Published October 13, 2019

This special report was originally published in Dawn, EOS, on October 13th, 2019

By Zahid Hussain

It has been 20 years since October 12, 1999, when Pakistan witnessed its last formal military coup. With many, including those in government, still enamoured of the achievements of military rule, it is worth looking back at how well the last coup-makers delivered on the promises they made when they took over…

For Pakistanis who had lived a large part of their lives under the shadow of military rule, it was a feeling of déjà vu when, on October 12, 1999, the generals once again seized power, ousting an elected civilian government. The coup was yet another episode in the seemingly never-ending Pakistani soap opera, marked by alternating ineffectual rule by an elected government and authoritarian rule by a self-appointed leader from the army.

The October 12 coup — or what the generals liked to describe as a ‘counter coup’ — marked the reappearance on the political stage of the military, which has controlled power, directly or indirectly, for much of Pakistan’s history. The military regime led by General Pervez Musharraf was the fourth such regime in Pakistan’s history. Two of the previous three had lasted for more than a decade and General Musharraf’s junta also didn’t have any desire to cede power.

Although initially given three years to ‘set things right’ by a pliant Supreme Court stripped of dissenting judges, the end of the regime only came about nine years later, after a popular movement forced it to cede power back to the civilians.

At a time when many of those who were part of Gen Musharraf’s regime find themselves back in positions of power, when the military is widely perceived to be calling the shots on a number of matters outside their domain and there are, once again, calls for quick-fix solutions to long-standing problems, it is worth looking at the record of the military’s direct involvement in running the state.

How much of the agenda set by General Musharraf upon taking power in 1999 was actually realised? What became of the seven priority goals identified by the last great reformer with near-absolute powers?

Nawaz Sharif and Gen Pervez Musharraf before the general ousted him | White Star
Nawaz Sharif and Gen Pervez Musharraf before the general ousted him | White Star

Pakistan’s short flirtation with democracy since the death of Gen Ziaul Haq had been a story of unfulfilled dreams and deception. The transition from military rule to democracy in 1988 remained a delusion. During 11 years of de jure democracy, power alternated between two young leaders of the post-Partition generation. Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif came to power twice but failed to complete full terms in office as they were ousted unceremoniously halfway through their term each time.

Long periods of military rule had stunted democratic institutions and prevented the development of a democratic culture. The ineptitude of the political leadership, their disregard for democratic institutions and their lust for absolute power also contributed to the weakening of the very basis of liberal democracy. But more than anything, the powerful military continued to cast its shadow over the political scene, as the country struggled for stability.

The circumstances in which the October 12 coup occurred might have been different from earlier military takeovers, but the objectives were largely the same. On the surface, however, it was a military takeover with a difference. General Musharraf appeared like a ‘benevolent dictator’, allowing both a free press and political freedom, though limited. He did not impose martial law and called himself the ‘Chief Executive.’ Most Pakistanis, disillusioned with the ineptitude of successive civilian leaders, also welcomed the return of military rule, though warily.

An admirer of the father of the modern secular state of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Gen Musharraf presented himself as a reformist, promising to take Pakistan on a liberal course. The general appeared more in the mould of Pakistan’s first military ruler, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, than the last before him, General Ziaul Haq.

The liberal profile of his cabinet, comprising Western-educated professionals, had also raised hopes for better governance and a clean administration. The liberal image was also necessary to win the support of the international community, wary of the spread of Islamic extremism in the region. Yet the eventual outcome was not very different from the previous military rules.

The military regime led by General Pervez Musharraf was the fourth such regime in Pakistan’s history. Two of the previous three had lasted for more than a decade and General Musharraf’s junta also didn’t have any desire to cede power.


General Musharraf set a long policy agenda for himself. He received widespread approbation when, in his first major policy speech five days after the coup, he announced his seven-point agenda.

“My dear countrymen,” he stated on national television on October 17, 1999, “our aims and objectives shall be:

“Rebuild national confidence and morale.

“Strengthen the federation, remove inter-provincial disharmony and restore national cohesion.

“Revive the economy and restore investor confidence.

“Ensure law and order and dispense speedy justice.

“Depoliticise state institutions.

