Have you ever been thrown into the deep end of a swimming pool? People say that this is the best way to learn to swim, because if you don’t, you sink. This is exactly how I felt when I reached Army House in Rawalpindi on the morning of October 13, 1999. I had been thrown into the deep end. I certainly had no intention of sinking. I was determined to give my best.
I set a number of things in motion immediately. One of my first thoughts was that the country must avoid another period of martial law. Overnight that thought had become a conviction. Our past experience had amply demonstrated that martial law damages not only military but also civilian institutions, because as the army gets superimposed on civil institutions the bureaucracy becomes dependent on army officers to make the crucial decisions that they themselves should be making. I therefore decided that there would be no martial law If necessary, the army would be placed, not on top of civilian institutions, but alongside them, in sort of twinning capacity, in order to monitor their performance.
I called in my close army colleagues, General Mohammad Aziz and Lieutenant General Mahmood Ahmed, and told them what I had in mind. They had assumed that I would impose martial law and were therefore quite surprised by my decision. I reasoned with them, and soon they came around to my point of view.
We would remain a constitutional state, but we needed to restore our damaged constitution and create a transition government. We already had a president, but the presidency was a reduced post; what we needed
was a head of government. Under our constitution the prime minister is the chief executive of the country and head of government. One of our most distinguished constitutional lawyers, Sharifuddin Pirzada, came up with an eminently sensible solution: keep the constitution operational, except for a few clauses, which could be temporarily suspended. I would become chief executive and head of government.
I took this idea to a meeting of the corps commanders. They too had assumed that martial law was coming, and here too I had quite a job convincing them that such a step would be disastrous. First, I let each one of them have his say, as is my normal practice (though it was new to the army). They were all of the view that given the circumstances that had been forced upon the army, there had been no option but to remove the government of Nawaz Sharif.
After each of them had spoken, I explained why I felt that martial law should not be imposed. They liked the idea of monitoring, rather than superimposition. My ascendance to power may be the only instance in history of a military takeover without the cover of martial law, but then we have had many firsts in Pakistan, including the reverse situation: a civilian president as chief martial law administrator (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto).
Once I had carried the army high command with me on this crucial question, we decided that I should speak to the nation again as soon as possible, explain the situation the country faced, and tell the people what I planned to do. The speech was scheduled for October 17.
We all wanted to ensure that this would be the last time the army was forced to assume leadership of the country. We had to set in place a system under which future army takeovers would be all but impossible.
At the same time, we started selecting my cabinet and other crucial members of my team. The only criteria we had were an impeccable reputation and a successful track record. To select my team I set up a committee of top army officers to identify and interview people, and then create a short list of three for each portfolio. I interviewed each of the finalists myself and made the decision.
The most crucial position was that of the finance minister, for the economy was causing us the most immediate concern. Out of a short list of three, I selected Shaukat Aziz, a capable international banker with a strong reputation. One factor that swayed my decision in his favor was that Shaukat Aziz is a self-made man from humble middle-class beginnings, like me. I had not met or seen Shaukat before this. I telephoned him myself and spoke to him. I said, “Pakistan needs you. Are you pre-pared to leave your job and do something for the nation?” He replied, “It would be my honor.” I told him quite bluntly: ‘We will not pay you anything near what you are earning.” He said that he did not care. So I summoned Shaukat Aziz to Islamabad and interviewed him.
We all thought that he was very good, definitely the man for the job. This is one decision I haven’t regretted for a moment. He sacrificed his lucrative salary as an international banker and his high-profile, jet-set lifestyle to serve the nation. Along with the rest of my economic team, he was to do a tremendous job in salvaging the economy. Because he did such a good a job as finance minister, Shaukat Aziz would later become our prime minister.
I found a most capable governor of the State Bank in Dr. Ishrat Husain. He came from the World Bank and turned out to be the best governor we have ever had. The country was also lucky to get the services of the entrepreneur Razzak Dawood as commerce minister. He rationalized our trade regime to a large extent. I appointed Tariq Ikram, the regional director of Reckit and Coleman, as head of the Export Pro-motion Bureau. Together with the commerce minister, these men made an excellent team. Under them our exports, which had never exceeded $9 billion, passed $10 billion and kept increasing.
