Sunday, February 10, 2008

Glimpses into the world of Benazir by Syed Mohibullah Shah

Glimpses into the world of Benazir by Syed Mohibullah Shah
The News, February 10, 2008

As thousands from all across the country made their way to Naudero to mark the 40th day of the tragic assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, they must have taken heart in her singular achievements as the most celebrated national asset of Pakistan, who used her immense international goodwill to deliver valuable services to her country.

This writer worked closely with her as prime minister, travelled with her during her official visits to several countries and sat in on her meetings with kings, queens, presidents and prime ministers. There are several instances of her instant special rapport with world leaders, adding substance and support to the official conduct of business for Pakistan--from a four hour-long tête-à-tête with President Hafez Al Assad at the state banquet in Damascus, to the long session of exhibition of family letters and photos by President Moammar Gaddafi in his tent in Tripoli, to the day-long informal brainstorming sessions with her friend and mentor, Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher, at the Chequers, among others.

This article shares some glimpses from the life and times of Benazir Bhutto as prime minister of Pakistan from my upcoming book, so people can understand how great a national asset Pakistan has lost in her assassination and how the country's interests have often suffered by the manner in which politics and governance is practiced in the homeland.

How many leaders of Pakistan have had the good fortune to have the whole world wanting to help make this country a successful and prosperous democracy from day one of their assumption of office?

Within weeks of her ascendance as Prime Minister of Pakistan in December 1988 dozens of official invitations from heads of governments of countries from every continent had arrived. The Prime Ministers' Secretariat and Foreign Ministry worked closely to balance foreign visits with her domestic commitments within Pakistan. Nevertheless a year later, after she had paid visits to most permanent Security Council members and OIC countries, there were about three dozen invitations still pending from various countries.

So when the Spanish ambassador visited my office twice in April 1990, requesting that she make an early visit to Spain, I had to advise him of 32 pending invitations including some from important countries with which Pakistan has had long economic, political and security relations. But he explained how his government, especially Queen Sophia, was very impressed with Benazir Bhutto and wanted to know how Spain could help this young, highly educated female prime minister of a large Muslim country build a success story for Pakistan. The ambassador followed it up with a goodwill gesture for Pakistan from King Carlos and the prime minister with a formal letter of Spanish government offering millions of dollars as a grant to Pakistan--the first gesture of its kind. I fixed Bhutto's visit to Spain for September 1990 and requested ministries for portfolios of projects for Spanish cooperation with Pakistan.

Again at the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Conference in Kuala Lumpur in October 1989 Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney offered her extensive and unconditional assistance from Canada to help strengthen democracy with her government delivering major benefits to the people of Pakistan. In fact he sat down with her and personally went on jotting down lists of Pakistani projects we identified and also suggested specific areas of cooperation where Canada can help Pakistan. His own noting also listed which Canadian provinces were best suited to develop long-term cooperation with Pakistan in different sectors.

Her visits to Canada and Spain for September 1990 were tied up with another singular honour she was given by the UN. Benazir Bhutto was chosen as the sole representative of the developing world to co-chair the World Summit on Children in New York in September '90, being attended by the largest-ever gathering of world leaders in history.

Let me pick one more instance in this space to celebrate the life and times of Benazir Bhutto as Prime Minister of Pakistan on the occasion of her chehlum.

President Mitterrand of France paid an official visit to Pakistan in early 1990. In two days of talks with ministers and senior officials of the French delegation, we pressed hard for France to give nuclear technology to Pakistan. The French declined quoting their president who had told his delegation in the Concorde that brought them to Islamabad that everything was on the table for assistance to Pakistan except nuclear technology. We conveyed the French response to Prime Minster Bhutto.

On the day of his departure the French president had a breakfast meeting with her at the PM House and later both leaders addressed a joint press conference. In that press conference President Mitterrand surprised everyone--most of all his own ministers and officials--when he announced that France would give a nuclear reactor and was favourably inclined towards further nuclear cooperation with Pakistan including a nuclear reprocessing plant. Over the breakfast meeting Benazir had convinced the French president of Pakistan's need for this technology.

But our own man-made disasters never cease to strike at the country's potential. All these offers of aid and assistance to Pakistan fell victim to the unending palace intrigues of ambitious adventurers–civil as well as military--even when eleven years of the military dictatorship of Gen Zia had just ended. Her government, duly elected by the Pakistani people for a five-year term, was out on the streets in 20 months--dismissed soon after winning a vote of confidence in Parliament. This happened on Aug 6 , 1990--just before her visit to the UN, Canada and Spain was to start. She was deprived of that singular honour and Pakistan was deprived of the generous aid, assistance and long-term relationships with important countries.

She enjoyed not only huge reservoirs of international goodwill but also immense pool of domestic support, especially from the disadvantaged and marginalised majority of the country who have found little sympathy and support from the unabashed ultra-right mode of governance ruling the roost for most of the country's history.

Most of the handicaps placed in her way--as indeed in the path of progress for Pakistan as stable, prosperous and democratic society--have been consequences of the absence of rule of law in the way politics and governance have been conducted for a long time. This has repeatedly given immunity to gross abuses of power and also produced a hothouse where several demons of bigotry and prejudice have been emboldened to strike at will. Those who worked closely with her are aware of the troubles and torments she often faced in the conduct of her constitutional duties as prime minister of Pakistan. A tribute to her would be to expose these demons that have seeped in and been poisoning our polity under the cover of politically correct religious or secular slogans of the times.

A society that does not conduct governance under the constraints of laws would inevitably encourage baser human instincts to rise and take larger than life role in its affairs pushing it closer to the Hobbesian model with life in it becoming "nasty, brutish and short." A twice elected prime minister of the country and celebrated national asset having her life cut short in her prime and in such brutish manner should cause soul searching about where we are headed.

In his famous Pogo Papers, Walt Kelly's words pretty much sum up what many Pakistanis have been feeling in the aftermath of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto: "We have met the enemy… and he is us". May she rest in peace.

The writer is a former head of the Board of Investment who worked with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto during both her terms in office. Email:

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