“Devolution of power to the grass-roots level.

“Ensure swift and across the board accountability.”

He also promised eradication of Islamic extremism and sectarianism. In subsequent statements, he pledged to undo General Zia’s radical legacy by transforming Pakistan into a moderate Muslim state.

But General Musharraf’s policies were full of paradoxes. Those solemn pledges raised questions as to how the military, which itself had been a major cause of many of the crises for the Pakistani state, could midwife a healthy economy and a well-governed polity. In fact, in many ways, Musharraf’s first policy speech was not very different from those of previous military rulers — promising to fix everything that had gone wrong with the country under civilian rule.

It may be true that Musharraf had stepped into a situation that had not been faced by past military rulers. For example, worsening ethnic and sectarian violence had caused a breakdown of law and order. Years of financial mismanagement had pushed the country to the brink of bankruptcy. Multiple sanctions imposed by the United States had also affected the economy which depended on foreign aid.

Musharraf’s support for the US-led ‘war on terror’, his tactical cooperation with certain militant groups and his refusal to embed a culture of democracy and accountability widened the fault lines that had long plagued the country.


The revival of the economy thus became the top priority set by the military junta. New US sanctions after the coup had, in fact, increased problems for the military regime. It may be recalled that US President Bill Clinton had given a rather stern lecture to Pakistan when he came to Islamabad for a few hours, after a few days in India. Pakistan had also been suspended from the Commonwealth in the wake of the coup. Fortuitously, the situation changed completely after 9/11 when Pakistan entered into a new alliance with the US for the so-called ‘war on terror’. That also brought Pakistan back to the centre stage of regional geopolitics.

Although the military government did not negotiate any economic aid package in return for its cooperation, the economic aid and concessions from the US and other Western countries to Pakistan increased considerably. These included a $1 billion loan write-off, $600 million in budgetary support and debt rescheduling. Such a rescheduling had taken place many times in the past, but the scale of concession allowed in the post-9/11 period was extraordinary. The $12.5 billion debt rescheduling was not only far larger than any in the past, but the terms of the agreement were also much more favourable.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Basically, the entire bilateral debt of the ‘war on terror’ consortium countries was rescheduled for a far greater period than in the past. The lifting of sanctions and direct economic support from the US also helped ease Pakistan’s financial difficulties. For Pakistan, it was almost a return to the 1980s, when massive Western aid had poured into the country following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Pakistan was repaid handsomely as a consequence of its role as the frontline state in the US war on terror. The World Bank, the IMF and numerous other donors were back to help out Pakistan. Even USAID, which had pulled out almost a decade ago after the US had enforced nuclear-related sanctions in 1990, returned to Pakistan.

All those factors led to a turnaround for the Pakistani economy, which had been in dire straits before Pakistan returned to the US embrace. A measure of “economic stability” was indeed ensured and investors were encouraged. Not surprisingly, the economy under Musharraf saw impressive growth, although later reckoning by economists attributed it primarily to consumptive patterns rather than production. More importantly, the general’s promise to bring structural and institutional reform in the economy, through “increasing domestic savings”, “pragmatic tax reforms”, “turning around state enterprises towards profitability”, “boosting agriculture and reviving industry” and “strict austerity measures”, remained unfulfilled.

Tellingly, we still hear the same prescriptions to this day, evidence that none of this was achieved under Gen Musharraf.


With the economy out of critical care, Musharraf turned his focus on other points on his agenda. As in previous military regimes, accountability became a buzzword for the new military regime too. Similar to the refrain we currently hear, he promised to get back “looted money”. Just one month after the coup, Musharraf set up the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to investigate and prosecute officials involved in corruption.

Under its charter, NAB was supposed to be an autonomous body. But it was largely staffed by serving and retired military officials. The heads of NAB under Musharraf were all serving generals. The paramilitary Rangers, military personnel and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) supported it. In this situation, its independence and autonomy remained questionable. “The process of accountability is being directed especially towards those guilty of plundering and looting the national wealth and tax evaders,” Gen Musharraf had declared in his October 17 speech. “It is also directed towards loan defaulters and those who have had their loans re-scheduled or condoned. The process of accountability will be transparent for the public to see.” Soon it became apparent, however, that the so-called anti-corruption drive was effectively a tool for the military to control politicians.

