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Getting up close and personal to a military coup

Published Jan 18, 2012 08:00am


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-Photo Illustration by Abro

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.

As I walked into the President House I realised that other journalists had not yet arrived. The press conference was being arranged in a big hall on the side. On the other side of the courtyard, I could see GIK sitting in a room with floor to ceiling windows and surrounded by the same legal wizards who had, over the past few decades, aided and abetted every falling and rising civil or military dictator. They were busy finalising the text of GIK’s speech in which he would dismiss Nawaz Sharif’s government.

I was surprised to see how planning of these coups was so last minute where the draft of the speech was being tweaked minutes before the president’s live address to the nation. At the same time I was also surprised at the naivety of the prime minister who was ignorant of the developments taking place a few hundred meters away from his official residence. While the prime minister did not anticipate the military ready to topple his government, every barber in Pakistan however understood the significance of the army chief cancelling his pre-scheduled visits to France and to the United States.

I sat patiently in the big hall in the President House, which soon started to fill with foreign and local journalists. Around 10:00pm, the President walked in slowly with no signs of triumph on his face. He started reading his four-page long speech in his signature monotone voice with a thick Pushto accent.

GIK’s voice had haunted me as a child when I used to sit with my father for the annual ritual of listening to the budget speech, which GIK, being the finance minister under General Zia, delivered year after year announcing new taxes on everything from matches to gasoline. He was now sitting a few feet away from me. I could see him single-handedly undo the will of millions who had voted Nawaz Sharif into power.

"Maladministration, corruption and nepotism have reached such proportions in the federal government...that they...prevent the government from functioning in accordance with the provisions of the constitution," GIK accused Nawaz Sharif. This was the second elected government he sent home packing with the army’s blessing. The first one was Benazir Bhutto’s government that he dismissed in 1990.

Almost 19 years to the day another cold winter has descended over Islamabad where the streets are abuzz with rumours of yet another coup.  I have been told that a coup may not be possible this time around since an independent judiciary and a free press will stand in its way. I do not believe judiciary and press are sufficient to stop the dozen-odd trucks that drive over the constitution on the Constitution Avenue.

It is in fact the blood and sweat of the masses that safeguard the constitution and the freedoms enshrined within it. The masses, however, are as disillusioned with democracy today as they were in 1993. They rather fight with disease, hunger, and poverty, brought about by successive democracies, rather than stand in front of a military truck or a tank.


Murtaza Haider, Ph.D. is the Associate Dean of research and graduate programs at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.  He can be reached by email at

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Murtaza Haider is a Toronto-based academic and the director of

