Friday, April 23, 2010

My Foreign Ministry Years, 1986-1990: Abul Ahsan makes his mark

Published in The Independent, April 23rd., 2010

Abul Ahsan was promoted to the rank of a Secretary shortly after he arrived in Dhaka. I had met him only twice before he became the Foreign Secretary but I never worked with him. When I was in New Delhi, he had gone there for a SAARC Meeting as an Additional Foreign Secretary. It was 1983 when Mrs. Gandhi was still alive. In fact Mrs. Gandhi opened that SAARC meeting. I still vividly recollect being awe struck with her personality. When she came down to shake the hands of the delegates (we were a small group), I was frozen at the aura of her personality. It took me a few moments before I could shake her hand! Before this meeting, I was a member of President Ershad’s delegation to the Commonwealth Regional Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGRM) in Fiji in 1982 in which Abul Ahsan was also a delegate, again attending that meeting as an Additional Foreign Secretary. I was then a Second Secretary in the Bangladesh High Commission in Canberra that also covered Fiji and New Zealand. Those days, junior officers in the Foreign Service often felt uncomfortable with their seniors unlike in the erstwhile CSP where the feeling of belongingness in a cadre was shared equally by all. Abu Ahsan was different and he could instantly make his juniors at ease by his very casual but pleasing personality. He made everyone around him feel comfortable because he disliked standing on protocol. He belonged to the 1961 batch in which he topped the list on an All-Pakistan basis. Two of his ex-PFS colleagues, late Humayun Kabir and M. Mohsin were also among the first 10 while current Adviser to the Prime Minister HT Imam had stood 4th in all Pakistan after Abul Ahsan.

I remember my first day with Abul Ahsan in office. He was then staying at the railway Guest House waiting for his predecessor to vacate the house that was earmarked as a residence of the Foreign Secretary. As I sat across him in his room, he seemed flustered and was looking for something in his briefcase that was on the table. I could not help looking at the inside of the briefcase where things were pretty disorderly. I was a bit embarrassed; so was the Foreign Secretary. He however quickly recovered and in his dry sense of humour that was his trade mark, he told me with a wry smile that although the inside of his briefcase looked disheveled, there was a “system” there and he could blindly find whatever he wanted in that briefcase! To prove his point, he said he was looking for a particular paper and in a flash; he brought it out of the pile of papers inside the briefcase and placed it before me to see.

Before joining the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service, Abul Ahsan had taught Economics in Dhaka University. At that time, AHG Mohiuddin was his student. That relationship paid good dividends when Abul Ahsan became Foreign Secretary. AHG respected Abul Ahsan and that made the new Foreign Secretary more comfortable in his job. Abul Ahsan of course did not need to depend on anyone in particular to do his job as a Foreign Secretary because his brilliant career and experience gave him more confidence than he otherwise needed. Nevertheless, in those days, to have AGH on the right side was an asset and Abul Ahsan also made good use of AGH’s respect for him for the good of the Ministry. At least there was no tension between Dhaka and New York. Without Abul Ahsan in between, tension could have affected the work at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because as Foreign Minister, Anisul Islam Mahmud did not make any efforts to please AGH in anyway.

In fact, not long after Abul Ahsan joined as Foreign Secretary, there was rumour that AHG had succeeded in motivating his brother-in-law the President to re-instate Humayun Rashid Chowdhury as the Foreign Minister. When HRC was Foreign Minister, he had an Assistant Private Secretary named Rafiqul Islam. Rafiq seemed to know everybody and that included the President! Once when HRC was waiting for the President at the ante-chamber of his office, the President walked out into the room, his arms resting on Rafiq’s shoulders. It was Rafiq who was mainly responsible for spreading the rumour that HRC was coming back. The Bangladesh mission in New York also echoed the possibility. At the Foreign Ministry, those of us who heard the rumour did not like it because we were happy with Anisul Islam Mahmud who was perhaps the most dynamic and successful Foreign Minister of Bangladesh.

