The Fata merger: Towards a brave new world

The final frontier

Will the government stop playing to its political gallery and take advantage of a historic opportunity for much-needed reforms in the badlands of the northwest?

Even before the process leading to Fata reforms could take off, it was beset by two problems: the Panama leaks and formidable opposition from one of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s closest allies, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman. And if there were some doubts, the first indication came with the turbaned Maulana warning to ‘jam’ everything, if reform laws were allowed to go through, during last week’s National Assembly session convened specifically to discuss Fata reforms.

Subsequently, the PPP has not only voiced its opposition to the Rewaj Act, but wants a clear cut statement on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP) merger with Fata. This will further delay the reforms procedure given that the upcoming federal budget is scheduled for May 26, followed by post-budget debate in June/July, and so will take the process to August, therefore, leaving insufficient time to implement the KP merger plan before the 2018 elections.

Despite political challenges faced by Mr Sharif, there is no illusion that implementation of the reform package is by no means a small undertaking. Implementing the reforms agenda is a complex task requiring robust mechanisms to oversee a five-year transition period.

If done seamlessly to overcome constitutional and political challenges slated to emerge along the way, the tribal region will be able to achieve a level of prosperity that will gradually bring it at par with the rest of the country.

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Merger versus mainstreaming

This is where the complexity lies. The reforms plan recommends electing parliamentarians from Fata to the KP assembly during the 2018 election, thus, effectuating the merger with KP in the duration of a year. Further, without actually giving control to KP, it calls for mainstreaming the region “after five years”. For its part, the KP government insists that after an amendment to the Constitution, it should be allowed to decide the pace and course of the transition process leading to a seamless merger.

 

Administrative complexity

KP and Fata are congenital twins with different body functions. KP has a defined constitutional, legal and administrative system, albeit somewhat weakened by decades of frequent tweaking, not to mention the reign of militancy, which has not only diluted executive authority but also undermined the latter.

However, Fata ruled directly by the federal government through executive powers invested in the president, has its own administrative system, largely unaccountable, a system that resembles fiefdoms with individual political agents. How these two entities can be merged into one coherent administrative body would be achievable with the revamping of the administrative and legal systems.

Additionally, the status of Fata employees, governed by different rules, including those serving under a presidential order, must be looked into. This would require the extension and assertion of state authority, along with revising the administrative structure to bring it in sync with the one prevalent in KP.

The recommended plan provides for the creation of 20,000 levies force posts to perform police functions in the tribal areas. But it fails to provide any timelines as well as budget commitments.

Political and electoral integration

By far the most pressing challenge, legislation for electoral integration is yet to be made. Recommendations include representation from the tribal region in the KP assembly in the 2018 elections. That said, the government would need to wait for the outcome of the national population census — resulting in the delimitation of national and provincial assemblies’ constituencies, including those in Fata — before going ahead with electoral integration.

The tricky part is how this will be achieved. How can Fata remain within the ambit of Federally Administered Tribal Areas and still be able to elect representatives to the KP assembly without the executive authority of the (KP) province actually extending to those areas? What impact will this have on representation in the provincial assembly, the National Assembly and the Senate?

Other than having Fata representatives in its provincial assembly, KP will have no control over the political and administrative affairs of Fata. This is an anomaly that would need to be overcome through amendments in Article 1, Article 59 and Article 106 of the Constitution. But so far there is no indication of that happening.

Constitutional anomaly

Possibly the most mind-boggling issue is how to keep Fata under the federal government’s administrative control during the five-year merger plan while allowing it to elect representatives to the provincial assembly, thus effectively paving the way for the final merger with the chief minister of KP having no executive authority over the tribal region during the transition period.

These are inter-contradictory terms. Critics have warned that any attempt to convert Fata into a Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (Pata) would be risky given KP’s history of struggling to mainstream its own Pata. Short of a full merger, there should be no other option. This, of course, cannot be done when all other key elements required — including administrative, judicial and security infrastructures — are not in place.

Resources allocation and development

The proposed plan envisages a three per cent allocation from the National Finance Commission, while the federal government would continue to foot the bill for the Annual Development Programme for ten years. The plan provides for a committee headed by the governor of KP and constituting parliamentarians from KP and Fata.

The role of the KP government, which will eventually own and inherit the entire 27,200 kilometre area comprising the tribal regions, has been left undefined. At present, the KP government believes that the Fata Secretariat and Fata Development Authority do not have the capacity to undertake this gigantic task and that the entire matter needs re-examination.

Local bodies’ elections

KP wants party-based elections in Fata before the end of 2017 under the Local Bodies Act so that the provincial government can synchronise the entire system. The system proposed by the federal government is different. The cabinet has decided to hold the local bodies’ elections after the 2018 election, and under a different system.

Security

The recommended plan provides for the creation of 20,000 levies force posts to perform police functions in the tribal areas. But it fails to provide any timelines as well as budget commitments. KP wants these personnel be integrated into the provincial police force in the future.

Security personnel standing guard at a checkpoint in the Jamrud town of Khyber Agency in KP.
Security personnel standing guard at a checkpoint in the Jamrud town of Khyber Agency in KP.

Directorate of transition and reforms

One of most critical recommendations involves the establishment of a dedicated unit for implementation. Instead of a temporary organisation overseeing the integration process, the KP government wants to lead.

Although there is general agreement among the KP government and the federation on the course and broad contours of the reform agenda, the disagreement is only on the timeframe and certain issues pertaining to legislation and administrative measures.

Complex as this transition plan may appear, it is by no means unfeasible provided there is political will and determination to see the process through to its end. But many ardent supporters of the merger suspect Mr Sharif lacks the enthusiasm for it.

History, they say, repeats itself. Given its association with militancy and perception as the badlands in the northwest, history will not forgive us if we fail to seize this opportunity. And, with time running out, we may not have the same opportunity again.

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