The NAB ordinance granted the anti-graft body sweeping powers of investigation and arrest. It denied detainees due process of law. People arrested under the accountability ordinance could be detained for up to 90 days without charge. The ordinance also prohibited courts from granting bail and gave the NAB chairman sole power to decide if and when to release detainees — a provision that clearly contravened the principle of the separation of powers.

The ordinance also established special accountability courts that were required to conduct trials within 30 days of charges being filed and automatically barred those convicted under the ordinance from holding public office for 21 years. NAB also shifted the burden of proof at trial to the defendant. These draconian laws were conveniently used against the political opposition. By policy, serving judges and senior officials of the armed forces remained outside NAB’s jurisdiction.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Familiarly, national and international human rights groups often accused NAB of only going after those who either opposed the government or refrained from cooperating with it. NAB was also blamed for safeguarding political, instead of national, interests. In its October 2002 report on Pakistan’s transition to democracy, the International Crisis Group (ICG) described the Musharraf government’s accountability process as being “marred” by NAB’s selective “targeting of the government’s civilian opposition.”

Furthermore, the accountability courts were blamed for being used to debar politicians from participating in the October 2002 polls. The threat of investigation by NAB was also used to pressure politicians into joining pro-government parties and electoral alliances. Some NAB cases were withdrawn after the accused agreed to join the government. For example, the corruption cases against Aftab Sherpao and Faisal Saleh Hayat, two prominent Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leaders, were withdrawn when they changed their loyalties and joined the coalition government led by the then prime minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali after the 2002 elections. Both were given key cabinet positions.

Among those disqualified from holding public office were six former chief ministers, one former senator, 20 former members of the provincial assemblies, seven former members of the National Assembly and two former prime ministers. So Musharraf’s anti-corruption drive, which was one of the key seven points on his agenda, simply became a handy tool to tame political leaders and cobble together support for the regime.

One step forward and one step back became a characteristic of Musharraf’s approach while dealing with the issue of religious extremism and militancy.


The devolution of power to the grass-roots level was another point that was actively pursued by Gen Musharraf’s government. Soon after seizing power, Musharraf formed the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB) for the development of the local government system and to generate fundamental thought on promoting good governance through the reconstruction of state institutions. It was an ambitious project, headed by a retired general, to change the administrative structure at the local level.

Musharraf’s Local Government Ordinance (LGO) 2001 was quite ambitious in scope. In an effort to devolve power, local government elections were held on a non-party basis. District and sub-district governments were installed in 101 districts, including four cities. Under the new local government system, a nazim/mayor headed elected councils and administrations.

The new system not only gave constitutional cover to local governments, it reserved a significant proportion of local government seats for women (33 percent). It also proposed the direct involvement of citizens in the process of social service delivery, through the creation of citizen community boards which worked with local governments to implement community development projects.

The new system provided substantial autonomy for elected local officials and, most notably, placed an elected official as overall head of district administration, management and deve­­lopment, replacing a century-old system enforced under British colonial rule that had subordinated elected politicians to bureaucrats. Two rounds of local government elections were held under the LGO 2001 (in 2001 and in 2005).

General Musharraf’s reforms, seemingly aimed at establishing a genuine local democracy, ended up further strengthening centralised state power, however. Devolution from the centre directly to the local levels negated the normal concept of decentralisation since provinces were completely bypassed. The federal system was further weakened because power was not devolved from provinces to the lower levels. Like in previous military regimes, the local governments were primarily instituted to create a pliant political elite in order to legitimise military rule. Instead of removing the friction between the federating units and “restoring national cohesion”, as promised, the new system widened the gap between the centre and the provinces. The conflict only intensified after the 2002 elections.

One major reason for the failure of the local government system was the manner in which the devolution plan had been devised and implemented in the absence of elected officials, and against the strong opposition of the major political parties. Instead of empowering people, the system virtually became a tool for political re-engineering. The elected governments that followed Musharraf’s military regime abolished the NRB and wound up his local government system, indicating the lade of buy-in from them.


