Why martial laws go horribly wrong

COMMENT: Why martial laws go horribly wrong —Ikram Sehgal

By the time Musharraf exited, the army’s name was in mud within the country, and outside. Where once the uniform was worn with pride, it became a target of public anger and scorn. Rumour had it that somehow the army’s image had to be reinstated in public eyes

The atrocious mob lynching incident in Sialkot, with the police present as conniving bystanders, and the despicable cricket ‘spot fixing’ incident, alleging the involvement (among others) of one of our new young bowling heroes, shocked the country and deepened the pervasive national depression prevalent because of the man-made and natural disasters simultaneously besetting us. One may be forgiven for believing, even for a fleeting weak moment, that we may indeed be God-forsaken. Is it a coincidence that militant propaganda in the conflict zones as well as the flood-affected area pushes this perception to our gullible masses for all that it is worth? How do we reverse the tide (no pun intended) of the twin floods of terrorism and water? Certainly not while we are facing the greater disaster of being subjected to deliberate (and even criminal) mis-governance under the banner of ‘democracy’.

The February 18 elections in 2008 gave us hope in change for the better; this optimism was grossly misplaced on the premise that having suffered long incarceration, Asif Ali Zardari had somehow turned over a new leaf. No such luck, as what we got was more of the same. Utter contempt for the rule of law by our leaders is not a new phenomenon as it has been in place for decades; the present government has simply institutionalised it. These are all the signs for sliding pell-mell into anarchy.

General Pervez Musharraf imposed his draconian rule in October 1999 without calling it a martial law. To give him his due, it was widely welcomed by all, including the PPP. General Moeen emulated this in Bangladesh in 2006 but acted with the full concurrence of the Supreme Court (SC) instead of forcing post facto SC sanction (the ‘doctrine of necessity’ as per Provisional Constitutional Order-I, or PCO-I as it became known) a few months later like Musharraf did. The Bangladesh army’s action was also greeted with universal acclaim in Bangladesh. To quote my article of July 17, 2008, ‘A refined Pakistani model’, “Lieutenant General Moeen Ahmad refined Musharraf’s 1999 Pakistan model into the Bangladesh model in early 2007 by not making the mistake of sending uniformed officers and men into civilian jobs. Unfortunately, almost every military chief who takes over civilian power discovers his own immortality in governance as ‘the saviour of the nation’ and his intentions become suspect. Disappointing for me personally, Moeen is no exception. With loss of credibility, the Bangladesh model will fail its primary aim: to cleanse the body politic of the corrupt.”

Unlike Musharraf, Moeen set a tremendous precedent by handing over power to the elected representatives in early 2009 after conducting free and fair elections; he then retired a few months later at the end of one year’s extension as chief of army staff (COAS).

To quote my article of June 29, 1995, ‘Why do martial laws fail?’: “Martial laws fail because the initiators of all extra-constitutional rule ride into town on tanks with the lofty aim of saving the country, relying on that platonic national purpose to make themselves credible. They soon adjust the aim to more material (and less patriotic) reasons of self-perpetuation. The original aim remains publicly the same, and becomes an exercise in self-delusion. This diversion of aim means that one individual or group is simply replaced by another (or others), instead of being a transition mechanism that provides for and facilitates the process of the democratic system being repaired and renovated to reflect the real genius and aspirations of the people. Martial laws fail because the armed forces get themselves involved in mundane, routine bureaucratic duties that they are not supposed to be involved in. Martial laws fail because those who impose martial laws do not have correct knowledge about the working of the state or the individuals who run it, and soon surround themselves with sycophants who are usually holdovers from previous governments.” When he imposed his form of martial law in 1999, Musharraf had no intention of heeding this advice rendered in print as far back as 1995. One doubts any future military dictator will; power is a great aphrodisiac.

By the time Musharraf exited, the army’s name was in mud within the country, and outside. Where once the uniform was worn with pride, it became a target of public anger and scorn. Rumour had it that somehow the army’s image had to be reinstated in public eyes. Instructors in army schools of learning are called ‘Directing Staff’ (DS). Students plan out various alternatives; the ‘plan’ the instructors prefer is called the DS solution. To bring the army back from the dumps, the DS solution was to have a predictably corrupt political leader in place against whom all the collective public venom would be directed, and this would deflect public anger away from the army. The calculated risk was that he would not change, but if he did, even that would be counted as a plus. Zardari helped considerably by his recent Nero-like presidential jaunt to London and Paris while the country drowned. This confirmed him as easily the most hated person ever in Pakistan’s history. He could not care less; such revulsion has never really bothered him. The army’s success in counter-insurgency (COIN) operations, achieved through great sacrifice in blood by all ranks, was a major turnaround for the army’s image. The massive flood relief effort is acting as a force-multiplier bonus to bring the army back to its pedestal in public eyes. Hardly two years after being hounded out of office, even Pervez Musharraf is looking good in contrast, and even threatening to return. If the much-vilified Asif Zardari can become the president of Pakistan, why can Musharraf not make a comeback?

General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is very popular within and outside the military. His getting another term as COAS for three years was still seen as a compromise of sorts with the present political rulers. People did not like it, but they accepted this fait accompli because they wanted Kayani to stay on in some capacity. The sab achha (everything is ok) vibes created by PR tend to deaden the groundswell of resentment. Friends and colleagues will only tell him what he wants to hear. People who are likely to tell him otherwise will be kept away like the plague. They are no different from the ones who filled Musharraf’s ears about his omnipotence till it was too late. Hopefully, someone is conveying the pervasive mass feeling that serious thought must be given to getting Pakistan an extension in existence.

With both positive and negative lessons learnt from the 1999 Pakistan and 2006 Bangladesh military interventions, a refined ‘Pakistan model’ must still remain the route of last resort. Uniformed personnel have no business running the government (or for that matter businesses); they must support the honest and capable in governance. Martial laws with platonic intentions end up perpetuating individual rule, as happened in Musharraf’s case, and can go wrong, horribly, horribly wrong.

The writer is a defence and political analyst. He can be reached at ikram.sehgal@pk.g4s.com

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