In any case, my time to leave Dhaka was fast nearing. The news came abruptly. It was the 1st of January 1990. Abul Ahsan had an engagement at the airport that day, to receive a guest, and if memory does not serve me wrong, it was the Secreteray General of SAARC. Shortly before he was scheduled to leave, the Director-General (Administration) Abdul Hannan came to see the Foreign Secretary, carrying a file. Abdul Hannan was an officer of the erstwhile Pakistan Audit and Accounts service and was made the DG (Admn) to snub for the Foreign Service officers by HRC when he was the Foreign Minister. Abdul Hannan left after a few minutes with the Foreign Secretary but when he left, he was not carrying back the file. I was called soon afterwards by the Foreign Secretary ’who was standing before his table. He handed me the file, said he was leaving and would be back late and added in his overtly Noakhali dialect “file ta chalu kori dao.” Only when I came back to my seat and read the file, I found out that I was being posted to Washington. I was in a loop of three postings; I would replace Syed Maudud Ali in Washington while he would relieve Ruhul Amin in Tehran to return to Dhaka. On mutual agreement to facilitate the transfer for my colleagues, I agreed to delay my departure by almost six months, although by then I was past three and a half years in Dhaka and needed to go on a foreign posting for financial reasons.

In matters of postings and transfers, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seldom showed it had any planning. Postings and transfers were made in a lot of instances arbitrarily. The concept of a good posting following a hardship one that most Foreign Ministries take into account in placing officers in the Missions was conspicuous by its absence in our system. Such lack of policy encouraged many officers to use their contacts to get good postings. Most Foreign Secretaries and often also the Foreign Ministers obliged when references came from important people. Abul Ahsan was one exception. I remember an incident when a junior officer of the Cypher Department came up to me and said that the Foreign Secretary wanted to see him. As he went in, his spirits were visibly high. He however was out of the room in a few minutes like a thunder had struck him. I asked him if anything was wrong. He said the Foreign Secretary was very upset with him as he had sought a transfer to Washington through someone highly placed in Government and Abul Ahsan had told him that as long as he was Foreign Secretary, he would be posted nowhere.

Personal likes and dislikes of those involved in posting officers to the missions also played an important part in the ad-hoc system in place those days. That did not have a good effect on the morale of the officers who were not willing to use any reference for privileges in service or did not have such references. There were always a good number of officers who did not feel they had been given a fair deal, especially when postings to the mission were concerned. Unfortunately postings to and from missions did not in those days take into account the needs of the children of the diplomats and the staff, in case of the latter more so, in terms of the schools and colleges and many have suffered on this account because of the insensitivity of the Foreign Ministry.

As the Foreign Minister, Anisul Islam Mahmud was as tough on officers trying to influence their postings and with the duo of Anisul Islam and Abul Ahsan at the helm in the Foreign Ministry, most of the officers felt confident that they would be given a fair deal. Things were made transparent in administration that created a healthy environment in the Ministry during the period Anisul Islam Mahmud and Abul Ahsan worked together. Despite the difference in age with the Minister considerably younger, there was a healthy respect between the two and they were able to bring the Foreign Ministry into reckoning as an important Ministry of the Government. Abul Ahsan would tell me so many stories of his days as a Director-General when Bangabandhu was at the helm of affairs in the period between 1972-75. Bangabandhu would call even Directors-General to his office on a one to one basis on foreign policy issues and Abul Ahsan was one who would those days meet Bangabandhu frequently. These days Directors-General of the Foreign Ministry have access to the Prime Minister only as note takers for her important and sometimes not so important meetings with foreign guests.

As Foreign Secretary, Abul Ahsan found out quickly how the Foreign Ministry had been marginalized meanwhile. He worked with the Foreign Minister for the President’s indulgence to reinstate the Foreign Ministry to its rightful place in Government. That unfortunately did not happen because fate intervened meantime and Ershad’s rule ended in the face of popular public uprising.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

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