Musharraf’s seven-point agenda had also promised to depoliticise state institutions and the bureaucracy. Instead, eight years of Musharraf’s rule, in fact, militarised state institutions, with the security agencies acquiring greater space than they ever had before. At one point the army was even pressed into reading electricity meters. Political engineering further weakened institutions. Like other military rulers before him, Musharraf also tried to establish a hybrid political system with the help of a ‘king’s party’. The military created a pliant faction, splitting the Pakistan Muslim League led by ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Known as PML(Quaid), the party became the civilian front of the military regime. But this too mostly disintegrated the moment military rule was replaced.

White Star
White Star

In an effort to legitimise military rule, Gen Musharraf co-opted politicians, further corrupting the political culture. He strengthened the system of patronage that he had pledged to eliminate. Following in the footsteps of other authoritarian regimes, he also tried to curtail the independence of the judiciary. Eventually, it was this confrontation with the judiciary that finally cost him his power.

The militarisation of state institutions carries long-term implications for the country and the political process. At the end of the day, it prevents any serious effort to bring any structural reform that can help the country shed its economic dependence. For example, the impressive economic growth witnessed during the eight-year military rule was largely driven by the flow of foreign aid as a payoff for Pakistan’s support for the US ‘war on terror’, which evaporated the moment international circumstances changed.

To this day, the term ‘NRO’ (National Reconciliation Ordinance, which Musharraf promulgated) is used as a slur.


The inconsistencies of Gen Musharraf’s position were further revealed in his dealing with religious extremism and militancy. His actions against militant and Islamic extremist groups were mostly cosmetic and mainly done under foreign pressure. Despite ostensible bans, extremist and militant groups continued to operate with impunity. One step forward and one step back became a characteristic of Musharraf’s approach while dealing with the issue of religious extremism and militancy. In 2002, under external pressure, Musharraf outlawed five main militant and sectarian groups, but the administration looked on the other side when they resurfaced under new banners. The military government’s defensive attitude further emboldened religious extremists. The country continues to face the repercussions of this strategy to this day.

Musharraf’s support for the US-led ‘war on terror’, his tactical cooperation with certain militant groups and his refusal to embed a culture of democracy and accountability widened the fault lines that had long plagued the country.


There is no doubt about the fact that, during the initial period, Musharraf did stabilise the political and economic situation, restoring public confidence in the government. The military government comprising technocrats looked more efficient and capable of providing better governance. But, alas, this perception was short-lived. It started changing as soon as Gen Musharraf tried to legitimise his military rule by relying on patronage. The same old faces, who he had once accused of corruption and ineptitude, were co-opted. Eventually, the backlash to this became evident in the popular movement against Gen Musharraf. To this day, the term ‘NRO’ (National Reconciliation Ordinance, which Musharraf promulgated) is used as a slur.


While law and order did show some signs of improvement, the military badly failed in delivering on its promise to improve the system of justice. In fact, the regime curtailed the independence of the judiciary. Soon after seizing power Gem Musharraf removed the chief justice and some other senior judges who refused to take oath under the Provisional Constitutional Order (PCO). The process was again attempted, with disastrous consequences for the regime, in 2007. Meanwhile, the backlog of cases in the courts continued to pile up as before while citizens continued to fear abuse from the police. None of that changed.

Pervez Musharraf appears in court in Islamabad in 2013 | White Star
Pervez Musharraf appears in court in Islamabad in 2013 | White Star

When assessing democratic governments, we often look back at broken campaign promises and aims and agendas that were never met. While not a campaign speech, on October 17, 1999, Gen Musharraf sat in front of a portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Pakistani flag, and made many similarly tall claims that never materialised. His promises to strengthen institutions, establish rule of law, bring structural reforms in the economy, cleanse the country of corruption and devolve power to the grassroots level, remained unfulfilled. In fact, the political engineering, carried out with the help of the intelligence agencies, further weakened the political process in the country, which could ostensibly address these issues, and the perpetuation of the system of patronage only further strengthened dynastic politics.

Those yearning for greater powers to effect quick-fix reforms would be well advised to ponder what not-so-distant history teaches us.

