Kudos, General Sharif
Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif has shown the nation that he is a man of substance. Following his statement calling for “across the board accountability”, the army chief dismissed 6 serving officers of the army over allegations of corruption. This move by General Sharif is praiseworthy as it has dispelled the view that the army is immune from accountability. More importantly, it has further strengthened the limits that the constitution has prescribed for the armed forces. The General has silenced those who considered his earlier statement as tantamount to interfering in civilian matters. By acting on his words and taking to task his own officers, General Sharif has shown that the army is committed to leading by example, and committed not to directly interfere with civilian matters, but, nevertheless, it would surely set a high benchmark for the civilian administration to match.
General Sharif’s dismissal of army officers is certainly not without context as the government has come under increasing criticism over its lethargic response to the Panama Papers controversy. The ruling party’s unapologetic behaviour coupled with the supposed inadequacy of the inquiry commission has led to a great deal of frustration in the public. The people have resigned to the fact that the country’s leadership will shirk their duty of effective accountability and continue to exploit them. Amidst this despair, General Sharif’s action shines like a ray of hope as at least one institution is committed to transparency and accountability. However, within this optimism lies the danger of losing sight of the bigger picture and directing the debate in the wrong direction.
In the immediate aftermath of General Sharif’s action, certain segments of society have taken to conflate institutional accountability with national accountability, and are calling for the army chief to take the task of making the civilian administration accountable too. It needs to be emphasised here that the army has its own rules and ethos. Meanwhile, Pakistan has the institutions in place to deal with civilian matters. While it can be argued that these institutions have largely failed to deliver effective justice and accountability, nevertheless, their failure must not be taken as justification for military interference. This is because it takes time for institutions to develop their own rhythm and work effectively. Military interference in this respect, more often than not, impedes their development rather than facilitate it. Hence, political parties and media should pressurise the government into taking meaningful action over the Panama Papers issue so that democratic practice can take root. Government should also not evade responsibility, and ensure a thorough investigation, with which faith in the democratic system would be restored.
Pakistan’s political landscape at the moment is a complex web of intrigue as civil-military relations remain in an ambivalent state. While the statement of the army chief was taken by most as a thinly veiled warning to the civilian administration, his latest move implies that the army wants to shame the government into acting on its own. It is true that ideally the army should have no business in giving any signal to the civilian administration as to what it should do. However, it is also true that Pakistan army is the most powerful institution of the country and the message that it does give matters. Realpolitik has on many occasions forced the government to acquiesce to the wishes of the military leadership. Needless to say, such a dynamic of power is not healthy for the future of democracy in Pakistan, and it is from this lens that the decisions of the military leadership should be viewed. The decision of General Sharif to lead by example while not directly engaging the army in the issue is hence laudable. The General has time and again shown that he is going to play his part in strengthening democracy in Pakistan and not let anyone derail the system. Rather than the military dictators that ‘intellectuals’ often refer to for becoming instrumental in messing with the country’s constitution, Pakistan needs generals like Raheel Sharif who support the democratic process, and manage to keep their institution within its prescribed constitutional limits.
The polio terrorism
In two separate assaults, seven police officials guarding polio workers were killed by eight gunmen riding four motorcycles in Orangi Town, Karachi. The awful attack on the security personnel who put their lives on line to carry out a simple public service has reiterated concerns about the security situation in the country. The nature of attacks shows that the militants have once again assailed the police personnel in retaliation for the ongoing war against terrorism. It also shows that the extremists’ movement against polio vaccinations has still not been thwarted. In the past, several health workers and policemen were killed in the line of duty. While the state’s commitment to fighting polio is encouraging, it is not enough to merely initiate vaccination drives without any security plan. This case is a reflection of the neglect demonstrated by the authorities concerned. Why did the policemen escorting polio workers perform duty so casually? Who will provide protection to the police if they cannot even protect themselves? What defensive action was taken by the police after the first shots were fired? Why were the attackers able to kill more policemen as they fled the scene?
It is high time that there is a proactive response against all such evil-minded forces. Such heinous acts would not allow Pakistan to become a polio-free state. The horrific killing of seven policemen shows the relentlessness capacity of those behind them. These terrorists still have to ability to strike at will. Instead of being on the watch and following a three-pronged security plan, the policemen were found sitting in their van, and sadly, became sitting ducks. The police need a lot of advanced training when so much is going on and polio workers and policemen are being killed.
