Guest contribution-Unifying Pakistan

November 3, 2010

sindh floodsThe following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The writer is a defence expert and author of two books on the Pakistan Army.

By Brian Cloughley

Many of Pakistan’s problems are of its own making, courtesy of uniformed dictators or ineffective politicians or weird alliances of both. When military rulers took over the country in their bloodless coups they were welcomed by the majority of citizens, which was understandable given that the governments they replaced were feudally authoritarian and grossly incompetent.

The problem was that the generals stayed too long in power. If they had wanted to further democracy they would have encouraged the country to move towards socially aware and proficient civilian governance. But they didn’t; and there’s no point in crying over spilt opportunities. What matters now is unifying the country to meet its many challenges. Unfortunately, about the only bonding factor evident is extensive distrust and hatred of America.

Pakistan has immense internal problems. For example, the education and health systems are a disgrace, mainly because the rich and powerful and the politicians – who are often the same people – don’t have to use them. It is shameful that Pakistan has to endure what is called ‘load-shedding’ – electricity power cuts – for so many hours each day and that prices of basic foodstuffs are so high. The economic effects of power cuts on industry are becoming critically serious. The great flood has made the situation worse, but even before that disaster there were many millions who could not operate a tiny fan to ease the crippling heat of summer, or a one-bar radiator to counter the killing cold of winter. There has been scandalous and even criminal mismanagement of flood relief measures. Corruption is rife and living standards are appallingly low for the majority of the population.

Yet there is massive wealth in Pakistan, albeit concentrated in very few hands. It was recently revealed that “The average worth of assets held by Members of the National Assembly [MNA] increased three-fold” since 2003, and “the current average value of assets held by an MNA stands at Rs80.89 million”, which is about a million US dollars – a staggering amount of money in such an impoverished country.

It doesn’t stop there. As Pakistan’s ‘News’ newspaper reported on 27 September, “Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and his 25 ministers, in sworn affidavits submitted to the Election Commission of Pakistan at the time of their elections, have admitted that they don’t pay income taxes”, which is, to put it mildly, peculiar. Hillary Clinton twisted the knife next day by declaring that “Pakistan cannot have a tax rate of 9 percent of GDP when land owners and all of the other elites do not pay anything or pay so little it’s laughable.” On 26 October Transparency International (TI) released a report including the observation that there is a global “tide of corruption”, and indicating the sad fact that Pakistan is one of the most horribly corrupt countries in the world.

Alas, there is nothing terribly new in this, except that Pakistan’s position in the league has worsened a bit in the past year or so, but then the Sindh Assembly passed a unanimous resolution condemning Transparency International, and the Punjab Governor, Salman Taseer, declared that the findings were “a disgraceful stunt to malign the government.”

Equally off the planet were many other politicians who, instead of pledging to help ordinary people and bring to justice at least some of the legions of corrupt officials who rip them off, joined in the assault on TI. This is a dangerous, head-in-sand reaction, because it smacks of supporting or at least tolerating what the vast majority of people consider to be a major social problem.

Given unchecked social injustice, Pakistan might seem ripe for revolution – and the violence of Muslim extremists in Pakistan is classically revolutionary in character. Their attacks are the ultimate (and sometimes physically final) protest against what they perceive as a grossly unfair society, although their solutions are medieval and rejected by most Pakistanis. Their hatred of America, however, strikes a populist nerve, and the US has exacerbated its unpopularity by conducting cross-border strikes from Afghanistan and drawing closer to India, to the extent that a 2010 Pew Research Centre poll found that 59 per cent of Pakistanis view the US as an enemy. President Obama’s November visit to India is regarded widely as being deliberately anti-Pakistan. But it’s the domestic problems that are most sensitive.

There is dangerous disgruntlement in Pakistan. It isn’t surprising that once again there is talk of a military takeover, although the Chief of Army Staff, General Kayani, wants to keep the army in barracks. But, as with all Pakistani public figures who care about their nation (as distinct from those who prioritize personal wealth), he must be worried about the country’s lack of direction.

There are some decent and honourable people in Pakistan’s politics, and they may yet come to the fore. What matters urgently is establishment of a sense of national unity and purpose. Unfortunately the President, Asif Zardari, is not the person to generate this, because he is despised and detested by most citizens and even by many supporters of his own political party.

Mr Zardari would do his country a vital and historic service were he to stand down to allow election of a figure who can inspire and bond the people of Pakistan. The Constitution, quite rightly, now limits presidential powers – but it doesn’t alter the president’s responsibilities to the nation. The politicians will have to play their part by ensuring appointment of an uncorrupt and principled president who can unify the country and guide social reform. It is only when the people come to trust their national leadership that there can begin to be effective action to deal with Pakistan’s manifold problems. General Kayani doesn’t want to take over – but if Zardari doesn’t go, there might be no alternative, if Pakistan is to survive as a nation.

(Reuters photo: A boy plays with a tyre in a flood-hit area in Sindh/Akhtar Soomro)

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