The writer is an author and journalist. He tweets @hidhussain

Header photo: Television frame-grab from Pervez Musharraf's first address to the nation on October 13, 1999 | AFP

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 13th, 2019

Army men climb over the main gate of the PTV Center in Islamabad on October 12, 1999 .
Army men climb over the main gate of the PTV Center in Islamabad on October 12, 1999 .

On October 13, 1999 most dailies including Dawn prominently carried a photo of army soldiers climbing over the main gate of the PTV headquarters in Islamabad. A takeover of national media is one of the first priorities of any rebellion and that photograph became a defining image of the October 12 coup. The day prior, as the nation looked towards the state broadcaster for updates, PTV staffers, including Fahd Husain, the then editor of an under-development project at PTV, found themselves at the centre of the action. Eos asked Husain some questions about the historic incident that is still etched in his memory.

How well do you remember the scenes from that day?

Even though this was 20 years ago, I still remember the events from October 12 as clear as day. I was sitting at my ground floor office that overlooked the main gate of the PTV Centre. I first knew something was amiss when an anchor took to the airwaves to break the news about PM Nawaz Sharif replacing the Chief of the Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf with Lt Gen Ziauddin Butt. Even though this was a shocking development, it still felt like the calm before the storm.

I knew that history was unfolding before my eyes, but I could not have seen what came next.

When did you first encounter armed men in the building?

I was seeing the scenes on the television and pacing the length of my office. Suddenly I looked outside and saw about two dozen armed soldiers rushing into the driveway. They passed by my window and ran towards the main entrance. I raced to the corridor to see what was happening.

When I got to the lobby, I saw soldiers quickly marching up the stairs. Even though I could hear the commotion upstairs, I could not go up. Two guards with automatic weapons firmly stopped me from moving.

When did the channel go off-air?

I went back into the office because I couldn't go upstairs. On the television in the office, I saw that the PTV screen had gone black. Remember, this was before the advent of private channels - which ironically happened during the Musharraf era. Back then, blocking the state broadcaster truly meant blacking out all broadcast news.

And then there was a counter-move from civilians?

Yes. Everything moved so swiftly from here on. From my window, I saw 20 policemen jump out of jeeps. A dozen other men in plainclothes came out of another vehicle. One of the men was the prime minister's personal guard. Leading them was the military secretary of the prime minister, who was holding a pistol in his hand. The cops and bodyguards soon entered the building. I saw an opportunity and ran towards the lobby through the corridor, only to land straight in the middle of the action. The cops and bodyguards had surrounded the soldiers. The soldiers, who were outnumbered, were dragged to another room.

At this point did you rush back to your office?

No, I instead chose to walk to the end of the corridor and saw that the back staircase was unguarded. I got to the first floor and just followed the noise to where the action was. While I knew it would not be pleasant, I had no idea what I was walking into. I hope I never witness anything like this again.

As soon as I entered the 20-feet corridor on the first floor, I found that on my left were a dozen soldiers aiming their guns in my direction. One of them was lying on the floor with a tripod-mounted machine gun. On my right, the policemen and guards were aiming their weapons back at the soldiers. And there I was, right in the line of fire. I took a step back.

How long did the stand-off last?

I'm not quite sure how long it continued, but I remember feeling like time was standing still. Then suddenly, the deafening shouting between the two groups stopped. A major, who was leading the soldiers, lowered his gun and instructed his men to stand down.

The policemen and guards disarmed the soldiers and locked them in a room. Soon, the policemen and guards had taken back control of the building. PTV came back on-air. And I walked into a news manager's office where I was joined by some senior government officials.

At this stage did people outside know what was unfolding at the PTV Centre?

Some foreign channels had run news that something was happening inside the PTV Centre. They, of course, did not have the complete details yet. But crowds were gathering outside the building.

This, of course, was not the end of it. What happened later that day?

No, it wasn't, events took another turn as evening approached. A line of army trucks surrounded the building. The army men climbed the sealed main gate and entered the headquarters. More commotion followed as they ran towards the studio area. These soldiers had come prepared. They overwhelmed the policemen and guards with their force. After a brief stand-off, the policemen and guards laid down their weapons.

Everyone knew who was in charge. Soon Pervez Musharraf would make it official. At 2.45 am he gave his first address to the nation on PTV.