The Pakistani Military Coup of 1999: Some Explanations

Article excerpt

PAKISTAN has spent 25 years out of 51 under military rule. General Pervez Musharraf, the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) took power in a coup on 12 October 1999. He declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution and the National Assembly and appointed himself chief executive. He also ensured by special decree that his actions could not be challenged by any court of law. In doing so, he virtually imposed martial law. By not sacking President Rafiq Tarar or dismissing the Assembly, he retained the option of ushering in a civilian rule of his choice when he had things under his control.

It seems the coup was not the result of meticulous planning by the military, but rather an immediate reaction to threats to its own interests. Musharraf was on a plane from Sri Lanka bound for Karachi when Nawaz Sharif fired him and appointed Lt. General Khwaja Ziauddin, the head of Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) as the COAS, with the anticipation that the army would accept this reshuffle. But they were wrong. So when Nawaz tried to oust General Musharraf, the General ousted him instead. Units loyal to Musharraf took over the TV station, airports, arrested Nawaz Sharif, his brother Shahbaz and Lt. General Khwaja Ziauddin.

The key men were Lt. General Mohammed Aziz, the chief of the general staff, and, most crucially, Lt. General Mahmood Ahmed, who commands the army's Tenth Corps stationed close to Islamabad. It was Ahmed's troops who stormed the gates of the PTV Centre and shut down the station.

The people of Pakistan seemed genuinely relieved that the government had fallen and that the military had taken control -- an indication of just how unpopular Nawaz Sharif had become. In the eastern city of Lahore, where support for Sharif was considered strongest, there were demonstrations in favour of the army takeover; people cheered in the streets and burnt pictures of Nawaz. The political turmoil in Pakistan was caused, in the view of many, by nor only a lack of governmental accountability but also by corruption at the highest level of administration. Pakistan has long been run by such dreadful governments. It appears to suggest that Nawaz Sharif hesitated to accept the notion that development requires good governance, meaning open, transparent and accountable public institutions. Whereas previous governments were chaotic in their awfulness, this one under Nawaz Sharif has turned out to be systematic.

He was democratically elected, but he is not a democrat. His basic instincts were dictatorial not democratic. He acted more like a despot after his landslide election victory in 1997. Over the past few years, he picked off individuals and institutions that he believed posed any threat to his own power. Dissent within his party was suppressed. He amended the Constitution to strip the President of the power to remove him, and ousted the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Reversing the traditional balance of power between the military and civilian government, Nawaz Sharif has seen off an army chief, General Jehangir Karamat and then tried to push through a constitutional amendment that would give him sweeping powers to ignore Pakistan's legislature and provincial governments in the name of Islamisation.

The judiciary at first tried to check Sharif, but later gave up. When the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Sajjad Ali Shah, took the President's side in 1997, a mob from Sharif's party stormed the Supreme Court and Sharif sacked Shah.

Then he turned to the press. His government embarked on a campaign of harassment and intimidation against those members of the press who questioned his misuse of power. For example, in mid-1999, the Jang Group of newspapers had its bank accounts frozen and its newsprint confiscated. Najam Sethi, the publisher and editor of another newspaper, Friday Times, was being held in May 1999 without charge. All copies of the Friday Times were seized, and its website has been jammed. …