A Nation Awash in Graft Told to Be Accountable

PAKISTANI LEADER'S CRUSADE

Travelers flying into Pakistan's international airports in the last three months have noticed a discernible difference: Passengers who walk through the "green channels" with nothing to declare aren't stopped.

The change is part of a series of measures announced by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that stop government officials from abusing their powers. Previously, passengers walking through green channels were often harassed, forced to open up suitcases, and pay bribes on items that were duty-exempt.

Like many other developing countries, Pakistan is riddled with corruption. But Mr. Sharif, elected in February, hopes his new anticorruption drive will change both the way things are done here and the country's tattered image.

But it will not be easy. Just two years ago, Transparency International, a German nongovernmental organization, rated Pakistan as the world's second-most-corrupt country after Nigeria.

"The green channels had lost their meaning. Now, at least they are doing what they were meant to," says a Pakistani banker in Karachi. On returning from a trip before the anticorruption measures went through, he was detained and had his laptop computer confiscated. It was returned three hours later only when he protested to senior customs officials in Karachi. His experience is not unique. Many others have also been preyed upon by customs officials.

But it's not just corruption at the country's airports. Most aspects of public life - including public access to municipal services, government hospitals, and government-owned banks - are riven with corruption.

People seeking approval for a home-construction plan often have to bribe municipal officials before getting an OK. And in government hospitals, it is not uncommon for doctors to neglect the poor unless patients were to see them at private evening clinics where they would be charged about 300 rupees ($7.25) - three times a worker's daily wage.

But the most blatant examples of corruption are found in Pakistan's government-owned banks, which currently face a staggering 131billion rupees ($3.11billion) in bad debts. Friends of politicians and the country's previous military rulers were allowed to borrow money without any guarantees they would repay. Most of them haven't paid, assuming they would never be prosecuted.

But all this is slowly changing. In the election campaign preceding his February victory, Sharif promised to eradicate corruption and make the government accountable. His government is trying to attract fresh foreign investment to revive the country's battered economy.

"There's a great deal of urgency to invite foreign investors," says a Western economist in Islamabad. "It's necessary to give investors the comfort that ... abuse is on the way out," he says.

Other analysts say that Sharif has no choice but to change the country's corrupt ways. If not, he risks losing popular support as many Pakistanis remain disgusted over the extent to which corruption has permeated daily life.

Among the government's first steps to clean up its act was passing a new ehtesab (accountability or attack on corruption) law last month, which created an accountability department that will investigate cases of corruption. The law allows the department to investigate cases since 1990 when Sharif first became the prime minister.

The government is also planning to replace all the chief executives of government-owned companies with executives from the private sector who have a strong track record to improve corporate management.

The accountability drive, however, is not without its own controversies. Critics charge that the drive has turned into an anti-opposition vendetta. Corruption investigations under way are mainly against officials close to the government of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was dismissed last November on charges of corruption. But the case that will draw the most scrutiny will be the one against Asif Ali Zardari, Ms. Bhutto's husband, who was accused of corruption during her tenure and is in jail.

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