Getting up close and personal to a military coup

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

January 18, 2012


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