A leaf from history: Gen Zia appoints Gen Zia as president

Updated 04 Dec 2014

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General Ziaul Haq. — Online/File
General Ziaul Haq. — Online/File

When it eventually happened, it wasn’t too astonishing a development: Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) General Ziaul Haq was now the new president of Pakistan, replacing the outgoing Chaudhary Fazal Illahi of the PPP.

This move had been building up for some time: at the time of the July 5, 1977 coup, President Ilahi had actually sought retirement, but Gen Zia asked him to continue. On Aug 12, 1978, he wrote a letter to Gen Zia, saying that he wanted to retire upon completion of his tenure in September 1978.

Gen Zia sought the advice of Attorney General Sharifuddin Pirzada, who in turn advised the CMLA to appoint himself as president. Pirzada argued that the move would facilitate him in resolving many tenuous issues which might need the assent of the president, and for which a PPP man wasn’t ideal. It was rumoured at the time that before seeking legal advice, the general himself wanted to occupy the coveted position and was merely seeking a way to legalise the move.


History repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce ­— Karl Marx


A message was communicated to President Illahi, with a draft of an ordinance which would authorise the CMLA or his nominee to take over as President. The advice was taken very faithfully, and on Sept 15, 1978, an ordinance was promulgated to allow the CMLA or his nominee be appointed as president in case the presidency gets vacated for any reason.

On Sept 16, Gen Zia wrote a letter to the president communicating that if the president wanted, he could retire on the completion of his term. The same day, Gen Zia took oath as president; he would also simultaneously hold the offices of the CMLA and chief of army staff. He was the third army chief to take oath as president in uniform.

After quitting, Illahi claimed that he resigned because he did not want to become party to the amendments to the Constitution being made by the Zia regime. Secondly, he said, Gen Zia was not sincere in holding elections.

On the other hand, it was assumed that the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) joining the government would change the status quo for the better, and help the alliance negotiate the holding of general elections as soon as possible. But Gen Zia continued delaying the elections and that too indefinitely.

The CMLA did not hide his intentions either: talking to a few foreign journalists in Islamabad on Aug 26, 1978, Gen Zia Haq said that until society was not cleansed of the legacy of the past government, and a tranquil atmosphere created, no elections would be held. He also made it clear that he was neither interested in contesting polls nor did any member of his family have any inclination to do that. He stressed that he only wanted a stable government.


After quitting, Illahi claimed that he resigned because he did not want to become party to the amendments to the Constitution being made by the Zia regime. Secondly, he said, Gen Zia was not sincere in holding elections.


On Sept 14, Gen Zia promulgated a new martial law order which banned all political meetings in the open. By this order, political parties were allowed to hold the meetings of their central committees or core committees in closed premises. On the same day, another development took place as General Rao Farman Ali, a member of the Election Cell, disclosed that the Cell had been disbanded and in fact, it had not worked for the last few months.

With Illahi gone, Gen Zia now held all positions of power. No strong reactions from within the country were forthcoming either. PNA chief Mufti Mahmood, for example, termed it “unexpected” from Gen Zia. The foreign press, however, made certain comments. For instance, The Economist said: “Even habitual sycophants have stayed silent about the new President.”

Meanwhile, on Sept 24, Benazir Bhutto assumed control of the PPP. Addressing party workers at the courtyard of Leghari House in Lahore, she said that she had accepted the opportunity to lead the party as per the wishes of her father and party chief, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

After a three-week vacation, the Supreme Court resumed hearing Bhutto’s appeal on Sept 16. The defence counsel Yahya Bakhtiar had completed his arguments, allowing the prosecution lawyer Aijaz Batalvi to present his arguments.

As the appeal was being heard, the jail superintendent reported to the court that Bhutto’s lawyers had been allowed to meet him but these lawyers were smuggling some papers out (perhaps Bhutto’s rejoinder to the White Paper). He termed this to be an illegality. On Sept 26, the court told Yahya Bakhtiar that the facility of meeting the accused should not be “misused”.

With the beginning of October, PPP activists took to the streets in various parts of the country. On Oct 4, Benazir was arrested in Multan just before she was about to address PPP supporters. She was taken to Rawalpindi, where she was detained along with her mother Nusrat Bhutto. PPP leaders and workers such as Farooq Leghari and Dr Ghulam Hussain were also detained under security laws. With the appeal hearing in the Supreme Court drawing to a close, the PPP leadership decided to increase street protests from Oct 15. However, the move did not take off as expected.

On the other side, the PNA began experiencing difficulties in governance, which they claimed was the work of the bureaucracy. To discuss the matter, a three-member delegation led by Mufti Mahmood called on Gen Zia and asked for administering provincial governments. Gen Zia explained to them that instead of general elections, he had planned to hold local bodies’ elections and extend administrative powers to them. Within the martial law administration, it was widely believed that general unrest among the people could be placated by empowering them at the local level, thereby diverting their interests and channelling their energy into governance.

But for Gen Zia, the Political Parties Act had many things to reconsider. On Oct 17, 1978 Zia issued an ordinance amending it and incorporating a few clauses making it a law implying that if political parties did not support national integrity, unity and Pakistan ideology, or were working against “ethical” standards, they could be taken to task. The ordinance was promulgated with retrospective effect from July 5, 1977.

Bhutto’s ghost was hounding Gen Zia at all times. After returning from Saudi Arabia, Zia had reports of some campaign taking place in Sindh. He undertook a quick visit to Sindh and winding up at Sukkur, told journalists on Nov 20 that the 1973 constitution was the law for all, and that there would be only be a few amendments to it so that an “Islamic system” could be introduced. He said the present system was un-Islamic and should not continue. He also said that by April 1979, the accountability process would be complete. He added that 14 leaders had been already disqualified.

Now, as the hearing of the appeal against LHC judgment continued, the chief justice on Nov 5 told the court that he had received a letter from Begum Nusrat Bhutto saying that Bhutto was not being taken out in the open for a stroll. To this, Yahya Bakhtiar informed the court that after a jailbreak incident, in which two prisoners escaped, jail security had been tightened. On Nov 16, the prosecutor completed his arguments and called for retaining the punishments to Bhutto and other accused.

**Next week:* Bhutto expresses trust in Supreme Court shaikhaziz38@gmail.com*

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 30th, 2014