Panama papers put Nawaz Sharif in hot water

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By Karamatullah Ghori

 

It was Benjamin Franklin, a sage amongst the Founding Fathers of US, who’d warned his new country never to let bankers hold sway over its governance. One is hard put to reckon if the grand old man of America ever thought of traders or industrialists getting the better of governance in their countries?

The three-time-lucky PM of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, who crashed into politics, and eventually power, through the world of commerce and industry is learning to his mounting concern that mixing family business with governance can become a cause of acute embarrassment, if not agony, at some point down the long road of political power.

The recently leaked Panama Papers — a tome of more than 11 million of them — by a group of investigative journalists working under the umbrella of International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has triggered a turmoil in many world capitals, including London and Moscow. The PM of Iceland, of all the places, has already fallen a victim to the sensation the leaks caused in his tiny country about its leaders’ off-shore accounts that were never in the knowledge of his countrymen.

But perhaps nowhere has it triggered a political storm of the magnitude of a national crisis as in Pakistan, whose people have — putting it mildly — been just stunned by the sensational revelations about the financial shenanigans of their PM and his children.

It isn’t that the Pakistani people have been caught completely by surprise by the Panama Papers leaks. Long before the leaks spilled the beans on Nawaz and his progeny, the Pakistanis had heard, off and on, about the extensive financial assets of their First Family held in many places overseas, including Saudi Arabia and the UK. However, on each occasion, Nawaz and his minions had dismissed the allegations as ‘politically inspired’ by his detractors and adversaries.

But what the Panama Papers have brought out is an elaborately woven web of deception and deceit that their leader and his children are said to have spun to hide their billions (of dollars) in investments and property holdings abroad. According to the details unveiled in the ‘leaks’, Nawaz owns at least 4 luxury flats in London’s upscale and expensive Mayfair area where ordinary flats cost a pretty penny. Rumours about these Mayfair flats had been circulating in Pakistan for well over two decades.

Tim Sebastian, the then celebrated anchor of BBC’s hard-hitting talk show, Hard Talk, had grilled Nawaz’s younger son, Hasan, about his father owning these flats. But Hasan, then a student in London, had flatly denied it and said he was just a ‘tenant’ in one of the flats. Nawaz’s daughter, Maryam — whose daughter’s ornate wedding ceremony had PM Modi as a special guest last December in Lahore — was asked about these flats in a talk-show on a private Pakistani TV channel, a couple of years ago but she too, lying through her teeth, had debunked the whole thing as insidious propaganda by her father’s ‘political enemies.’

However, with the chips down in the wake of Panama leaks, Nawaz’s older son, Hussain, pompously affirmed in a television interview, that he and his two siblings owned the flats. Cornered, he also brazenly acknowledged the existence of three off-shore companies, registered in the names of the three Nawaz’s children, in the British Virgin Islands, managing these assets. But the Panama papers mention at least 11 companies floated, off shore, by Nawaz’s enterprising children.

No one has yet come up with an exact amount of the money involved in these tax-haven investments of Pakistan’s ‘First family’, not one but two generations of them. Estimates of the family’s fortunes run as high as more than a billion dollars buried in these camouflaged digs. It didn’t take long for a storm of protest, by opposition politicians as well as media and civil society gurus, to hit Pakistan like an earthquake or a Tsunami over the Panama leaks.

The people of Pakistan weren’t surprised by the stamp of authenticity on what they had long suspected about the wheeling and dealing Sharifs. What surprised and angered them was the massive plunder of their national wealth stashed away in tax havens, and the web of deception crafted to hide the loot from their eyes.

The vociferous popular backlash was spearheaded by cricket icon-turned-politician, Imran Khan, whose two-decade old political career is anchored in his crusade against corruption in Pakistan. He accentuated the howls of protest by demanding a judicial probe of the heist by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Imran cited the example of the Modi government in next-door India which had lost no time in setting up exactly that kind of investigation into the Panama leaks within a specified period.

Nawaz has, to date, dithered on the demand of a judicial probe of his family’s alleged theft of national resources. Instead, he went on a half-hearted offensive of his own in a nationally-televised addressed in which he painted a long story of his family’s travails at the hands of both civilian and military regimes and how the family had rebuilt its fortunes from the ashes, like a phoenix.

But Imran and others of his ilk, in what has quickly become a national outcry for full and transparent accountability of the Sharif family’s fabulous fortunes, were not buying Nawaz’s victim pitch, or let him off the hook any time soon. Nawaz’s next move, completely out of the blue and apparently in utter frustration, was to run away to London for urgent medical check up. A day later, the check up was upgraded to ‘treatment’ as, according to his minions, the PM had a long list of ailments to cope with, which had been aggravated by the grisly backlash against him.

But even this ruse, of PM’s grave illness, became a laughing stock within 24 hours as the media splashed tweets from a shop assistant of a tony, upscale, Savile Row, joint where Nawaz was photographed being outfitted with an expensive suit. The two Nawaz sons, ensconced in London since the 90s, are desperately trying to sell the line that the money at stake in their off-shore ventures didn’t come from Pakistan. They have come up with soulful stories of their Saudi ‘friends’ loaning them capital, in the years of Nawaz’s exile in Saudi Arabia, following his ouster from power in 1999 by the Musharraf coup. The Saudi dollops of money were blissful and made the Nawaz Sons fabulously rich.

But that’s not washing with the Pakistanis. The Saudi largesse, if any, came after 1999, while the three off-shore companies in Virgin Islands were floated as early as 1993. The conventional wisdom of the Pakistanis says the money was looted by Nawaz in his first stint in power — 1991 to 1993 — when the Punjab Co-operative Bank scandal made paupers of tens of thousands of small depositors but made the Sharifs rich overnight. Which of the two versions will pass muster, when it comes, if ever, to a judicial probe, is anybody’s guess. It’s only Act-1 of high-stakes drama of intrigue.

 

The author is a former Pakistan diplomat. Email: k_k_ghori@hotmail.com

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