Time for Apologies

By Samia Altaf

There is a certain purpose and a value in an apology. Even when it is a century late and unable to redress the wrongs as in the Australian apology to its aboriginal citizens, it suggests a reflection on the past, an acceptance of responsibility, and a promise for the future.

Now that Pakistan is on the verge of a new beginning, its major players should mark it by coming forward and apologising to the citizens who have given them and the country another chance.

This will be an overdue apology and one that would be of immense value in setting the tone for the future. It would communicate to the voters a clear sense of what is unacceptable in modern politics and a measure of the standard by which political leaders and public servants agree to be judged in future.

First, it should be the chief of the army staff who should apologise for the repeated military interventions in politics that have set the country back so grievously. He should apologise for the emasculation of the Constitution, the use of military agencies to manipulate elections, the disappearance of citizens, and the destruction of civil institutions by the appointment of unqualified people to critical positions. The COAS should stand up and admit that the military is responsible for all these and more and promise to never do so again.

Second, the leaders of the two major political parties should apologise together for the similar wrongs their parties have been responsible for. They should admit that they set up accountability bureaus purely for the purpose of harassing political opponents; that they both undermined, humiliated and manipulated the judiciary for political purposes; that they misused the bureaucracy to advance personal interests; that they chose important office-bearers, out of turn, not for their competence but for their personal loyalties — a practice for which the country has paid a very high price. We well remember that Mr Ziaul Haq was a gift to the nation from Mr Bhutto and Mr Musharraf from Mr Sharif.

Third, the leaders of the two major political parties should apologise separately for the wrongs that they alone are responsible for. Mr Sharif should apologise for his attempts to become the Amirul Momineen and for the harassment of journalists. Mr Zardari should apologise for his party’s nationalization of small industries for vindictive reasons and for the destruction of educational institutions.

This is just a suggestive list. An accurate charge sheet would take a long time to compile and perhaps a citizen’s commission should do that. It would no doubt include collective apologies to the people of Balochistan, to the people of Bangladesh, and to the unfortunate ones who are still languishing in camps there.

But beyond the apologies, the political leaders can also make constructive amends. In return for the faith that citizens have placed in them, they should agree to allow the citizens to tie their hands and constrain the arbitrary actions of future governments. They should agree to set up a citizens’ commission that would have oversight over all major appointments by their government and over all major procurements. Only when they agree to do that will the citizens be assured that they have truly turned over a new leaf. The country is entitled to this much.

Dr. Samia Altaf is the 2007-2008 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre for International Scholars in Washington, DC. This op-ed appeared in Dawn, Karachi, on March 12, 2008. 

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