However, the attack on polio workers and policemen should not weaken the government’s resolve to rid the country of this crippling disease and save the future of Pakistan’s children. The concerned authorities need to come up with a proper security plan before the launch of each anti-polio drive, especially in risk-prone areas. The killing of the policemen seems a targeted attack on our forces that are engaged in a war against terrorism. We need to be aware of this fact that Pakistan is in the middle of a counter-terrorism drive and in a state of war with a hidden enemy. It is a horrible situation that needs measures on a war footing. Government has to react quickly to this terrible situation. Our law enforcement agencies and other concerned authorities have to thoroughly review the situation.
Aside from the attacking and killing of vaccinators, the extremist propaganda that the polio vaccine is a western conspiracy against the Muslim world that will render those who are vaccinated infertile is preventing some parents from allowing their children to be vaccinated. This narrative has taken hold in certain communities because there is not a strong enough counter-narrative to educate people about the fact that the polio vaccine saves lives and does not have adverse effects on the health of the recipients. Pakistan is only the second country in the world where new cases of polio still arise. Government and people from all walks of life must do their part in the war against polio. It is time for Pakistan to take a firm stand against this debilitating disease and all those who wish to derail the efforts to eradicate it. The fatal attack on polio campaigners in Karachi is a grim reflection of the fact that this poisoned mindset has alarmingly penetrated into the very fabric of Pakistani society. Government is urgently required to exploit all possible forums ranging from media campaigns to community-based social mobilisation in order to bring awareness amongst illiterate folk living in far-flung places like Balochistan, FATA, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, rural Punjab and interior Sindh. The message should be thoroughly inculcated: polio drops are aimed at protecting children from lifelong paralysis and have nothing to do with infertility or sterilisation.
Things don’t look very fortuitous for the ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz, as it tries to defend its leadership from allegations that have surfaced after the Panama Papers’ revelations. In an environment in which, cries of corruption and foul play are afloat against the prime minister, it is difficult to take the statement of the chief of army staff, General Raheel Sharif as inherently innocuous. Ostensibly, the remark calling for the need to have ‘across the board accountability’ may be seen as nothing more than trite, but the sensitivity of civil-military relations coupled with its controversial history means that the government has good reason to be apprehensive about it.
Pakistan army is a venerable institution, which has rendered many sacrifices for the safety and security of the state. It’s constitutional role is the protection of Pakistan and for this it is answerable to the government of Pakistan. However, it has become a relatively autonomous body with its command residing in the hands of the chief of army staff. It is true that in most mature democracies, the input of the army plays a very important role in the formulation of and security and foreign policy. However, it does not exercise a veto in these areas as policy making, at the end of the day, is the prerogative of the democratically elected government. This is because non-elected state institutions lack the legitimacy to be the final deciders of policy. It is unfortunate that instead of working together, the present government of Pakistan has to compete with the army in formulating foreign policy and defence. In effect, the two have formed competing spheres of influence and this has resulted in considerable friction between them.
It is common knowledge that the country’s armed forces have played a dominant role in the country’s politics. The extensive media spotlight given to corps commander meetings and statements released by the ISPR is testament to the predominant role of the military in the politics of Pakistan. In fact, on certain sensitive occasions, the meetings have been treated as if the military is going to pass a verdict on the future of the government. Unfortunately, all this does not come as a surprise given the history of military interventions in the country. In addition to outright coups, democratically elected governments have also been kicked out of office by pressure from the ‘establishment’ as was the case in the unsettling politics of the 1990s. This is not good for the future of democracy in Pakistan as the resulting state of insecurity for the elected representatives makes them live in perpetual fear of an impending military intervention. In turn, instead of being wholly accountable to the people of Pakistan, they also have to disproportionally keep in mind the wishes of the military leadership.
Corruption is a serious issue in Pakistan as it ubiquitously pervades all segments of society. Sadly, the country’s political leadership has often used the power of the state to evade accountability. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has historically been used more for political vendetta than for dispensing justice. Presently, allegations are abound that NAB is under considerable pressure by the government to not carry out proper proceedings against the ruling party. Moreover, the prime minister has not responded adequately to the current wave of allegations that have been levelled against him. The people are rightly frustrated over this and they want accountability. However, the right to demand this lies with the people of Pakistan alone. The beauty of democracy is that is it is the only system that is responsive to public demands. It allows people the freedom to criticise the government and force it to improve. Hence, faith in democracy must not be lost and all institutions must work within their constitutional limits so that a better Pakistan can be realised.