Corrupt, greedy elite pushing Pakistan into oblivion

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We hardly needed WikiLeaks disclosures to tell us that Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is a crook. Or, that opposition leader Nawaz Sharif has no spine, not to mention grey matter under his now-restored hair, thanks to thousands of pounds spent on hair transplant surgery in London. There is a brighter side to living in exile after all. It is also no secret that the ailing Saudi monarch, King Abdullah has a low opinion of Zardari. He oozes venality and rottenness from every pore in his body. Aware that he is hated in Pakistan, Zardari has requested, according to WikiLeaks, the rulers of the United Arab Emirates, for asylum for his family if he is ousted from power or killed. He and his late wife have a huge mansion in Dubai and properties in Britain, France and the US. When not in power, the Bhutto-Zardari combine spend their life outside Pakistan.

Despite its immense potential, Pakistan’s tragedy lies in the corruption and incompetence of its ruling elites. They have great flair for stealing money: from the national treasury as well as the people. They pay no taxes yet insist they have a birthright to rule the country. The National Assembly is little more than a body of “who’s who” in the criminal syndicate. Laws are enacted to protect the interests of feudal lords. When these are not served, the same laws are broken to ensure the elites’ interests are protected. Last summer’s devastating floods offer a good example. River and canal embankments were deliberately breached at various points to save lands owned by military officers and feudal lords even if floodwaters inundated villages displacing tens of thousands of poor people.

The country is grossly mismanaged. Pollution has resulted in massive increase in respiratory diseases. Forests have been wiped out while water is contaminated. The once fertile lands are being turned into wasteland. Roads are clogged and traffic jams are a common occurrence. The elites meanwhile live in their heavily protected bubbles, but for how long? The lava of resentment is bubbling underneath and is bound to break the surface sooner or later. What is missing in Pakistan is a charismatic muttaqi leader that would channel people’s energies in the right direction. Some people are pinning hopes on Imran Khan, the former cricket star. He says the right things and has earned people’s trust through the charitable work he is doing but he needs a strong movement to bring about change. The feudals are too deeply entrenched to relinquish power so easily.

Let us stay with corruption in Pakistan. Here are a few things known to all and sundry. People are kidnapped by intelligence agencies and disappear without a trace. Even the courts are unable to retrieve them despite great efforts by an activist Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Politicians of all stripes from Zardari down, are universally despised because of their corruption. In recent weeks, however, Pakistan has crossed another milestone.

Government officials were involved in massive corruption scandal relating to arrangements, or lack thereof, for hujjaj (pilgrims) in Makkah and Madinah during this past Hajj. While pilgrims were charged rent for buildings within a two-kilometre radius of al-Masjid al-Haram in Makkah, they were accommodated in cheaper buildings 3.5 kilometres away. Each pilgrim was thus robbed of hundreds of riyals in rent. Considering that hundreds of thousands of pilgrims go for Hajj each year, Pakistani officials made tons of money. In one instance, a building was not even fully constructed, posing serious risk to pilgrims’ safety, many of whom were elderly and women. In the tent city in Mina, thousands of Pakistani pilgrims had either no tents or if the lucky ones managed to get inside one, there were no amenities like washrooms and water.

Fingers were pointed at Rao Shakeel, Director General in the Ministry of Hajj Affairs. He is a Zardari appointee and like the president, a certified crook. Instead of recalling him home and arresting him immediately, Shakeel was appointed to head Pakistan’s Hajj operations in Jeddah. After intense pressure following complaints from pilgrims that were confirmed by Saudi officials as well, the government was forced to recall him. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) arrested Shakeel upon his return. Another official, Aftabul Islam, joint secretary at the same ministry, was arrested earlier. Azam Khan Swati, Federal Minister of Science and Technology, said in a statement to the Supreme Court that he had raised the issue of corruption in the cabinet but Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani took no notice. He even accused the Federal Minister for Religious Affairs, Hamid Saeed Kazmi of encouraging corruption in Hajj arrangements. Swati told the Supreme Court on December 9 that he would present evidence to back his allegations.

On December 14, Gilani announced that both ministers had been fired: Kazemi for indulging in corruption (and presumably for being dumb enough to get caught) and Swati for revealing his corruption. Why the prime minister did not investigate and take action against the offenders is a mystery.

Transparency International has consistently rated Pakistan among the most corrupt countries in the world. In 2009, Pakistan was placed in 42nd place in the Corruption Perception Index, slipping five places from its 2008 position. Most of the 180 countries included in the 2009 index scored below 5 on a scale from 0 (perceived to be highly corrupt) to 10 (perceived to have low levels of corruption). In Pakistan’s case, corruption is embedded in the system. People cannot pay even their utility bills –” electricity, gas, telephone –” without bribing officials in the respective departments. To get one’s legitimate work done in any office, one must pay what is now referred to as “speed money”. It used to be called bribe. Pakistan has definitely made progress!