He tweets @regionomics

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (31) Closed

Ram Jan 18, 2012 02:01pm
Well written - interesting narrative. And a very good punch line in the end. Hope Pakistan stabilizes and focus on more mundant things like eduction, employment and enjoyment of simple things life can provide.
Gopal Jan 18, 2012 02:53pm
Very well written, best i have ever read in dawn. Just one thought however, the judiciary in Pakistan is ready to take on the elected govt but don’t have the feet to stand on when it come to taking on the Pakistani army. All this memo gate is only hurting the elected govt and the army is now having all the fun thru judiciary. If democracy is to survive the judiciary has to support the elected govt and not play a negative role.
ST Rizvi Jan 18, 2012 03:21pm
Great read ...informative as well as a nice stlye of prose. Good to see some quality reading on Dawn blog...fresh change from the likes of Nadeem Paracha
Nasah (USA) Jan 18, 2012 04:18pm
History repeats itself for those who forget history -- yesterday Nawaz Shaeif, today Zardari, tomorrow Nawaz Sharif again - or Imran Khan? "Death, so called, is a thing which makes men weep, And yet a third of life is pass'd in sleep." (Lord Byron)
Nadeem Khan Jan 18, 2012 04:59pm
"They rather fight with disease, hunger, and poverty, brought about by successive democracies..." About half of Pakistan's life, the army ruled directly. Of the remainder, they ruled indirectly for most of the time. Nearly all politicians today owe favors to the army. And you blame 'successive democracies' for the disease, hunger, and poverty? That's rich.
Ishtiaq Jan 18, 2012 05:20pm
Good article with disappointing ending. Masses are not disillusioned with democracy but with bad governance and corruption.
Sajjad Jan 18, 2012 05:29pm
I think the date of 18th July 1993 is somewhat doubtful. The presidential order of dissolution of assembly was passed on 19th April 1993 by GIK. On 18th July, there was no dissolution but mutual resignation by GIK and Nawaz Sharif.
raika45 Jan 18, 2012 12:53pm
How much of this disease,hunger and poverty did the army rule eradicate?That will be the day when you the people of Pakistan will be the true rulers of your country and the army under your parliamentary control.For that to happen you need real courage to stand up for your rights.
Azhar Jan 18, 2012 05:56pm
very nicearticle to read! appreciable style and harmony that keeps you gazzing on the article until you reach last full stop!
Afnan Ahmed Jan 18, 2012 05:59pm
Good to read a well written article after a long time!
Muhammad Adeel Jan 18, 2012 06:43pm
Nice prose but I believe it is a self opinionated story where the author is himself a hero. Sorry but I don't buy it.
Igloo Jan 18, 2012 06:57pm
A thought: these games have played an important role in keeping the various institutions in a state of healthy tension. After all, we are not talking about bloody revolutions but a process of political development which admittedly is going through a painful phase. If any one group of individuals were able to get their hands on unfettered power Pakistan would likely pay a heavier price than it pays now. This recent turn of events seems to be a sign of maturity - where all sides are trying to manipulate the system to achieve power. In the past they trashed the system to get it.
p r sharma Jan 18, 2012 07:42pm
Mr. Haider should have expressed his personal opinion explicitly if he favours democracy over Dictatorship. the article indicates that Army is his choice. oarty or the politicians may be incompetent/ corrupt . change them. Do not think to change the democracy.
S A Khan Jan 18, 2012 08:00pm
Email from Murtaza he got dates wrong; I got mixed up with Mushharraf's coup. SAK
Taimoor Jan 18, 2012 08:06pm
All I can say is that "Mian Sahib" got owned haha.
alfin Jan 18, 2012 08:12pm
ryerson univ, in toronto is honoured to have a distinguished and intelligent professor on staff. more interesting is the jaunts around on a motorbike being witness to a coup. much like steinbeck and his travels around amerika with charly.
R S JOHAR Jan 18, 2012 08:44pm
Excellent narrative by the author, which was like watching a movie thriller. However, the chances of repetition of the past events appears to be remote since the present COAS is much cooler, sophisticated and calculative than any of his predecessors to take over the country which as such is quite un-managable in its present state and would rather leave it to the politicians to take the brick-bats. Moreover, his hands are already full dealing with the internal situation and more importantly settlement of Afghanistan problem.
BRR Jan 18, 2012 09:18pm
Well written moving piece. A witness to history, albeit a sad history. Intrigues cooked up between the army and President. This anecdote should have been a lesson to Pakistanis, but sadly, it is just a footnote .
Liaqat Jan 18, 2012 11:01pm
omar noman Jan 19, 2012 02:25am
The finest newspaper article on Pakistan politics that I have read for 3 years
nh Jan 19, 2012 03:32am
Enjoyed reading an interesting, and informative article that maintained the charm throughout from top till bottom. Do write more.
mujib Jan 19, 2012 03:43am
Pakistan is being teared apart by these politicians, the citizens are being made into zombies. I think the current prime minister and hes associates should have been rounded up and put into prisons. Why is the army still listening to these corrupt people. Look at the state of Pakistan within and on the international. Do we want this kind of Pakistan or we would rather change for better. I think the civilian should over take all the official buildings and offices and run Pakistan for themselves and dont let any one politician come in to power because Pakistan history shows us what they done in the past and present.
Eli Jan 19, 2012 04:10am
It's as simple as this if the elected leaders lose trust of the masses and the masses stop believing in their power of vote and assembly.......
