Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
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An uneasy likeness

By Gamal Nkrumah

Gamal Nkrumah We all are Pakistan, to varying degrees. That is, for many developing countries of the South, Pakistan embodies an underlying predicament -- a seemingly predetermined inability to come to terms with the demands of the post-Cold War period dominated by Pax Americana. There is an intrinsic discomfiture with democratically-elected leaders across the Third World, and indeed a tendency to treat the entire democratic process with derision -- worse even, to summarily dismiss it.

Pakistan made big news last year when General Pervez Musharraf led a bloodless army coup on 12 October, dissolving parliament and wresting leadership from the elected government of former Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif. Risking international condemnation and internal instability, Musharraf has pulled off a shaky success story; six months later he is still Pakistan's effective military ruler and chief executive.

As was the case in Pakistan, civilian political establishments in some of the world's most impoverished nations have cynically manipulated the much-vaunted accoutrements of sham democracies, which is very often the scarlet that enrages the bull of military takeovers. But perhaps what is most worrying today is that developing nations live in fear of being ostracised politically, and more importantly, economically, by the international community -- punishment for those who dare not to toe Washington's line.

This week's Group of 77 summit in Cuba brings together a staggering number of leaders from the Third World -- both rogue and Western darlings -- who all have a little Pervez Musharraf in them -- Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The Group of 77, the Third World's answer to the G7 group of the world's wealthiest nations, was founded in 1964 with 77 members, but the group now boasts 133 member-states.

It is something of a meeting of minds in Havana -- even though leaders gathered display a vast range of ideological persuasions, ranging from Islamist (as in the case of Musharraf) to Marxist-Leninist, as espoused by the host nation's leader, Fidel Castro. By their nature as constituting the so-called developing world, the G77 nations are in a state of flux -- a situation epitomised by the case of Musharraf, who is both seeking international recognition for his regime and blatantly ignoring calls for democratic elections.

It was a confident, smiling Musharraf who took the stage last month to officially welcome US President Bill Clinton in Islamabad. But that was before the drama, or comedy of errors, that took place in Pakistan last week, with the sentencing last Thursday of former Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif to life imprisonment on hijacking and terrorism charges. For those who had hoped Musharraf's coup was not driven by a thirst for vengeance, the decision was eye-opening, to say the least.

In Nigeria, President Olusegun Obasanjo is up against violent clashes between Christians and Muslims who want to implement Sharia law -- a grim reminder that religious zealotry threatens the nascent Nigerian democracy in much the same manner as it facilitated the ruin of Pakistan's. Obasanjo arrived in Havana on a British Airways commercial flight because his parliament refuses to give him permission to purchase a presidential plane. Planes, it appears, have become a problem for jet-setting leaders of the South. It was Musharraf's plane that finally triggered Pakistan's coup.

Musharraf has shuffled an exciting deck this week, with a stopover in France on Monday en route to Havana for the G77 summit. He is hoping to win support among the large number of leaders from the developing countries, but there is no point watching to see whether Pakistan's political system is rotten or whether Musharraf himself is the worm. After Sharif's swift sentencing, the former prime minister's property was confiscated and he was ordered to pay compensation to all aboard the plane he allegedly hijacked.

"[Musharraf] had put the tiger in a cage and could not afford to release him," Sharif's wife, Kulsoom, said after hearing the verdict, and explained that her husband was a victim of a "personal vendetta."

Sharif's party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), protested the verdict, and so did Musharraf's hosts in France. "I think criticism from Europe is absolutely unfounded and the trial could not have been fairer," a straight-faced Musharraf told a dumbfounded French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine.

"Pakistan cannot afford adventures and experiments. Today Pakistan is isolated, the investment climate has been destroyed, our borders are threatened by aggressors, the law and order situation has worsened. The only answer to protect the institutions in Pakistan is an immediate return to democracy," Sharif wrote from his prison cell in Karachi.

The issues were raised in Havana, but poking fun at Pakistan's predicament did not feature prominently, for everyone feels a little like Pakistan. Governments are loathe to step boldly "out of line" not because they think it detrimental to the country, but solely because they fear the contentious sanctions of the West.

It is understandable that most observers find it expedient to dismiss military interventions in the political arena, but does the blame lie entirely with Gen Musharraf? The notion of Third World solidarity not only straddles these divisions but over time has come to bear at least three fairly distinguishable meanings, all areas of focus in Havana this week -- south-south cooperation, north-south relations, and coping with the rigours of globalisation.

Last month, the G77 Chamber of Commerce -- representatives of industrialists and business leaders from the South -- met in Havana and "strongly denounced the use of economic sanctions for political reasons both in business practice and in terms of access to the international markets," as the G77-CCI Secretary-General Anwar Ul-Haq, himself a Pakistani national, told reporters in Havana on the eve of the G77 summit.

Nawaz Sharif's own checkered career is in itself a case study in the pitfalls and twists of Third World democracy. Sharif, who became premier in 1990, only to be dismissed from office in 1993, was one of the longest-serving holders of government office in Islamabad. He also displayed the authoritarian tendencies so characteristic of many Third World leaders.

In 1998, at India's initiative, the India-Pakistan Composite Dialogue Process was put in place and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihar Vajpayee visited Lahore in February 1999 to reinforce India's message of goodwill for Pakistan. Musharraf makes no pretence of his disapproval of the resulting Lahore Declaration signed by Vajpayee and Sharif.

Musharraf has not denied Indian allegations that he was the architect of Kargil, where Pakistani-backed insurrectionists infiltrated Indian-administered Kashmir. A report on the affair revealed that Pakistan's Northern Light Infantry batallions had crossed the Line of Control that divides Indian-administered from Pakistani-controlled territory in Kashmir long before they were detected.

Last July, under intense pressure from Washington, Sharif used all his political clout to pull back Pakistani troops from the Indian-administered side of the Line of Control in Kashmir. The two sides were expected to build on the ceremonial event by moving forward on tough negotiations that will determine the future of Kashmir, and South Asia.

"My problem is that since 1972 when the Simla Accord [between India and Pakistan was signed] all issues were to be addressed, including Kashmir, bilaterally, now have we done it? No, we haven't done it," Musharraf told India's distinguished newspaper The Hindu recently. "The only thing I am saying is let's not please sideline Kashmir because that is the only dispute. Other [differences between India and Pakistan] are aberrations, minor differences of opinion which can be resolved."

Even India, too, can often appear as intransigent as Pakistan. "Yet to say that India's tricolour must flutter over Kashmir to prevent India's breakup is to place territory before people," wrote Indian columnist Amberidh K Diwanji recently. Winning over the local population was a vital necessity. If they cannot be won over, then let them go their separate way. Why, he asked, 52 years after independence, do some people prefer secession? "New Delhi and the Indian ruling establishment placed territory before people. In the bargain, we lost the people and the territory has been under threat. Let us place the value of humans over any notion of borders and territories."

On the brighter side, Pakistan still enjoys a free press and negotiations between International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Pakistan began last week in Islamabad. Furthermore, Musharraf has promised to hold elections to local bodies in Pakistan as of December 2000. But he ruled out national elections for the time being. The real problem, it seems, is that the Pakistani political establishment, like the rest of the South, simply suffers from an advanced state of scepticism.

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