My cabinet had balance. It comprised men and women from all four provinces, with proven capabilities and successful track records in their respective areas of expertise. During the “dreadful decade of democracy,” cabinets had been chosen by favoritism. Merit counted for little. In addition, my cabinet was small, starting with just ten people, a far cry from the scores of ministers, junior ministers, and minister equivalents we had had under previous administrations.
I shall never forget our first cabinet meeting. Having met most of them only once at the interview stage, I did not know my new ministers, except for two retired lieutenant generals who had both been senior to me in the army. I began by suggesting that we should all introduce ourselves, starting with myself After I had spoken and given them a brief personal resume, it was Shaukat Aziz’s turn, because he happened to be seated to my right. He introduced himself in his impeccable internationalized English and thus set the tone. He was followed by Razzaq Dawood, who spoke fluently in his Americanized accent. The two or three people who followed also spoke in fluent English. When I looked down the line, my eyes fell on Zobeida Jalal, from Baluchistan, the new education minister. She comes from one of our least developed provinces. The education of women there has not received the attention it deserves. It suddenly struck me that she might not feel entirely comfortable speaking in English and might be embarrassed. So to make it easy for her, I interrupted and said that we were all Pakistanis and could speak in either English or Urdu, our national language. To my surprise, when it came to her turn, Zobeida Jalal introduced herself briefly and to the point in perfect English.
I have no hesitation in admitting that initially I was quite overawed by what I had gotten into. My special worry was my utter lack of knowledge of economics and finance. I decided to learn on the job through anyone and everyone by asking questions unabashedly. In any case, what I soon realized was that none of this was rocket science. Every educated, sensitive Pakistani was well aware of the country’s problems. It did not take me long to identify the maladies and work out remedies.
Our economy was shattered, and we were on the verge of bankruptcy. For years, our leaders had avoided any institutional checks and had misgoverned the nation with impunity. Corruption and nepotism were all too common. All government institutions and organizations and public-sector corporations had fallen prey to the most blatant corruption, facilitated at the highest levels of government, through the appointment of inept managers and directors. Corruption permeated effectively down from the top. From experience I have learned that in any organization in Pakistan, 10 percent of the people are incorruptible, 10 percent are incorrigibly corrupt (they will remain so, come what may), and the remaining 80 percent wait and watch to see which way the wind from the top is blowing and shift position accordingly. In the 1990s, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction.
One could write volumes on the rampant corruption, but for want of space, a few examples must suffice. One of the earliest briefings I received at the governor’s house in Sindh was on the construction of the Right Bank Outfall Drain (RBOD), a pipeline for taking effluent to the sea. One point made in this presentation was that those involved had very conscientiously reduced the construction cost from 116 billion to 75 billion rupees. My gut feeling was that it was still too high. I detailed army engineers to survey the whole length of the RBOD and give me an accurate assessment of the cost. They worked through six months of sweltering heat, from March to August 2000, and concluded that the project could be done for only 16 billion rupees. Even after a few adjustments, the cost came to just 18 billion rupees, and the project is now under construction for that amount. The difference in the budget would have been pocketed as graft.
The biggest financial debacle that beset the nation was the frittering away of $11 billion of foreign-exchange deposits of private individuals and institutions that were held in trust by the State Bank of Pakistan. This money was misspent largely on meeting balance-of-payments deficits and debt servicing. I call it the biggest bank robbery in history This led to a disastrous government decision: freezing all the foreign currency accounts to forestall a run on the banks. All Pakistanis, not to mention foreign investors, lost faith in Pakistan’s government, and the result was a massive flight of capital.
In the middle of 2000 I was also told of an approved expenditure of 14 billion rupees for the refurbishment of the Marala Ravi Link Canal. The director general of army engineers told me that there was absolutely no need for this work-the project would have provided yet another avenue for looting the exchequer. I stopped the project. Six years later, the canal is running as smoothly as ever.
