Stuart Auerbach, Washington Post (March 28, 1981)
Ten years ago today an obscure Army major named Ziaur Rahman proclaimed to the world over a captured radio station Bangladesh’s independence. Now Zia, a retired general, is Bangladesh’s president.
Zia is described by correspondents who cover him regularly as “Bangladesh’s number one motivator.” His agriculture secretary, A. Z. M. Obaidullah Khan called the president “the chief extension agent of the Ministry of Agriculture.”
The 45-year-old father of two runs an energetic presidency in which at least 20 days a month the travels by helicopter to remote villages to exhort the people to greater efforts in population control, farm yields and the digging of irrigation canals. He also scolds lazy bureaucrats for failing to get things done.
“He drives us crazy,” said Obaidullah Khan.
People need to be given pride, organization and responsibilityPresident Ziaur Rahman, interview with Stuart Auerbach on March 28, 1981
Zia appears for the force of sheer will to be lifting Bangladesh by its bootstraps. He sets what experts contend are impossible goals for his country, then forces it at least to come closer than most thought possible.
In the summer of 1979, for example, he insisted, against the advice of international experts, on buying grain because he thought a drought would bring poor crops and possible famine. The experts doubted that Bangladesh could afford the grain or unload the ships and distribute it to the villages.
Under Zia’s personal prodding, Bangladesh got the grain unloaded and distributed — and there was no starvation.
“We could not wait,” Zia said. “Food is a political problem in all these countries.”
Slight of build and wearing bush jackets when he tours the countryside, Zia is a charismatic figure here. Dressed in conservatively cut suits and neat striped shirts, he is also becoming important on the world stage where his is often held up as an example of Third World productivity.
Zia lives quietly in a small house he occupied as a general in the military area of Dacca. He works hard, from 7:30 in the morning until about 1:30 the next morning, his aides say. He normally eats frugally — a chappati (fried bread) and a bit of curry for dinner and sandwiches for lunch.
He is conscious of world opinion, which is extremely important for a country that relies on aid (1.3 billion last year) for its survival. He is generally available for interviews with foreign correspondents passing through.
Zia’s current pet project is digging canals, which he sees as an answer to Bangladesh’s food problems. Villagers dig the canals and they are used for irrigation, making it possible to grow two and even three crops a year.
“People need to be given pride, organization and responsibility,” Zia said in an interview.