THE government has decided to introduce the local bodies’ system in Fata and the final draft of the Local Government Regulation, 2012 has been made public for feedback from tribal elders, elected representatives and political parties.
With a population estimated at roughly five million — though this figure is disputed by locals — the region has so far been governed directly by Islamabad through political agents and the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), a system inherited from the British.
Although some reforms have been introduced in the FCR, Fata’s tribesmen have in general been denied self-rule and access to the regular justice system of the country and live at the mercy of the political agents.
The plan for a local bodies system follows other efforts by the current administration to reform the situation in Fata, notably the amendments to Clauses 21 and 22 of the FCR which deal with collective responsibility and the extension of the Political Parties’ Act to the region.
However, the 53-page draft of the legislation under consideration at the moment is full of absurdities and will not effectively give to the tribesmen the right to govern themselves. If the government is sincere in empowering the residents of Fata, it needs to review some of the clauses, particularly the fact that the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has been giving overriding authority over the proposed elected councils. Even the four-year term of elected local councils is subject to the satisfaction of the governor.
Article 13(1) of the draft states: “…Governor, when he is satisfied the remaining in office of office holders and members of Local Council is no longer in public interests, he may dissolve Local Council before expiry of term on such a date as he deems fit.”
Meanwhile, Article 16(1)(f) authorises the governor to remove from office an elected chairman and vice chairman of the council “if he generally acts in a manner pre-judicial to public interest.”
Currently, the tribal administration is known for rampant corruption as there is no provision for auditing its accounts and expenditures. Certain provisos have been inserted in the new regulations to leave space for the political administration to intervene and bypass the council in developmental or other expenditures. However, it is remarkable that the local council has not been given the right to pass a budget, with that authority going to the governor instead. Article 69(4) of the draft regulations says that in case the budget has not been approved by the local council before the commencement of the financial year, the governor (through the political agent) will prepare and approve it himself.
Article 91(1) and (2) also provides the political administration the opportunity to intervene in council jurisdiction. The provision authorises the governor to direct the local council to take a specified action and if the council fails to comply, the former can directly appoint a person to carry it out. Article 91(3) says that if the council refuses to pay expenses incurred on the governor’s directives, the latter can directly order the treasurer to pay the sum from the local council funds. Similarly, Article 93(1)(c) authorises the governor to dissolve the local council or suspend its activities if he is satisfied it is not working in the public interest.
The draft regulations also contain a number of other provisions that will deny tribesmen from self-rule in any meaningful sense. This is not to suggest that there are no positive aspects to the proposed laws. Among them are the provisions for ‘shock absorbers’ aimed at exposing the tribesmen to the new system gradually. The right to self-governance is fine, but it also carries responsibilities such as the need to pay tax or regulate the carrying of lethal arms in public — which the tribesmen might find somewhat hard to digest. Article 1(3) authorises the governor to extend the local government system gradually, through separate notifications, into areas where the situation is feasible and preparations such as voters’ lists and settling the number of council members have been made.
The extension of the local government system to the tribal regions is a laudable act but much depends on how it is achieved. If implemented in good spirit, the new law has the potential of ushering in a new era of political freedom and emancipation in the tribal areas. But the job is not easy, and requires commitment on parts of all the stakeholders, including tribal people, the Fata administration and the federal government.
It is encouraging that the government has placed the draft before political parties and elected representatives to propose changes where they deem them necessary. That the administration has sought greater consensus on the law before finalising it must be appreciated, and rewarded with informed feedback.
Also important is the need to address the concerns, if any, of the military that is currently engaged in anti-militant offensives in most parts of the strategically important tribal areas. The over-involvement of the military in Fata is leading to widespread apprehensions that military will discourage the self-governance system in Fata until 2024, when security experts believe the US will completely withdraw it forces from Afghanistan.