[Dawn 19 April, 2019]

ISLAMABAD: Hours after Asad Umar announced his decision to quit as finance minister on Thursday, Prime Minister Imran Khan made major changes in his cabinet with a few big shots removed from key positions and newcomers taking over important portfolios. When political analysts and journalists were still analysing the possible causes of Mr Umar’s removal at the middle of the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, the PM Office not only declared appointment of Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh as the adviser to the PM on finance, but also announced changes in the portfolios of a number of other key cabinet members, including Federal Minister for Information Fawad Chaudhry.

For the first time, the PTI government has appointed a full-fledged interior minister. The official announcement says that retired Brig Ijaz Ahmed Shah, who had taken oath as minister for parliamentary affairs earlier this month, has now been named interior minister. Shehryar Afridi, who had last week successfully handled the crisis in Balochistan in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the Hazara community as minister of state for interior, has been made minister for states and frontier regions — the portfolio which was previously held by Ali Amin Gandapur.

The decision to induct retired Brig Ijaz Shah, a former Intelligence Bureau (IB) chief, into the cabinet had already sparked controversy — for the opposition in general and for the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) in particular — because before her assassination in December 2007, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto had claimed that he was among the people who had hatched a conspiracy to kill her.

Mr Shah had served as IB director general from 2004 to 2008, and was accused of using the organisation for political victimisation. He had been elected an MNA on the PTI ticket from the constituency of NA-118 Nankana Sahib-II. The former IB chief was said to be a close confidant of former military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf and was reportedly accused of orchestrating formation of the Pakistan Muslim League-Q as the “king’s party” before general elections of 2002 by acquiring loyalties of PML-Nawaz adherents.

After this reshuffle, two more aides of Gen Musharraf made their way to Imran Khan’s cabinet, already consisting of many who were at key positions during the military rule between 2002 and 2008. Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, who had served as minister for privatisation during Gen Musharraf’s tenure, had also been nominated as finance minister by the PPP government that came into existence after 2008 elections.

Dr Firdaus Ashiq Awan, who joined the PTI days before 2018 elections after quitting the PPP, has been appointed special assistant to the prime minister on information and broadcasting. She had also served as information minister during the last PPP government under the then president Asif Zardari. Another major change in the cabinet was that of minister for petroleum and natural resources Ghulam Sarwar Khan, who has now been given the charge of the aviation division. The division was earlier functioning under Mohammedmian Soomro, who also holds the portfolio of privatisation.

The prime minister has now nominated Nadeem Babar as his special assistant on petroleum division. Mr Babar is currently the chairman of the Task Force on Energy. Health Minister Amir Mehmood Kiyani, who had also been in hot waters due to a recent controversy over increase in prices of medicines, has also been removed from his position. Though, there was no official announcement in this regard, appointment of Dr Zafarullah Mirza as special assistant to the PM on national health services, regulation and coordination clearly shows that Mr Kiyani will no more be serving as health minister.

Dr Mirza had formerly worked as the coordinator of Public Health, Innovation and Intellectual Property at the World Health Organisation headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, from July 2010 to July 2016. Previously, he was national executive coordinator at the Network for Consumer Protection in Pakistan as well as medical officer in the Punjab government.

Former minister for science and technology Azam Swati has made a comeback and has been appointed as minister for parliamentary affairs. Mr Swati had to resign from the same post in December last year when he was accused of using his political influence in getting the Islamabad police chief transferred for releasing his neighbours, who had been arrested by police on his complaint that they had trespassed his farmhouse.