Rahilla Jan 19, 2012 08:29am
Perhaps, but the only problem is, at least 70 percent of bloggers and writers writing for English papers and sites are influenced by NFP. That's the power of that man, like ot or not.
pirah Jan 19, 2012 09:51am
even when democratic governments come in power, army's hand is always tight around their neck!!
aamir rizvi Jan 19, 2012 10:41am
So the masses are facing today what they were facing in 1993 that is because the military generals, indirectly, did not let the then govt carry on, they did not allow the next govt to continue and finally they directly intervened and toppled down the govt and imposed a martial law. This is what they are trying to do now. Trying to destabilize the govt indirectly, creating justifications for another martial law may be in a few months or in few years, perhaps by the next COAS, if not by kyani. All of us need to understand (except for the military men as they are too rigid, narrow-minded, short-sighted, thoughtless and unwise to understand anything) that democracy is not a process of 8-10 years, it needs time to get mature, this system needs at least 40-50 years to stabilize and sustain as a successful democracy. Can we build a house in an hour? Can we construct a building over night? We should not forget that Pakistan has never seen true democracy since its creation. An elected government functioning under the military establishment or frightened by military or intelligence agencies, and compelled to work as they demand, does not mean democracy, and all of the elected governments have been working under such pressures. So first we need to have a real democracy and that can be possible only if the military learns to perform what they are meant to. The military would, probably, stay out of politics if they start learning how to defend the country and nation. They would start doing their work and no GHQ attack, PNS Mehran attack or Abbottabad operation episode would occur again. We would have real elected governments who would not be pressurised by the military generals, the masses would have an idea after 15-20 years that who of the political parties should not be in power again and we would start getting mature as a nation. Then after 40-50 years we would be able to say that the democracy has started flourishing in Pakistan.
Jahiz Jan 19, 2012 11:02am
This sent chills down my spine: " A uniformed soldier stepped up and addressed me by my name. I was shocked to learn that they knew of my identity. "
VK Jan 19, 2012 11:08am
Interesting narration..even good to create a movie....and most importantly in plain and simple english, easy to understand and yet powerful impact on the readers brain! I advise you to be a writer albiet a movie dialogue writer :)
Ijaz Jan 19, 2012 11:12am
Really liked your comment sir. Especially the last 2 lines because it gives hope that we, the "awam", have started maturing enough to understand, appreciate and stand in front of Tanks and Trucks. Otherwise we are / were too emotional to mature, at least politically.
Sohail Jan 22, 2012 11:09pm
I certainly agree with the the last paragraph of Murtaza. This time massess will support Amry to get rid of this corrupt,, inefficient, above all the Traitors who arebent upon to sell our beloved Pakistan. If Army has little courage, or love for our Country. They should come forward immediately, remove this Government, and bring neutral, and patriot groups of Pakistan who manage Pakistan before handing over to elected representatives. That's all i write as a patriot, and loving Pakistani
Kashif Jan 23, 2012 12:14am
The article has more fallacies then good arguments, as it gravels emotions then arguments. It was not a military takeover but a constitutional head of the government dismissing a government using constitutional means. You can argue about the motive or intent of the president but not about the legality of his power. The power did come under a controversial amendments but the same set of constitutional amendment had other populist provisions like more radical islam-ization of the nation. The later court decision to assign itself the responsibility to evaluate the prerequisite for dismissal of government was extension to meaning of the words of the constitution and its amendment , a prerogative court have historically used based on its internal emotional state rather than any consistent legal philosophy. The argument to position the Armed Forces supported for president as coup or illegality is again appeal to emotions. When later COAS Abdul Waheed Kakar did support both the president and prime minister and lead to the removal of government and coming of PPP to power, none questioned the legality of his nonsupport. That is the issue with us as a nation which is manifested by our courts as well as armed forces. We make our decision on emotions and not argument and try to bring validity to emotional arguments by appeal to morality not ethics or legality. Even the current court has done that with a liberality to expand or diminish the meaning of the constitutional words to support populist notions. Recent examples Approval of first POC and dismissal of second POC of Musharraf. Another recent example was the opinion of the court that the pretense of the security of nations allowed it to review the MEMO gate and also formal requesting that government provide assurance of not dismissing the COAS and ISI chief even thou constitutionally there is no bare on the right of prime minister to dismiss them without giving reasons. Constitutions provide stop gates for check on power for legal purposes not for moral or for pretense of wrong intent full purpose. So it goes, the fate of the nation is governed by populist opinions and the court and the establishment uses the fallacies of such emotional movement as ever changing arguments playing Russian roulettes with the future of the nation.