06/18/2012 12:26 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

Pakistan's Burgeoning Business of Nepotism

Pakistan has transmuted the customary concept of nepotism into a popular and profitable business. Some experts portray customary nepotism as a biological compulsion. We are hard-wired as a species to take care of our off-springs, siblings, even nieces and nephews. The word nepotism is derived from the Italian word nepote, which means nephew; and, historically, nepotism refers to past practices of the Roman Catholic Popes, who would grant special favors to nephews and other relatives. Currently, however, influential and powerful persons are accused of nepotism when they confer substantial benefits on undeserving family members. Nepotism, favoritism, and cronyism are deeply imbedded in almost all nations. In Pakistan, however, nepotism thrives as a business for profitable networking and money laundering. Morally upright individuals who challenge the nepotism business face retaliation; they are scandalized and discredited.


Sifarish, another name for profitable networking, is the core element of the nepotism business. Influential and powerful families employ nepotism to gain and retain political and economic power. Others use sifarish to procure plum jobs for their sons and daughters. At the premium levels of nepotism, sifarish safeguards family entitlements. Upon Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination, her teenager-son assumed the chairmanship of the Pakistan People's Party, the nation's largest political party, and her husband, a man known for corruption, was installed as the nation's president. Hina Khar, the daughter of an influential family, with little education or experience in international affairs, frequently flashing style more than substance in diplomatic conferences, became the youngest person ever to head the nation's foreign ministry. In the nepotism business, sifarish rather than individual competence secures premium political jobs.

Sifarish is not the exclusive prerogative of prominent families. Sifarish has trickled down in deep recesses of the society. Pakistan is a nation where nothing moves without sifarish. State bureaucrats, police officers, even minor clerks, all employ sifarish to collect illegal advantages for themselves and family members. A state bureaucrat uses sifarish to obtain government funds to send his son abroad for higher education. A police officer networks with a local businessman to get a job for his unemployed nephew. A clerk, say working in the revenue department, will liaise with his superiors to reduce someone's tax liability. The clerk will use this illegal favor to obtain money, free movie tickets, free dinner for the family, or whatever the taxpayer can afford. From top to bottom, illegal quid pro quos are traded for a legion of benefits.

Money Laundering

In addition to sifarish, money laundering is integral to the nepotism business. The relatives of influential and powerful individuals exploit their networking contacts to sponsor illegal transactions for a hefty fee, called commission. For example, the Pakistani prime minister's son used his contacts to subvert laws of the International Narcotics Control Board, an international agency that monitors international drug control conventions. He assisted local pharmaceutical companies in obtaining illegal licenses from the Pakistani government to import a chemical known as "Ephidrine" in quantities exceeding the limit set by the International Narcotics Control Board. Such facilitation is of course done for a fee. Islamabad high officials working under the prime minister have prevented enforcement agencies from conducting a proper investigation of the case.

Asif Ali Zardari, the current president of Pakistan, was notorious for making money through commissions while his wife was the prime minster. In 2003, a Swiss magistrate found him guilty of money laundering and ordered that he return $11 million to the Pakistani government.

Just like sifarish, money laundering has permeated the entire society. Big and small operatives network with state bureaucrats, police, airport authorities, and customs and immigration officials to sponsor illegal transactions. They charge a fee if you need to subvert bureaucratic administrative rules or police procedures, solve passport problems or visa complications, or evade customs duties. Every law can be broken for a fee. Roaming in the vicinity of judicial courts, persons are available for a fee to appear as false witnesses in civil and criminal cases. Local lawyers serve as intermediaries between judges and litigants for obtaining favorable judgments for significant "attorney's fees."


Stakeholders gear into retaliatory action if a morally-upright person challenges the nepotism business. Whistle-blowers are punished as traitors. Politicians, journalists, bureaucrats, lawyers, judges, and enforcement officials all are under systemic pressure to cooperate with each other in protecting the nepotism empire. Anyone can profit by serving the nepotism empire and protecting its secrets. The challenger is scandalized and threatened with severe consequences.

Efforts are under way to malign the nation's chief justice who has been a vociferous opponent of nepotism. Using the constitutional suo moto action, the Pakistan Supreme Court has unmasked numerous nepotism networks and associated illegal transactions involving the president, prime minister, bureaucrats, and business barons. This judicial jolting has generated unprecedented resentment. The vested interests are cooking conspiracies to scandalize the chief justice.

The latest scandal incriminates the chief justice's son for receiving millions of dollars from a rich realtor as a quid pro quo for judicial relief that the son promised in dozens of cases pending against the realtor in the Supreme Court. The realtor laid out the allegations in a dramatic press conference, painting the chief justice as a morally dubious person. Opponents of the chief justice, including journalists, politicians, bureaucrats, and lawyers, began to demand that the chief justice resign as he has lost the moral authority to head the Supreme Court.

In a strange twist of events, however, the realtor is caught red-handed conspiring with the media to malign the chief justice. In a talk show on Dunya TV, the realtor makes forceful allegations against the chief justice. During commercial breaks, however, when the cameras are off, the realtor is seen schmoozing and planting the interview with the talk show hosts, producers, and other operatives -- an event secretly filmed and later released on YouTube. The film bares the realtor as a man of consummate manipulation. The film also shows the realtor receiving a phone call from the Prime Minister's son during a commercial break. Mouths drop when the realtor casually boasts that he chats with President Zardari on a regular basis. The film persuades the audience that the realtor is a conspiratorial man in cahoots with the government. The scandal fails but the point is made that the defenders of nepotism will do anything to preserve their empire.


Pakistan, a large Muslim nation, is drifting toward moral anarchy and lawlessness. The joint venture to smear the chief justice exposes the vindictive cynicism of ruling elites. Amidst widespread nepotism, the ordinary citizens face a thoroughly dishonest system where laws are subverted even by the guardians of law. The survival of the chief justice and the sustainability of an independent Supreme Court constitute the last big hope for the people of Pakistan. Otherwise, the burgeoning business of nepotism will completely devour the rule of law.