Another mind-boggling expenditure was the 1.1 trillion rupees spent on public-sector development projects from 1988 to 1999, roughly 100 billion rupees every year. There was hardly any visible major project undertaken during this period, other than the M2 motorway between Lahore and Rawalpindi, about which there were also many stories of underhand deals.
I came to believe that this enormous corruption took place at the top echelons of government, at the nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, and bankers, the last being handpicked by the politicians because all the major banks were nationalized.
Financial corruption aside, the government was rife with nepotism and incompetence. There was no strategic direction coming from the top. Nowhere, in any ministry, institution, organization, or department, did I see any clear vision or strategy. Pakistan was like a rudder-less ship floundering in high seas, with no destination, led by inept captains whose only talent lay in plunder. The greatest victims were the poor people of Pakistan, who were fed false promises at each election, only to be disappointed. All the social indicators-health, education, income-were shamefully low and were continually deteriorating. Between 1988 and 1999 absolute poverty-people who earn $1 per day or less!-had risen alarmingly, from 18 percent to 34 percent. Public-sector corporations were headed, without exception, by sycophants; were overstaffed with political appointees; were losing money; and were dependent on government subsidies to keep them afloat. The hemorrhaging of public-sector corporations amounted to a colossal 100 billion rupees annually-taxpayers’ money down the drain.
The critical issue that rendered democracy dysfunctional was the absence of checks and balances on the political leadership. The only check on the prime minister was the president’s power to dissolve the National Assembly and dismiss the government. This was a safety valve, which, as we have seen, Nawaz Sharif got rid of by using his brute two-thirds majority, with disastrous consequences for him. Yet even this check invariably led to suspicion and acrimony between the president and prime minister.
Such a state of affairs left people disillusioned. Pakistanis started losing faith in their country. The young, in particular, were despondent. I had my work cut out for me. The ship of state had to be put on an even keel, its course and direction had to be charted, and a new, capable crew had to be installed to steer it. I was determined to take Pakistan ahead at full sail.
On October 17, 1999, I spoke to the nation again. I began:
I took over in extremely unusual circumstances, not of my making. It is unbelievable and indeed unfortunate that the few at the helm of affairs in the last government were intriguing to destroy the last institution of stability left in Pakistan by creating dissension in the ranks of the armed forces of Pakistan. And who would believe that the chief of the army staff, having represented Pakistan in Sri Lanka, upon his return was denied landing in his own country and instead circumstances were created which would have forced our plane to either land in India or crash.
I did not mince words about the dire straits our country was in: Fifty-two years ago, we started with a beacon of hope and today that beacon is no more and we stand in darkness. There is despondency and hopelessness surrounding us with no light visible anywhere around. The slide down has been gradual but has rapidly accelerated in the last many years.
Today, we have reached a state where our economy has crumbled, our credibility is lost, state institutions lie demolished, provincial disharmony has caused cracks in the federation.
In sum, we have lost our honor, our dignity, our respect in the comity of nations. Is this the democracy our Quaid-e-Azam had envisaged? Is this the way to enter the new millennium?
I set myself a seven-point agenda. Some of these points, by their very nature, required so much time to implement that I knew that the best I could do was to start the process and take it to a stage where it could not be reversed easily. Those seven points were:
Rebuild national confidence and morale.
Strengthen the federation, remove interprovincial disharmony, and restore national cohesion.
Revive the economy and restore investors’ confidence.
Ensure law and order and dispense speedy justice.
Depoliticize state institutions.
Devolve power down to the grassroots.
Ensure swift accountability across the board.
I promised that the recovery of national wealth was a task that would be ruthlessly pursued. From the seven points I identified four areas of special focus: Revival of the economy.
Introduction of good governance. This included all elements of social development: health, education, and the emancipation of women.
Alleviation of poverty.
Political restructuring to introduce sustainable democracy. These were the points on which I kept a relentless focus while I was running the government as chief executive.
I established the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to put the fear of God into the rich and powerful who had been looting the state. A special NAB ordinance was issued to give power and full autonomy to the organization. I wanted an army general as chairman, a general who was scrupulously honest, clearheaded, and bold enough to move against the rich and powerful without being swayed by their influence. In Lieutenant General Muhammad Amjad I saw all these qualities. He exceeded my expectations. In a short time he established his own and his organization’s credibility. Later, lieutenant generals Khalid Mabqool, Muneer Hafiez, and Shahid Aziz led the NAB equally effectively. The effects of the NAB were felt far and wide. Billions of rupees of plundered national wealth were recovered. Kleptocrats were prosecuted.
