’ with the corrupt, and the media is bitter because NAB is passive when corruption is the biggest issue. NAB or its employees are not happy either, for being embroiled in service issues and for not being protected in their hazardous task. A depressing situation for a once promising and powerful entity.

NAB was set up as the textbook anti-corruption agency; independent, autonomous, heavily resourced and constitutionally protected. It was mostly modelled after Hong Kong’s Independent Corruption against Corruption (ICAC), which gained credibility due to its professionalism and enormous success. ICAC’s success was possible due to autonomy in operations, immense legal powers, unlimited resources and political will of the regime.

NAB got all those unique and unprecedented powers as well. Absolute authority of cognisance and the power to initiate investigation without any outside approval, new offences, reversal of burden of proof, arrest without warrant, seizure and freezing of assets, no provision of bail by trial courts, physical remand of 90 days and the power to submit or withdraw any prosecution were all included in their broad spectrum of power. Like ICAC, NAB got generous financial and human resources. The manpower came from different agencies and was later recruited directly with specialised professional training. All such steps made ICAC the number one anti-corruption agency in the world and despite all these powers, NAB is struggling to survive. How did we get here?

The reason is not the magnitude of corruption in Pakistan. In the 1970s, Hong Kong was a hub of systematic and ‘syndicated’ corruption. Taxi drivers used to display bribe receipts on their windscreens for the police and all illegal businesses were owned by public servants, yet the ICAC overcame that in one decade. NAB had everything that ICAC or any effective anti-corruption agency should have but its performance was completely opposite to how ICAC did. The reason lies in priorities and course of action. NAB operated under some fanciful assumptions, which proved short-sighted and counterproductive.

The first and most obvious assumption is about the origin of corruption. The popular view is that the scourge of corruption only originates from the top and especially the political elite. This view is common and quite pervasive. NAB hit those at the top and within a few months, the who’s who of politics were behind bars. The gain in reputation after arrests of ‘big guns’ proved ephemeral when the same big players found their way back into the system while the public did not feel any relief from the day-to-day routine corruption.

Most of the successful anti-corruption initiatives worldwide started slow and gradually built their intervention into systematic corruption instead of focusing on a few public figures. The top-down explanation is attractive for deterrence but only focuses on the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’ and is often misleading. It emphasises on a few-dozen ‘usual suspects’ and ignores thousands of independent public servants skimming resources hidden in plain sight. According to the Global Corruption Barometer 2013, 75% of the public that came in contact with land administration, police and tax ended up paying bribes, which makes our government departments the most corrupt in the world.

NAB’s selective approach was linked with a lack of interest in so called petty corruption. The assumption that severing the head would eliminate the ghost of corruption conveniently ignored that, like a hydra, corruption has many heads readily replaced with new ones. Predicatively, gains form ‘taking the heads’ proved short term and after temporary improvements till 2003, corruption returned to stable levels. ‘Grand’ corruption affects credibility but ‘petty’ corruption touches the day-to-day lives of citizens. A petty bribe for a police officer or revenue collector is a ‘grand’ loss for a hapless labour or farmer.

NAB’s emphasis on grand corruption logically gave rise to arbitrary prosecution. The options of ‘plea bargaining’ and ‘voluntary return’ further enforced the notion of selective personalised accountability. The sheer absence of accountability from this accountability czar was the final nail. NAB is autonomous and not subject to any form of horizontal or vertical accountability except for a ceremonial submission of an annual report to the President. Chairman NAB enjoys tenure protection reserved for Supreme Court judges and as per law is not answerable to anyone. The framers of NAB did not realise that accountability and oversight are not weaknesses but the strength of an organisation. Statutory powers have resulted in NAB’s alienation instead of a networked institution.

NAB’s framers did adopt the organisational model from other effective agencies but failed to follow their practices and processes. ICAC Hong Kong is the strongest and most resourceful but all its prosecutions go through an independent Attorney General. It has absolute operational autonomy but all its investigations have to be approved by oversight committees with representation from the private sector and civil society. No corruption case can be closed without approval of the oversight committee. Above all, ICAC does not discourage any complaint, big or small, with investigation ratio of 80% of all complaints. NAB on the other hand, not only discourages petty complaints but does not entertain anonymous ones. Who in our society will come forward openly against corruption syndicates is a question only NAB can answer.

Corruption is academically defined as; monopoly plus discretion minus accountability. Unlike ICAC, NAB has hardly led reforms to check discretionary practices and introduce internal accountability for prevention. The accountability law is still here with most of the powers. The Bureau is also here with thousands of trained investigators and institutional memory. What is missing is political will, priority and direction. Bribery and misuse of resources are endemic, and faceless public servants are carrying on with business as usual under the clamour of a few contentious scandals. The trust deficit and lack of direction by the State has rendered an effective institution dormant.