When Boots Come Marching In
Pakistan must be unique in the sense that here military rulers were actually invited by political parties to seize power.
Pakistan is by no means the only country where the military has often taken over the reins of government. Indeed, this has been a familiar feature in many countries of the world. In Nigeria and Sierra Leone, for example, there were a number of coups and bouts of military rule. But they were often the result of civil wars or fraudulent elections.
In South America, Argentina witnessed fairly long spells of military rule. There, too, civil war led to military dictatorship. In Chile, Gen. Pinochet toppled President Salvador Ellende’s government – at America’s behest – because he was a socialist.
Close to home, we have the example of Bangladesh where there was a coup after the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the country had military rule under Generals Ziaur Rahman and Hossain Mohammad Ershad. But they assumed power ostensibly to bring order amidst chaos. There was no participation of the people in these takeovers.
On the contrary, in Pakistan, the military dictators did not assume power to end a civil war or political turmoil – except in the case of Gen. Ziaul Haq who intervened when the election fraud allegedly committed by the Pakistan Peoples’ Party had pushed the country to the brink of a civil war. Others stepped in to satisfy their personal ambitions more than anything else.
Gen. Ayub Khan, who later became field marshal, was the first such adventurer. Except for political agitations and some violence, including a fatal attack on the deputy speaker of the legislative assembly of East Pakistan, the country was relatively peaceful. Such events elsewhere have never led to military intervention. As regards corruption, Pakistan’s history shows that this malice has been congenital to its society. So, making corruption an issue to justify military coups was only a fig leaf for blatant ambition.
Whenever generals staged a coup in Pakistan, they proclaimed with much fanfare that they would rid the country of its ills and transform it into a paradise on earth – peaceful, prosperous and, above everything, clean. Yet, at the end of the day, the country had sunk deeper into the mire.
However, a distinctive feature of military rules in Pakistan that set them apart from similar experiences elsewhere in the world is that here military rulers received popular and even political support. Opposition parties generally rallied to usurpers’ sides and, in the case of Gen. Ziaul Haq, the political parties that opposed Z.A. Bhutto had actually invited Zia to seize power.
But all in all it has been a lovehate relationship between the people and dictators.
Ayub Khan set the example. People looked at him as the proverbial Godot – the redeemer who would rid the country of rampant corruption. They thought their hopes were wellplaced because Ayub launched, at the very outset, a screening exercise for all government officials and fired a number of senior civil servants.
But, with the passage of time, the country’s problems increased manifold because even the military - that had so far enjoyed a squeaky clean reputation – also became involved in the game. Even the name of Ayub Khan’s son, Gauhar Ayub began to be mentioned among the corrupt. As a result, people became disillusioned with him. Ultimately there was political unrest with jalao and gherao galore. When Ayub Khan finally resigned, there was not a single lachrymose eye.
When Yahya Khan succeeded Ayub, and thundered about bringing the country ‘back on the rails,’ he too received a similar warm welcome from the people. Improving upon his predecessor’s example, he started with sacking 303 top-ranking civil executives, though not a single military officer was touched. Nonetheless, his drastic action had a sobering influence on the administration.
But this step proved transient and, at best, cosmetic. Army officers were posted in civilian departments as paragons of honesty. But that was the kind of environment they were not used to. In their entire professional service, the army officers had no opportunities for corruption with the exception of those handling supplies and dealing with contractors. Their new jobs, however, presented them with temptations they had never dreamed of. As a consequence, the civil administration slid back to square one.
Moreover, just as the 1965 war had fueled Ayub Khan’s unpopularity, the military debacle in East Pakistan compounded that of Yahya’s. The heroes of yesterday became zeroes in the public eye.
As stated in the foregoing, Gen. Ziaul Haq was invited and welcomed by the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) that included the right-wing political and religious parties besides the Muslim League. But those who had brought him to power were disillusioned when he went back on his promise to hold elections within 90 days of seizing power. Once again, peoples’ hopes were dashed. And like Ayub Khan, he too went on ruling merrily for a decade, until Providence stepped in and he was killed in an air crash.
The interregnum between Ziaul Haq’s departure and Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s emergence on the political firmament of Pakistan lasted for about 13 years from 1986 to 1999. During this period Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif played see-saw with the office of prime minister, each serving two incomplete terms.
Musharraf had betrayed no signs that he was scheming to seize power. He came to power quite unexpectedly. Nawaz Sharif had been nursing a grievance against him for the Kargil episode that had sabotaged his efforts to improve relations with India. As prime minister, he had the prerogative to dismiss the army chief at will. But to disallow the plane in which Musharraf was returning from an official visit to Sri Lanka to land anywhere in Pakistan was an extremely questionable move.
The army stepped in to save a dire situation. Nawaz Sharif was shown the door. Unlike earlier coups, it was neither premeditated, like Ayub Khan’s, nor staged at the invitation of political parties like Ziaul Haq’s. This coup was thrust upon Gen. Musharraf unexpectedly because in the normal circumstances he would have safely returned to his job and all would have been hunky dory.
Perhaps because he had come to power in an unusual manner, Musharraf departed from the tradition of his predecessors. He did not declare martial law in the country. Therefore, instead of assuming the title of chief martial law administrator, he opted for the designation of ‘chief executive’. And, instead of the usual mantra of eradicating corruption, he set about reforming the economy and freeing the media. So, without claiming to be a ‘savior’, his reforms received popular acclaim.
But it was his clash with the judiciary – especially his mistreatment of the then chief justice of the Supreme Court – that turned the masses against him. Love turned into hate and now when he is in deep waters - being prosecuted for a number of offences, including high treason – there are few people to utter a word of sympathy for him.
In sum, the story of military rules in Pakistan indicates that the people are not patient enough to allow an elected government to complete its full term and then reject the party at the next polls. They prefer shortcuts to get rid of an oppressor, even by unconstitutional means. But, this attitude seems to be changing and is evident from the latest development when the PPP government completed its full term and a new government was peacefully elected to power.