Remembering Ziaur Rahman, the Leader that “lifted the nation to its feet”

By Adil Khan   3 June 2021

Four decades ago, on 30th May 1981, Ziaur Rahman, the then president of Bangladesh who was popularly known as “General Zia” was murdered, aged 45, in a military coup in the port city of Chittagong.

Ziaur Rahman, a valiant freedom fighter took over the leadership of Bangladesh in 1976 at its most difficult juncture. During his short tenure (1976-1981) Zia transformed Bangladesh from its ‘basket case’ image to a country, full of possibilities.

In this article I am chronicling Zia’s contributions, especially those that I have personally experienced and/or been associated with.

When Zia took charge in 1976, I was a junior officer in the government but was positioned strategically, such that it helped me to get a look-out view of the things that were happening at the time especially at the apex level of the government.

I have seen firsthand how he steadied a collapsing state, put Bangladesh on a development path, strictly instilled within the public sector a culture of management accountability and last but not the least, attempted to define a new and inclusive sense of Bangladeshi nationalism.

Steadying a collapsing state

Zia is a product of history. He did not plan to become President of an independent nation let alone Bangladesh, a country that did not even exist when he stated his career in Pakistan Army. For Zia events and history since 26th March 1971 played a big role in shaping his future.

In December 1971 after Bangladesh separated itself from Pakistan through a vicious liberation war in which Zia played an active role, the newly born state encountered difficult and tumultuous days that lasted till Mid-1975.

During 1972-Mid-1975, the independent state of Bangladesh went through several changes –it turned itself from a democratic polity to a one-party authoritarian system where press was gagged, loot and corruption were rampant and extra-judicial killing became the norm.  Furthermore, in 1974, a famine ravaged the country and thanks to poor planning and mismanagement by the then government the famine killed hundreds and thousands.

A spectre of despair and anger descended on the entire country where yarning for change became not just desirable but inevitable though the way change came is regrettable.

On August 15, 1975 an army coup led by few disgruntled junior officers killed Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the president and also the father of the nation and members of his family including several ministers and ruling party leaders.

A new government was formed with one of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s former colleagues and a close friend, as the new president. However, this did not last long. Bouts of coups and counter coups followed that brought the nation on the verge of collapse. That is when, in early 1976, Zia was brought in to take charge.

As soon as Zia took charge, things started to settle down. It was indeed amazing how quickly and diligently Zia changed things and restored calm – unruly soldiers returned to the barracks, semblance of chain of command within the army got reinstated and a confused and disarrayed government started to function all over again.

Indeed, Zia’s contributions in steadying the newly born collapsing state have been outstanding and should never be underestimated.

Once things returned to normal, Zia scrapped one-party system and re-introduced multi-party democracy, formed his own political party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, BNP and legitimised his and his party’s ruling role through election and focused on the economy.

Bangladesh on a development path

After restoring order, Zia’s priority was to restore and repair the broken economy of the post-liberated Bangladesh which was in utter shambles. In this task, the very first thing he did was put on hold the First Five Year Plan which was prepared by the previous government – the Plan was deemed to be high on ambition and low on facts on the ground. A World Bank colleague once told me that “Bangladesh First Five-Year Plan was brilliant document, but it could not be implemented.”

Ziaur Rahman replaced the Plan by introducing a two-year Restoration Plan that prioritised re-building the infra-structure. Decision was also made to fund only those public sectors projects that ensured quick returns. Projects of long gestation period were put on hold. He also asked the Planning Commission to undertake a pruning exercise to rid projects of unproductive expenditure.

In order to stimulate economic growth Zia denationalisation nationalised industries which by then have become sources of corruption and patronage distribution and thus were losing concerns; opened up the economy to the private sector, local and foreign; took steps to achieve food autarky through modernization and mechanisation of agriculture; increased investments in health, education and most importantly, made population control number one priority.

During his tenure Zia paid special attention to foreign relations and in this regard, he made special efforts to forge closer relations with Muslim countries. As a matter of fact, Zia built on where Sheikh Mujibur Rahman left off, who made the bold and unilateral decision to join the newly established Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) in Lahore in 1974.

Zia sought cooperation of the oil producing Gulf countries for jobs for the Bangladeshi workers, a market that till then was monopolised by the Pakistanis.

These policies that complemented each other, turned the economy around – private investments, both local and foreign poured in and most importantly, the first readymade garment industry, a joint venture between Bangladesh and South Korean private investors was set up in 1978, a pioneering initiative in a sector which eventually became the key contributor to Bangladesh’s economic prosperity; agricultural production especially food production increased; and hundreds and thousands unskilled and semi-skilled workers got jobs in the Middle East, making manpower sector the second largest foreign exchange earner in the country.

In 1976 when Ziaur Rahman took charge, Bangladesh economy was experiencing negative growth at -1.3% and in 1981 when he died, the economy was growing at 4.5-5%. As stated above, it is during Zia’s administration that foundations of two main contributors to Bangladesh’s economy, namely readymade garment and manpower exports were laid and the fiscal architecture that spurred growth was introduced.

According to New York Times during Zia’s time, “Inflation went down, and food production went up” and economy registered steady growth.

Management Accountability in the Public Sector

Ziaur Rahman took special interest in overseeing progress of implementation of public sector projects. He believed that for a poor country like Bangladesh where private capital is scarce and shy, public sector projects in all sectors – economic and social – would have to play the crucial role in promoting development and therefore, among other things, improving development management. He thus came to the conclusion that instilling a culture of accountability in the public sector is key to timely and quality implementation of public sector programmes and promoting development in the country.

