People either hated General Zia or they admired him. There should have been a middle way but there was not. People certainly mocked him and that was something they came to regret. After all he was but an immigrant from India, his origins were humble and he behaved like a caricature of an Ealing studio British India army officer. Could this man be taken seriously?
There was a time before the coup he led against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 when he would tremble in the Prime Minister's presence. One memorable incident has him stubbing a lighted cigarette out in his pocket when the summons came from the next room. Bhutto was the first person to underestimate him. Many people, including his colleagues in the army, also misjudged him. He saw them all off.
Benazir Bhutto, the Prime Minister's daughter, often quoted her father as saying that General Zia was so naive, he was apolitical. Mr Bhutto appointed him as army chief for this reason. And after the coup and until his execution in 1979, he believed Zia would trip over or be pushed aside by other generals.
This never happened. Bhutto perhaps did not realise that Zia was more cunning than clever. He bent easily to political pressure, and learned quickly the subcontinental art of ruling by playing one group against the other. Division is perhaps his legacy.
By any standard he was extraordinarily lucky. By all political reasoning he should have disappeared in 1980. His country was isolated because of his being in power. He had no popular support and he had many opponents in the army. His action in allowing Bhutto's trial and execution caused the Carter administration to propose an arms and aid embargo on Pakistan. He was reviled by just about every government in Europe. He was distrusted. He promised and cancelled elections almost monthly so that the acronym of his title as Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) became known as "Cancel My Last Announcement". Then, like an angel of mercy, the Russians invaded Afghanistan.
Overnight all changed. Far from being an international pariah, General Zia became, in the words of one American news agency, "the doughty defender of Western interests and the last bulwark against Communistic expansion to the warm waters of the Gulf".
As long as the Russian army was in Kabul, Zia was secure. It gave him enormous confidence and he set about trying to establish a political system based on Islamic values that would replace the secular politics which he claimed had made Pakistan unstable.
His opponents accused him of using religion for his own ends. This was probably true. He was a zealot, a "born-again Muslim" who pursued his faith with a vigour that shocked his more easy-going countrymen. They accused him of trying merely to undermine the power of Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party by sponsoring and encouraging the minority Islamic extremist party. This was no doubt his intention, but he carried it off in a manner that foreigners especially saw him as a devout and well-meaning man who believed in some form of democracy. Like Bhutto he was a great showman. He was very good at image-making. Foreigners, not Pakistanis, became his greatest admirers.
General Zia gave Pakistan a phoney stability. Politically he lived from hand to mouth. He failed to find a genuine constituency outside the army. He leaves behind an army that is disliked, politicians that are divided and a country that is uncertain where it is going.
From the Obituaries page of `The Independent', Thursday 18 August 1988Reuse content