The PPP government in Sindh has repealed the National Accountability Ordinance (NAO) 1999 through a bill rammed through the provincial assembly on the basis if the PPP’s unassailable majority. The bill abolishes the applicability of the NAO to Sindh province. That means the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) can no longer conduct inquiries or investigations into the affairs of departments or autonomous bodies under the control of the Sindh government. The bill was presented in the house by Sindh Law Minister Ziaul Hasan Lanjar and explained at length by Sindh Advocate General Barrister Zamir Ghumro. The opposition, comprising the MQM, PML-N and PML-F, protested vociferously against the bill, likening it to the thin edge of the wedge of separation from the federation. That alarm may be exaggerated, but matters were not helped by the hurry the treasury benches were in to present and pass the bill. The Speaker, Agha Siraj Durrani, did not help matters and in fact poured oil on the fire by insisting on restricting the opposition to speeches by party leaders alone. This set off a veritable firestorm in the house, which did not deter the government from reading out and passing the bill within 70 minutes from start to finish amidst a protest walkout by the entire opposition shouting loud slogans against the PPP. The opposition later held a press conference in which they vowed to mount a legal challenge to the repeal of bill and initiate a movement against it. They rejected the arguments of the treasury that the NAO was promulgated during the emergency imposed by former dictator General Pervez Musharraf and should have expired, as all Ordinances do, after six months. However, they had no cogent explanation for how they intended to challenge the cover provided to the NAO by the 17th Constitutional Amendment. As it now stands, the repeal bill transfers all pending proceedings with NAB and its courts to the provincial anti-corruption department. The Sindh government committed to bringing in a fresh anti-corruption law to strengthen what the opposition castigated as a zero performing anti-corruption department.
Legal arguments aside, and they are layered and complex, the perception not only of the Sindh opposition but wide swathes of public opinion is that the Sindh government’s move is intended purely to save their bigwigs from the clutches of NAB. Provincial bureaucrats too have been hauled up on similar charges of corruption. This perception is lent weight by the manner in which the PPP government railroaded the bill through the assembly, despite the argument that such a controversial and potentially constitutionally challenged law needed a thorough debate and consideration. Of course there are aspects to the NAO, NAB and their functioning that have raised more than their share of controversy over the years. For example, the procedure of detention and trial by NAB courts has often been criticised for failing to meet fair trial standards. NAB courts had no power to grant bail even if the circumstances of the case prima facie warranted it. The NAB chairman is perceived to be anointed with too much discretion in pursuing cases, the methodology followed, and, most controversially, plea bargains. But none of these arguments worthy of consideration appears to be the real motivation of the Sindh PPP government. The repealed bill therefore will be seen as a naked, blatant attempt to wrest control from the prying eyes (and clutches) of NAB. Surely this is neither wise nor politically beneficial for the PPP government in Sindh.