Accordingly, Zia introduced a system of monthly projects progress review meetings where secretaries of ministries would attend and present accounts of progress of implementation of development projects, administered by them.

Zia took the idea of importance of participation of the highest level in development management from the Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak.

Tun Razak, developed a system of monitoring of development projects through establishment of a special unit in the Prime Minister’s office, called, Implementation Coordination Unit (ICU), which acted as his staff arm monitoring agency. ICU’s task was to gather information on progress of implementation, identify bottlenecks and report on progress, periodically.

Zia sent a two-member team to Malaysia to study the ICU system to establish similar monitoring system in Bangladesh. I was one of the members of the delegation that visited Malaysia in 1977, studied the ICU system and gave inputs to establishing Bangladesh’s central monitoring organization, the Implementation Monitoring and Evaluation Division (IMED) under the Ministry of Planning.

Zia fully utilised IMED as his development inspectorate. Around this time, he also established 20 Martial Law Inspection Teams (MLIT) to inspect and report on 20 major public sector projects that were experiencing slow implementation and were branded as “sick projects.”

I, then a Director at IMED was made the Coordinator of these 20 MLITs. My job was to facilitate inspections by the teams, prepare summary of inspection findings/policy briefs and submit team reports including the policy briefs, to the Principal Staff Officer (PSO) of Zia, who then would take these reports to Zia for his attention and follow up. Zia would then use these reports as working papers during monthly review meetings.

To highlight the importance that Zia attached to management accountability of the senior public servants, let me share an interesting incident which had had lasting impact in triggering monumental behavioural change in the bureaucracy in Bangladesh those days.

There was this review meeting on Education ministry. Zia asked the Education Secretary (a very senior secretary), to present the progress of implementation of education projects. The secretary basically read the report that was prepared by his officials and reported 80% progress against the target.

Then Zia asked the Secretary IMED, Brig (Rtd.), Mazumdar, a close confidant who during Pakistan time was his commanding officer somewhere, to present IMED findings. Drawing on IMED field research, Brig Mazumdar reported that the progress was not 80% but 25-30% of the target.

After both sides finished their respective presentations, a 10-minute tea break was given. Zia went to his office and returned after 10-minutes and reconvened the meeting where he said that as he himself frequently visited the countryside and found many schools half constructed and also that some fully constructed schools were empty and not operational, agreed with the IMED findings and asked the Education Ministry to speed up implementation.

However, the matter did not end there. Next morning when the Secretary of the Ministry of Education went to his office, he found lying on his desk, his premature retirement letter, signed by the President.

After this incident the Secretaries, who would treat their ministries as their personal fiefdoms and saw themselves infallible, were jolted and became alert and started to engage in the affairs of their ministries especially in overseeing the progress of implementation of development projects, more keenly.

Zia’s personal commitment to and engagement with public sector management paid dividends within few years – rate of implementation of development projects increased from 17% in 1975 to 86% in 1980.

Indeed, as New York Times suggests, “Contrary to his predecessors, the general eliminated much of the politics in the civil service and began streamlining state institutions” that yielded positive outcomes.

‘Bangladeshi’ identity and nationhood

In the initial years of establishment of Bangladesh, the newly drafted constitution, defined identity of citizens of Bangladesh as “Bangali” and this attribution which was disputed by the culturally ethnic minorities who spoke different dialects and practiced distinctly different cultural practices and thus felt marginalized and excluded but in vain.

Once Zia took over, he replaced Bangladesh’s national identity from “Bangali” to Bangladeshi and promoted a new cultural identity of “Bangladeshi nationhood” which was based, on the one hand on Bengali and other cultural heritages of Bangladesh and on the other, Islam, the religion of 85% Bangladeshis. However, Zia’s notion of Islam was not fundamentalist but inclusive Islam, and his idea of Bangladeshi nationhood underpinned the principles of unity with diversity and Insaaf (justice). Unfortunately, Zia’s notion of Bangladeshi nationalism has died with his demise with the   result that Bangladesh has since been growing as one of the most divided and confused nations on earth.

The Leader that “lifted the nation to its feet”

In sum, Zia’s contributions to Bangladesh are many. Many also credit him as someone who made the first declaration of independence of Bangladesh on 27th March 1971 from a rebel radio station in Chittagong, where he defected and joined the liberation war. Zia’s declaration of independence was no doubt heroic and indeed, inspiring at the time, but it was more by default than by design. It so happened that Zia was at the right place at the right time. Had there been another senior Bangladeshi army officer of the Pakistan army that defected and joined the liberation war in Chittagong, would probably had done the same announcement.

Zia also have had fair share of critics. Some denounce Zia as ruthless for “…he was unfazed by the secret trial and execution of at least 200 soldiers who tried to overthrow him in October 1977.” Sure, no miscarriage of justice especially those that cost innocent people’s lives should ever be condoned but these were mutinies and thus harsh response, and miscarriage of justice is unavoidable though not pardonable.

Some also claim that Zia played an active role in the August 1975 horrific coup, but 40 years have gone by since his death and so far, no concrete evidence have been presented to validate beyond reasonable doubts, these claims.

Notwithstanding, if Zia is to be remembered and credited with one and one thing only, it would be that he saved Bangladesh from collapsing and helped this mid seventy’s beleaguered South Asian nation to pick up the pieces and progress. In one of its Op-ed articles, the New York Times once reported that the “soft-spoken” military man (Ziaur Rahman) was “hard-working and incorruptible in his personal life” who “lifted the new nation to its feet.”

The author is an academic and former senior policy manager of the United Nations.

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