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Curious case of NAB's 'missing' billions

06 Nov, 2021
The PTI government's actions have made NAB controversial. BR
The PTI government's actions have made NAB controversial. BR

EDITORIAL: How could it be that NAB (National Accountability Bureau) claims to have recovered Rs 821 billion since its inception 16 years ago and the government has only received about Rs 6.5 billion from the watchdog in all this time and the ministry of finance, meaning the federal government, has no idea whatsoever where the rest of the many hundreds of millions have been lying all this time. And while the Senate Standing Committee on Finance waits for the Auditor General of Pakistan to come and shed some light on this absurdity in the next meeting, perhaps someone should also look into just why nobody even thought of looking into this for more than a decade and a half. Surely, there must be some procedure in place to route the monies that NAB recovers into the government's vaults, and clearly that procedure has been violated, right under the government's nose, for far too long.

This is an astonishing lapse that strips the watchdog of whatever credibility it had left, and it doesn't do the government's reputation, or a number of previous governments' for that matter, any good at all. It's also strange that the additional finance secretary told the Senate committee that the finance ministry could not question NAB about the missing Rs 815 billion. That naturally begs the question of just who can, then, because there's no way that the so-called accountability process could have been put in motion without establishing oversight mechanisms. NAB shouldn't even try to take the usual line that it needs money for its own functioning because the sum in question is simply too large to justify such excuses.

Now who's to stop critics from having a field day? They'd be only too glad to discover yet more proof of NAB's underbelly, which solidifies their argument that it was put together simply to keep the opposition to a one-time dictator in line, and it was just too convenient for successive administrations to use it for similar purposes. But now, unless all this is just a silly oversight, the auditor general's investigation should force a number of arms of the government into action. And even if this is really a mistake, it is an unforgivable one. NAB's reputation has already been tarnished and now that there's a very strong likelihood that it does as it pleases with the money it allegedly recovers, calls to disband it will only grow.

It's more than a small irony that this news has come when PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) is in power. It's obsession with making its political opponents, which it claims looted this country's wealth, pay for it turbo charged NAB, but despite all the detentions and arrests no headway has been made whatsoever on even the not-so-high-profile cases. At the end of the day it is the sitting government, not the accountability bureau, that has egg on its face when news of financial misappropriation hits the headlines.

Since this government is very serious about accountability, it can be expected to move very quickly on such matters. It is unfortunate that its actions have already made NAB controversial. Still, someone will have to answer for the mysteriously missing money. And whoever turns out to be responsible must be dealt with in accordance with the rules of business and, especially if something more shady than sheer incompetence is discovered, the law of the land as well. Perhaps this jolt will prompt the government to initiate the kind of reforms that NAB really needs in this day and age; because it is simply not getting the job done as it is.

This editorial first appeared in Business Recorder on Nov. 6, 2021