Pakistani government-sponsored legislation aimed at reforming the archaic governance regime in the country’s beleaguered northwestern tribal areas has stalled because of disagreements within the ruling coalition.
Protests erupted in the National Assembly, or lower house of the Pakistani Parliament, on May 18. Lawmakers made angry speeches after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s administration indicated it would not press for adopting constitutional amendments aimed at changing the status of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) into a regularly administered region.
Opposition leader Khurshid Shah accused Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz-led government of sabotaging its own legislative agenda on long-awaited FATA reforms.
“While hiding behind walls, the government is sabotaging FATA reforms through its allies,” he told lawmakers.
Shah was referring to Pakistani media reports that said Sharif has directed his administration to postpone a push for adopting the proposed legislation until his return from an ongoing visit to China.
Several reports in the Pakistani media said Sharif made the decision after his allies -- the Islamist leader Maulana Fazalur Rehman and Pashtun nationalist Mahmood Khan Achakzai -- opposed the proposed laws. In a telephone call on May 17, Rehman reportedly convinced Sharif to postpone the reforms. The two leaders are rumored to have the Pakistani leader’s ear.
“Opposition to this process by one of the government’s allies smelled foul as opposition parties had no objection [to the key provisions of the FATA legislation],” opposition lawmaker Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the parliament.
Qureshi’s Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf and Shah Pakistan People’s Party are among a dozen major political parties pushing for the reforms.
Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e Islam Fazal and Achakzai’s Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party oppose the reforms citing the need for more consultations, the historical status of the region, and worries over the consequences of the reforms, particularly for their respective parties.
The snag is likely to torpedo years of work. The proposed legislation is the result of decades of activism and consensus-building. After discussing the outline of the reforms for nearly seven years, a majority of the country’s political parties welcomed modest reforms outlined in a report by a government committee earlier this year. A public opinion survey says most FATA residents back key provisions of the reforms.
On May 15, the Pakistani government tabled two bills and a constitutional amendment in the parliament. The proposed legislation aims to merge FATA into the neighboring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, replace the region’s draconian century-old Frontier Crimes Regulations with a new law and extend the jurisdiction of the country’s high courts into the region.
Given its blessing by the Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, the reforms are Islamabad’s effort to alleviate the suffering and marginalization of FATA’s estimated 7 million to 15 million residents who are divided into a dozen major Pashtun tribes.
The reforms are part of Islamabad’s efforts to stabilize the region, which forms an arch along Pakistan’s western border. An estimated 50,000 civilians died in more than a decade of unrest in the region when Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and an array of local and international militants ruled parts of FATA. Small and large-scale Pakistani military operations, claiming to be fighting the militants, forced more than 3 million civilians in FATA to abandon their homeland. Most have now returned to their villages but many are dismayed by the government’s negligence and inability to help in rebuilding their homes and livelihoods.
The move has disappointed proponents of the FATA reforms.
“The minister told us that we will not move the bills for voting in this session after the prime minister’s conversation [with Rehman],” Lawmaker Shahbuddin Khan, who represents FATA’s Bajaur district in Pakistan’s parliament, told the Daily Express Tribune citing a telephone conversation with Abdul Qadir Baloch, Pakistan’s states and frontier regions minister.
Shah Ji Gul Afridi, another FATA lawmaker, was threatened with expulsion after he protested the change in the government’s posture.
“Please do not compel me to have you thrown out of the parliament,” Pakistani media quoted National Assembly Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq as warning the lawmaker.
“Maulana Fazal Rehman [is] sabotaging FATA’s merger with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” lawmaker Aftab Sherpao, leader of the Qaumi Watan Party (QWP) wrote on Twitter. “QWP will resist this move as this is [a] great injustice to the country and the people of FATA.”
Rehman, however, says FATA was formed because of agreements between British India and Afghanistan in the late 19th century.
“Today, if we violate those agreements, how will our neighbors react?” he asked in a speech to the parliament on May 15. “Are we going to add to Pakistan’s difficulties [by implementing these reforms]?”
Afghanistan, however, has not opposed the current reforms. Since 2002 Kabul has called for friendly relations with Islamabad and an end to its alleged covered support to Taliban and other Afghan insurgents.
Achakzai also remains skeptical. “We need to ask FATA’s people what they desire, and respect [their] opinion,” he told lawmakers on May 18. “Do not extend any law to FATA against their will; it will be unconstitutional and undemocratic,” he added in comments cited by the Associated Press of Pakistan, a government news agency.
Proponents of the reforms, however, are not deterred. “FATA does not belong to the people of FATA alone as it belongs to every Pakistani,” lawmaker Qureshi noted. He added that the Pakistani Parliament had representation from FATA and is capable of and entitled to deciding its future.
Late on May 18, Baloch, Pakistan’s states and frontier regions minister reiterated his administration’s resolve to implement the reforms. He refuted the opposition’s claims that their administration is delaying the reforms through its allies.
His administration, however, is running out of time. It has only a few days to adopt the legislation before the parliament will go into the budget session before the end of May. The session, which goes on for weeks, forces the government to postpone its legislative agenda to focus on debating and adopting the country’s annual financial plan.
Afrasiab Khattak, a former lawmaker and leader of the pro-reform Awami National Party, attempted to highlight the irony in Sharif’s handling of the issue.
“Suppressing FATA Pashtun’s voice in parliament is like isolating instead of mainstreaming them,” he wrote on Twitter. “Government hurts the people by delaying reforms.”
-- With reporting by, Dawn, Geo News, Express Tribune, and APP