Man in Motion: Slain Leader Traversed Nation Preaching Progress, Hard Work

Stuart Auerbach, The Washington Post (May 31, 1981)

The Slain president of Bangladesh, Ziaur Rahman, liked to move out among his people- As many as 20 days a month he headed by helicopter from Dacca to some remote village.

Usually, one village wasn’t enough for the short, trim Zia. Dressed in a bush shirt, he would stride down the road from the first village, perspiring aides and local officials trailing behind, to see how many other communities he could cover in the day.

Zia would question the crowds that gathered at every crossroad: Were promised reeds being built, and were they being maintained? Were wells dug on schedule? Were irrigation systems kept in working order? And, most important, were local officials doing their jobs?

Woe to the officials if the answer was no and villagers could supply examples, for they faced a public dressing down from the President.

But Zia did more than scold officials. He acted as the nation’s cheerleader, exhorting the people to greater efforts on self-help projects, such as canal digging or family planning.

It was like an old-fashioned, Southern gospel meeting as he had villagers shouting their support and promising to dig more canals. His latest appeal.

Two children per family are too many for Bangladesh’s burgeoning population, which is threatening all development gains, and fixing a maximum of one child is part of the answer.

Zia, a 45-year-old soldier, appeared determined to lift his desperately poor country from its position as one of the world’s basket cases by the sheer force of his determination.

Logically, coolly and calculatedly, it seemed to be an impossible dream. Yet the force of Zia’s personality made even cynical diplomats and case-hardened international aid workers believe he had a fighting chance to succeed.

Zia set impossible goals for his country, but he said they were needed to force Bangladeshis to strive harder than they would have otherwise.

His individualistic approach to running the country often threw any semblance of planning into disarray. One government official related how Zia upset Bangladesh’s entire five-year plan for railroads by promises he made during a train tour of the country. The official acknowledged. however, that Zia’s promises probably were just all good, if not better, than the plan.

Aside from gnawing poverty and a staggering population growth, the greatest obstacles to progress were considered by many to be Bangladesh’s pervasive corruption and powerlessness of most of the top ministers around Zia.

The only way to get anything done in Bangladesh was through Zia’s office Aid workers told of having key projects stalled in the ministries, often at the highest levels, and only freeing them after getting Zia’s ear at a social gathering.

Zia, generally regarded as an honest man who lived frugally and worked grueling hours, appeared embarrassed by the charges of corruption around him.

While he maintained his reputation as a strong, honest and dedicated leader, some of his domestic critics said the majority of his self-help programs benefited mainly landowners and that only small amounts of the international aid that has flowed into his country since its tumultuous founding 10 years ago ever trickled down to the dirt poor of Bangladesh.

A military man who fought in the Pakistani Army during its wars with India, Zia was a hero of Bangladesh’s battle for independence. He was an officer in the Pakistani Army’s East Bengal regiment and he recalled how in 1971 he sat up all night, praying and reading his Koran before deciding to join the revolt for Bangladesh’s independence. It was Zia, then a major, who made the historic radio broadcast in March 1971 — from the city of Chittagong — that proclaimed Bangladesh as an independent state.

After Bangladesh gained its independence, he remained in the Army, taking over the government as a martial-law ruler six years ago in a series of coups and countercoup, Zia is generally credited with restoring stability to the country, badly shaken by the turmoil that followed the assassination of the once-revered father of Bangladeshi independence, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Zia was one of the few military rulers in the world ever to give up a sure thing and agree to run for office. He was voted in as president in 1978 by an overwhelming majority in what most observers considered a free and fair election.

Some of his political opponents considered him ruthless and other said he had changed recently. Yet he freed most political prisoners and most recently allowed Mujibur’s daughter to return to Bangladesh and lead the major opposition party.

Although the presidential palace where he had his office is an opulent building by Bangladesh standards, the home in which he lived with his wife and children was described as modest.

Stuart Auerbach, The Washington Post’s former South Asia correspondent, visited Bangladesh and interviewed President Ziaur Rahman in March 1981.


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