Thursday, March 4, 2010

My Foreign Affairs Days, 1986-1990: AKH Morshed becomes the new Foreign Secretary

M. Serajul Islam
Published in The Independent, March 5th , 2010

There was a rumour in the corridors on the Foreign Ministry in early 1989 that our Alternate Permanent Representative to the United Nations AHG Mohiuddin would not be a candidate for the post of Assistant Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). At the Ministry, those aware of the news were happy at the prospect that he could leave. It must nevertheless be said that although the Ministry was none too happy at the influence AHG had in the affairs of the Foreign Ministry, he generally used it to help those who appealed for his blessings, although there were a few instances where due to him, officers were prematurely transferred out of the New York Mission.

AHG informed the Ministry that he was not interested to be a candidate for the OIC post with less three weeks left for countries to convey the name of heir candidate to the Secretary General of the OIC who eventually made the appointment. The Foreign Secretary was chosen by the Government to become the candidate. Once nominated, the Foreign Secretary ran a campaign that had to be seen to be admired. Mohammad Mohsin concluded that if he had a chance of winning, he had to take charge himself and not leave to his Director-General for International Affairs, late Ambassador Abdul Quayyum upon whom he did not have confidence. The Foreign Secretary instead dealt with the Director. In that short span of time, they left no country or avenue untapped. The Maldivian Foreign Secretary who was at that time vacationing in Singapore was reached there for the support of his Government.

Still, like all such appointments to key positions in international bodies, nothing was certain till the final result was announced. At that time, AKM Farooq was on deputation to the OIC and he was following the appointment from the OIC Headquarter. His regular feedback was positive. The Foreign Secretary was waiting at his table for a call from AMK Farooq on the day of the election. It was late in coming and he had to go for his Johar prayers. I was waiting by the phone for the expected call from AKM Farooq while the Foreign Secretary went to pray in a corner of his office. When I picked up the phone, I could sense good news at the other end from the voice of AKM Farooq who was excitedly asking for the Foreign Secretary. I could sense that the FS’s attention was divided between the Almighty and the phone call. He was soon before me and as I gave him the phone, I just uttered the words, congratulations!

Mohammad Mohsin was a good Foreign Secretary and if he had been around for a while longer instead of the just one year he was in the office, between him and the Foreign Minister, they could have achieved a great deal for the Foreign Ministry than otherwise was the case. At the OIC, Mohammad Mohsin proved his abilities and served the OIC for two terms. In retrospect, he could have been a good candidate to help us with our botched attempt to win the OIC Secretary General’s post in 2004. That Mohammad Mohsin would be leaving was known in various circles of Dhaka even before it was known to everyone in the Foreign Ministry and the Missions. There was also no logical contender to fill up the post, not at least in the eyes of those who mattered, particularly the President and people at the President’s Office.

It was a pity though that no one saw AKH Morshed who was already in the Ministry as the logical choice. AKH Morshed was one of the brightest diplomats to have joined service under the Government of Pakistan in that country’s elite Foreign Service. He did not simply join the ex-PFS cadre as a officer of the 1957 batch; in fact he topped it, in a batch where the illustrious late AZM Obaidullah Khan had come second. It was also unfortunate that ex-CSP officers of the batch of AKH Morshed and even many in a few batches junior to him had already been made Secretary when AKH Morshed was still an Additional Foreign Secretary. For some reasons that must have been strange, AKH Morshed was, to use a cliché, cornered when I started my stint as a Director (FSO) with Fakhruddin Ahmed in 1986. He was then Additional Foreign Secretary in charge of Multilateral Wing with Ambassador Harun-ur-Rashid in charge of the bilateral wing. He was always kept at an arm’s length by the Foreign Minister. In 1986 or perhaps a little earlier, Fakhruddin Ahmed took the initiative and succeeded in sending him to the former German Democratic Republic as an Ambassador , perhaps with the intention that he could retire from that post peacefully and escape the humiliations that he was facing at home.

That did not happen and AKH Morshed was back at the Foreign Ministry before long , this time to be made an Officer on Special Duty, a nomenclature evolved in our civil bureaucracy for some very odd reasons where the word “Special” is a great misnomer. Mohammad Mohsin’s successful attempt to become the Assistant Secretary General also imposed upon him a problem of sorts; to find a successor for his post. He could not leave without a Foreign Secretary in place. By that time, Mohammad Mohsin had built quite good rapport with the President and his men at the PO, also including the military outfit there. The new Foreign Minister Anisul Islam Mahmud was also a very positive man, who also had his extremely good equation with the President and he liked AKH Morshed. Between them, they worked on the President but it was not an easy effort to get the President’s concurrence to naming AKH Morshed as the new Foreign Secretary. The President’s reservations on AKH Morshed were based on hearsay, one contributed by an army official who had accompanied AK Morshed on an official visit to Myanmar before he was sent to GDR as Ambassador. The army officer gave an extremely negative report of AKH Morshed that the President received without caring to check facts objectively. In the end, a General very close to the President, also talked with him to finally make him relent and agree to make AKH Morshed the new Foreign Secretary.

The efforts of Anisul Islam Mahmud and Mohammad Mohsin were extremely welcome for the cadre officers of the Foreign Ministry because while the two were trying to put AKH Morshed in office as Foreign Secreteray, a few ex-CSP officers, aware of the situation, and close to the President were trying to put one of their own in the Foreign Ministry. In the end, in June, 1989, AKH Morshed eventually became the Foreign Secretary with less than 4 months to go for his leave preparatory to retirement. It was one of the most unbelievable things to happen in the history of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that there had to be such a struggle to make AKH Morshed the Foreign Secretary. Many years later, when I was Ambassador in Japan, I came to know Ambassador Iguchi who was Japan’s Ambassador to Bangladesh. Ambassador Iguchi was a Director dealing with Bangladesh affairs in 1971 and one of those many friends we made at that time based on our heroic struggle who loved Bangladesh from the depth of their hearts. Ambassador Iguchi, one of Japan’s leading experts on the Law of the Sea, and AKH Morshed had studied in Oxford together; AKH Morshed for a BCL degree. Whenever we met in Tokyo, one common subject of discussion with him was about his friend AKH Morshed and he would tell me about his outstanding intellectual qualities. There were many such admirers of AKH Morshed but unfortunately none who held the reins of power those days.

AKH Morshed’s stint was too short to make any meaning out of his appointment. Although he was so talented, for some strange reasons he was hesitant in taking decisions. Some would say he was nervous. He took charge at a time when the Ministry’s senior officers were outstanding officers. Mustafizur Rahman, later to become Foreign Secretary was one of the two Additional Foreign Secretaries, the other one being M. Mohsin. Reaz Rahman, who had been an Additional Foreign Secretary (current charge) before he left in the early 80s to be Ambassador in Rome, was also in the Ministry as a Director-General in charge of UN. The officers at the senior level just needed to be encouraged to work for our foreign policy goals. Sadly, that was hardly the case because foreign policy then as it is now, was initiated and conducted without institutional emphasis where strangely the Foreign Ministry was considered to be the most dispensable.

One incident made us who worked at that period in the Foreign Ministry rudely aware of the Ministry’s standing in the government. During the tenure of AKH Morshed, President Ershad went on a state visit to Philippines. The night before the departure , there was a storm in Manila. The Bangladesh Biman parked at the airport was swayed away from its moorings and was damaged when it hit another parked aircraft that delayed the President's departure. When the President heard of the incident, his instant remark was to ask angrily what the Foreign Ministry was doing!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan

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