Corruption scams running into billions of rupees have been reported and documented in such government enterprises as the Pakistan Steel Mill, Pakistan State Oil, the national airline PIA where every official’s son, nephew or cousin is employed making it the most lucrative cash cow for Pakistani parasites. Despite flying virtually full flights to various destinations –” North America, Europe and the Middle East, PIA has run up hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. With so many parasites on its payroll doing not an iota of work, the debt was bound to occur. The PIA management has asked the government to write off its debt.

Other cash cows include rental power plants, National Highway Authority (NHA), Karachi Electricity Supply Company (PESC), Pakistan Electric and Power Company (PEPCO), Oil and Gas Development Company (OGDC), Capital Development Authority (CDA), Trading Corporation of Pakistan (TCP), Trade Development Authority of Pakistan (TDAP), Pakistan Na-tional Identity Card Data Centre, Employees Old Age Benefit Institutions (EOBI) and a host of others. In recent months, the Supreme Court has had to intervene to prevent the sale of a gold mine in Baluchistan worth some $30 billion for a mere $6 billion to Canadian and Chilean mining companies.

It seems the only institution standing in the way of selling Pakistan away for pittance is the Supreme Court. But how long will this chief justice be around and what happens when he retires? Pakistani officials and politicians are counting his days for retirement.

Lawlessness is rampant not only in the tribal areas where there is intense fighting and the plight of people made worse by US drone attacks, but even in the rest of the country, people no longer feel safe. Kidnappings for ransom have become routine. Ministers, members of parliament, bureaucrats and police officials are all involved in such crimes. They act as go-betweens to secure a person’s release for a hefty fee. It is difficult to tell criminals and kidnappers from members of parliament and government officials. Under such circumstances, it is useless to register a complaint with the police since they themselves are involved in these crimes.

The level of deterioration has gone so far that even members of respectable families are on the take now. The late Wali Khan had good reputation in Pakistani politics. Whatever one’s opinion of his political positions –” and there was plenty to disagree with –” he was known to be incorruptible. He could not be purchased for any price. Wali Khan was leader of the opposition when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was prime minister of Pakistan in the early 1970s. Bhutto was a petty, vindictive man. He had Wali Khan arrested and jailed on trumped-up charges and kept in the most appalling conditions in prison. Bhutto also sent emissaries to Wali Khan for a deal that the latter spurned with contempt. He preferred to languish in prison rather than compromise on principles or make deal with a petty tyrant. This earned Wali Khan great respect throughout the country.

Wali Khan’s son, Asfandyar Wali, who inherited his father’s political mantle, has sold himself completely to the Americans. He has been exposed as a coward, the ultimate insult among Pashtuns. When shots were fired at him at a rally, Asfandyar Wali fled in a helicopter and did not look back until he had reached London where he sought refuge. He is now busy building hotels in Dubai as well as Malaysia. Where did he get the money from? The US of course, and he does not care what happens to the people. His nephew, Amir Haider Khan Hoti is chief minister of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province (formerly NWFP) and is widely despised for his corruption and involvement in kidnappings and car thefts. Poor Wali Khan must be turning in his grave at where his family and the province have gone.

The US-led war in Afghanistan and Pakistan has affected the KP province the most. Under the cover of fighting terrorists, the Americans have killed thousands of civilians in the tribal area as well as the rest of the province. The Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict (CIVIC), a US-based non-governmental organization, said at a press conference in Islamabad on December 9 “Headlines focus on the horrors of terrorism in Pakistan, but CIVIC’s research shows that civilians suffer greatly from a much broader range of conflict-related violence.” The United Nations estimates put civilian casualties in Afghanistan at 2,400 for the year 2009. All are conflict-related while in Pakistan, this number was much higher. Pakistani civilian losses, according to CIVIC, were attributed to both US drone attacks and Pakistani artillery strikes on suspected militant hideouts. “Despite the severity of losses and consequences of ignoring them, civilian casualties receive too little attention from US, Pakistani and donor-nation policy-makers, military officials and international organisations alike,” said CIVIC.

Pakistani officials, both military and civilian, are quite happy to allow the Americans to kill civilians as long as they get some bakhsheesh from Uncle Sam. Is it any wonder that Pakistani politicians are such a hated bunch? They never venture outside without a phalanx of bodyguards. Most of the time they hide in fortified residences that resemble military bunkers in a war zone while claiming to represent the people. The frequent car bombings are a direct result of this. Such attacks would be carried out against the rulers but the attackers cannot get access to them. In frustration, they attack civilians. While completely unjustified, one can begin to get an appreciation of the problems facing Pakistan.

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