I know that people everywhere thirst to punish rulers for their sins, but bringing corrupt and criminal rulers and politicians to account is never easy. Unlike businesspeople who leave a paper trail of the loans they have taken from banks, people in powerful government positions know better than to leave a convenient trail of evidence behind them for future prosecutors. Yet we managed many prosecutions, plea bar-gains, and recovery of unpaid bank loans, though not to the extent that I had hoped for, particularly among politicians and public officeholders.
I needed an organization-a think tank-to research and recommend reforms in various areas. I called it the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB). Here I needed a person with a fertile analytical mind, very well read, focused, and painstakingly industrious. I felt that Lieu-tenant General Tanvir Hussain Nagvi (retired) filled the bill eminently. I must say he delivered far beyond what I had hoped. The first task that I entrusted to him was to produce a local government system to decentralize our entire political system. He wrote a full Local Government Ordinance, setting detailed rules for the district-level governance that we evolved and introduced. It has been recognized by the World Bank as a silent revolution in Pakistan. It is to General Naqvi’s credit that he accomplished the very big task of producing a new Police Ordinance 2002, replacing the one of 1861. This brought police rules in harmony with the prevailing environment. The nation owes him gratitude.
As I did not know at the time was that the judgment of the Supreme Court in a case challenging my takeover was to severely restrict me in implementing my agenda. On May 12, 2000, the Supreme Court, while justifying the removal of Nawaz Shard’s government and the takeover by the army because the Supreme Court deemed my dismissal as army chief illegal, placed two restrictions on me that were to have far-reaching consequences. First, it required me to hold elections in three years. With hindsight, I realize that I needed more time to fulfill my agenda, though at that point I thought three years were adequate. I did not realize then that what Pakistan needed was not mere reform but restructuring. I also did not know how quickly time passes. I some-times regret that I did not appeal to the Supreme Court for more time-at least five years. Our system of sharing funds between the federal government (which we call the center) and the provinces, and our sharing of powers and responsibilities between the center and the provinces, could not be finalized by me. I did initiate a study on the restructuring of the government and the civil service, but could not bring this to fruition. Nevertheless, all these studies were initiated at the National Reconstruction Bureau, and a number of ideas were generated.
The events of 9/11 and its aftermath came to distract us from these issues. I was forced to pursue security ahead of restructuring.
The second restriction imposed by the Supreme Court was that I could not introduce structural changes in the constitution: “That no amendment shall be made in the salient features of the Constitution i.e. independence of the Judiciary, federalism, parliamentary form of Government blended with Islamic provisions.” This meant that correcting a dysfunctional democracy would have limitations.
On closer analysis, however, I realized that my basic idea of introducing sustainable democracy in Pakistan could be achieved within these constraints. Our new system of local government, the bedrock of any democratic system, was provided for in our constitution but had never been implemented by politicians, who, selfishly, did not wish to devolve power to the grassroots.
In retrospect, I believe that my decisions not to abrogate the constitution and not to impose martial law were both correct. I am inspired by a letter written by Abraham Lincoln in 1864:
My oath to preserve the Constitution imposed on me the duty of preserving by every indispensable means that government, that nation, of which the Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law life and limb must be protected, yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life, but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the Constitution through the preservation of the nation. Right or wrong, I assumed this ground and now avow it.
I have always agreed with these views of Abraham Lincoln. In fact, I found this passage so inspirational and so beautifully worded that I have kept it in my briefcase ever since I first read it in 1990. Little did I know then that I might have to fall back on it one day. In the predicament in which I was placed, I thought I could preserve the nation in such a way that the constitution would also remain functional. In my own way I sorted out the conundrum: I preserved both the limb and the body. But if there ever had to be a choice, the body would outweigh the limb.
If the nation goes, so does the constitution. But if the constitution, especially a flawed one, goes, the nation still remains and can always