LLast year, the big petroleum crisis hit Pakistan when, all of a sudden, gasoline disappeared from most refueling stations across the country.
The situation remained like that for several weeks but there was no real reason for this crisis that came from the government side which sparked all kinds of rumors and speculations.
The crisis erupted last May when gasoline prices were slashed by seven rupees a liter after falling international prices due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
After this decision, gasoline disappeared from all filling stations except the state-run Pakistan State Oil station.
The crisis prompted the prime minister to order an investigation and four oil marketing companies were also fined 40 million rupees, but these actions failed to end the crisis. At the end of June, the price of petroleum was unprecedentedly raised by more than 25 rupees for a liter which ended the “shortage” within a few hours. It will take the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) at least six months to submit its investigation report with a government-appointed ministerial committee.
On Friday, Planning Minister Asad Umar announced the recommendations of the ministerial committee before the media.
According to the minister, the prime minister had asked Petroleum Minister’s Advisor Nadeem Babar to step down to allow for a “impartial” forensic investigation.
The secretary of the petroleum division was also transferred to another ministry in this regard.
The planning minister said no faults had so far been detected on the part of the two petroleum ministry officials but they were ruled out to allow for an independent investigation that could not be “influenced” by any quarter.
While Pakistanis want to see those responsible for creating this crisis held accountable, the government’s late decision has raised many questions.
It has been almost a year since the crisis hit the country and millions of rupees are believed to have been siphoned off during an acute “shortage” that continued for several weeks.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, while in opposition, is known for setting extremely high standards for the accountability of high-ranking government officials in such a national crisis. So, the first thing people expect from him is the immediate dismissal of a high ministry official even before any investigation is ordered.
It is strange that after almost a year, the investigation could find no clue as to who was responsible for this crisis and another three months have been attempted to conduct a forensic study.
Moreover, if the government’s current track record in dealing with such questions and subsequent actions is a guide, then one doubts whether any concrete results will ever come out of such an investigation.
The government last year commissioned a joint investigation led by the FIA to investigate the sugar mafia. The report pins show the influential political family that runs the country’s main sugar factory and holds them responsible for the scandal. They are thought to have pocketed more than 100 billion rupees through speculative pricing.
Now that the FIR has been registered against senior political figures from the ruling and opposition parties, it will not be interesting to see if any real effort will be taken to bring the culprit to the books or it is simply political action to deceive the masses.
The current government has launched a massive anti-corruption campaign since accountability is the main agenda in the election campaign.
Unfortunately, despite a lot of pomp and showing that the number of convicts in corruption cases has been neglected.
Now even government ministers have started criticizing the anti-corruption watchdog, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), for its dismal performance. NAB’s work has been called into question even by the courts.
The Supreme Court in one of the key decisions in the case of PML-N Khawaja Saad Rafique and Khawaja Salam Rafiq has noted that the NAB, which was formed during the military rule of President General Pervez Musharraf, was misused due to political engineering.
While the public wants to see corruption cases involving major scandals and influential figures come to a logical end, the government also needs to take the steps necessary to make the accountability process genuine and credible.
Amnesty International in its annual report found that the corruption index has increased in Pakistan. However, the government did not take any action to eradicate corruption or make the entire process credible.
After winning the vote of confidence from the National Assembly, the prime minister in his speech assured the court’s full cooperation on the part of his government in deciding the major scandal. However, the government needs to review the laws that govern this issue and close the loopholes that impede the accountability process.
This goal can only be achieved if the government and the opposition join hands and work together to produce the necessary legislation.
The government needs to tackle the petroleum crisis as a trial case and needs to address the reasons for causing unnecessary delays in fulfilling the legal formalities to bring the matter to court.
Undue delays in investigations, lax prosecution, and the use of political influence are some of the reasons that do not allow such a major scandal to reach its logical end.
Traditionally, as the Supreme Court also pointed out, the process of accountability has been mostly used in Pakistan to sacrifice political opposition.
The government needs to build confidence in the opposition and try to erase the grievances that have stigmatized this accountability process.
With the government halfway through a five-year term and amid growing tensions with the opposition, it is a major challenge to dispel widespread doubts on the accountability process.
PTI is championing the 2018 election with a very popular one-point accountability agenda and will be faced with questions about its performance in fulfilling its promises when it will go to the public to seek their votes in the next election.
Making laws in parliament on issues related to accountability and the fate of mega-corruption will be a major test for the incumbent government ahead of the next election.
The author is a senior journalist based in Islamabad