It takes a couple of trucks, some jeeps, a few dozen soldiers and a ride on the Constitution Avenue in Islamabad and you have got yourself a military coup. It does not even require brandishing a weapon or discharging a firearm. Islamabad willingly submits to 111 Brigade without even a hint of resistance.
It was early in the evening on April 18, 1993, when I saw army vehicles with yellow headlights moving slowly on the Constitution Avenue. Their first stop was the Foreign Office where they left a couple of vehicles and few soldiers to stand guard while the rest moved on to Radio Pakistan. Minutes later soldiers were clumsily scaling the walls of Pakistan Television. It was official. A military-sponsored coup was unfolding right in front of me.
I immediately turned my motorbike around and headed straight to the Prime Minster House where an embattled Nawaz Sharif was holding out with his ever-so-shrinking group of comrades. The doors of the Prime Minister House were shut and surprisingly there were no soldiers around. I parked my motorbike on the side and decided to wait for the soldiers to show up. They didn’t. Instead a motorcade appeared from the PM House and drove away. Suddenly, the motorcade came to a halt and a bearded man stepped out of a Limousine. I immediately recognised Sadiq-ul-Farooq, who was then the press secretary of the Prime Minister and a former fellow journalist from Nawa-i-Waqt. “What are you doing here?” he asked me. I told him that the army had taken over key installations in Islamabad and the soldiers were expected to land at the PM House any moment. He turned around and walked back to the Limo only to return a few moments later. “Mian Sahib wants to speak with you”, he said. “Follow me.”
I walked up to the Limo and saw Mian Nawaz Sharif seated in the back with a resigned look on his face. I told him what I had seen half-an-hour ago. “Are you sure about this,” Mian sahib asked. There was no mistaking a coup, I told Mian Sahib, who was soon-to-become a former Prime Minster.
Months of political wrangling between President Ghulam Ishaq Khan (GIK), the most established man of the establishment, and Mian Nawaz Sharif was finally coming to an end. The Chief of Army Staff, General Abdul Waheed, stepped in to settle the dispute between the feuding parties. The General decided to put his weight behind GIK, the 78-year old bureaucrat-turned-politician who was way past his best before date. GIK had appointed General Waheed the COAS earlier in January by superseding other senior generals. The General returned the favour by supporting the establishment’s old and trusted hand.
The infamous 18th amendment was at the heart of this conflict between the Prime Minister and the President. A novice Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif only 44-years old, was up against the establishment and a coterie of aging constitutional lawyers. The President’s office was all empowered with the authority to dissolve elected assemblies and appoint the COAS. Nawaz Sharif wanted these powers for himself and resented the fact that GIK appointed General Abdul Waheed against his wishes. A cold war ensued in the sub-zero temperatures in February and heated quickly as the mercury hit new highs in mid-April. Nawaz Sharif addressed the nation on TV on April 17 and declared that he rather be a martyr than to surrender to the establishment.
The political opportunists had started to desert the Prime Minister’s camp after realising that the armed forces would rather back the President. Hamid Nasir Chattha, a Nawaz Sharif loyalist, was the first to bolt. Anwar Saifullah Khan, who happened to be GIK’s son-in-law, left soon after proving once again that tribal and blood ties in Pakistan trump ideological alliances. Mian Nawaz Sharif, however, was unfazed by the turncoats and he dug in to fight the fight till the end.
“I will not resign, I will not dissolve the assembly and I will not accept dictation,” said a defiant Nawaz. His 29-minute defiance, broadcasted live to the nation, sealed the fate of his otherwise half-decent 29-month rule.
Minutes after his address to the nation on April 17, a source called in with the advice to sharpen my pencils in preparation for the big story to unfold in the next few hours. I camped under a tree on Constitution Avenue on April 18 and waited patiently for the trucks with yellow lights to arrive.
Mian Nawaz Sharif’s motorcade was heading to the Turkish embassy to condole with the ambassador for former Turkish President Turgut Özal who had died a day earlier. Back in his Limo, Mian Sahab consulted his advisors and inquired about what might happen next. I told him my best guess that the Army planned to remove the national flag from his car at the Turkish embassy where he will arrive as the Prime minister of Pakistan but will leave as a citizen of Pakistan. Mian sahib offered me a ride in the Limo with his aides. I politely refused and told him that I’ll follow them on my motorbike.
As I drove away from the Prime Minister’s house, plain clothed intelligence officials stopped me near the President House after they saw the press insignia on my motorbike. A uniformed soldier stepped up and addressed me by my name. I was shocked to learn that they knew of my identity. The soldier asked me to leave my motorbike on the road side and head straight to the President House where GIK was scheduled to address a press conference. I had never been invited to the President House before. I thought it was a good time as any to see the inside of Pakistan’s most sophisticated geriatric facility that was home to the 78-years old President.