Friday, May 28, 2010

My Foreign Ministry Years, 1986-1990: Some reflections

Published in The Independent, Friday, 28th May, 2010
M. Serajul Islam

My tenure of nearly four years came to an end towards the end of May, 1990 and I handed charge to my friend Shahed Akhtar as the new Director (FSO). In the farewell accorded to me, the Foreign Minister said that when the file for my posting was sent to him, he spared no time to sign it because he was more interested to keep Abul Ahsan as the Foreign Secretary as according to him, I was in the habbit of ending the tenures of those I served as Foreign Secretary prematurely! Normally, a Foreign Secretary was in those days expected to serve at least 2 years in his post while in my four years, I had served 5 with Abul Ahsan still in office when I left.

The Foreign Minister's humour at my expense notwithstanding, the fact that in my four years as Director (FSO) there were five Foreign Secretaries reflected "something is rotten in the state of Denmark", to borrow a Shakespearean analogy. Except in the case of M. Mohsin who left to become an Assistant Secretary General in the OIC and Abul Ahsan who eventually completed his 2 years' term and perhaps a little more, Fakhruddin Ahmed, Nazrul Islam and AKH Morshed were not given their full terms not because of lack of ability on their part but because of the whims and likes of the President. It also reflected another fact about the Foreign Ministry at that time; it was not considered important enough for any care and thought to be given in choosing the Foreign Secretary and then allowing him to lead the Ministry to the best of his abilities. Both in choosing the Foreign Secretary and then dispensing with one, the President's attitude was arbitrary.

Fakhruddin Ahmed was the High Commissioner in London when he was chosen for the post at a time when he had two more years to retire. He had been Foreign Secretary almost a decade before he was called to the same post again. He was then also dealing with a personal tragedy, having lost his wife to cancer. There were others who could have been chosen as Foreign Secretary and Fakhruddin Ahmed left in his post which was also what he wanted. Unfortunately, he had to vacate his post because the President had already made up his mind to place a General in London as the High Commissioner. Thus Fakhruddin Ahmed was made Foreign Secretary for a second time not because the Government was interested in placing the Ministry under an experienced Foreign Secretary but because he had to vacate his position as High Commissioner to make way for a General.

The President liked his Secretaries to be in touch with him on a regular basis both in person and over the Red Phone. Fakhruddin Ahmed was not interested to please the President in the manner the latter liked. He was a professional and very experienced who did not have to do these things to fulfill his duties and responsibilities as Foreign Secretary. For Fakhruddin Ahmed, it was unfortunate that his professional ways also fell on the wrong side of the Foreign Minister Humayun Rashid Chowdhury who was just a couple of years senior to him in the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service and the two were expected to work hand in glove for the good of the Foreign Ministry. An incident that occurred at that time reflected the character of Fakhruddin Ahmed and what he thought of his job. A western Ambassador was in the Ministry one day and was meeting the Foreign Minister. The Ambassador had earlier met the Foreign Secretary with a request that he turned down. The Foreign Minister asked his Director to call the Foreign Secretary to attend the meeting. The Director sensed that something was seriously amiss in the request but managed to convey the Minister's desire to the Foreign Secretary. Seeing he was embarrassed, Fakhruddin Ahmed walked with him to his room and asked him to tell the Foreign Minister he was waiting for him. There was a heated exchange in the Director's room during which Fakhruddin Ahmed told the Minister that he had already denied the Ambassador's request and the Minister could go ahead and over rule him but he would not be present in his meeting with the Ambassador. It was inappropriate of the Foreign Minister to ask the Foreign Secretary to attend the meeting. Fakhruddin Ahmed could have conveyed that through the Director but saved him from embarrassment and made the point directly to the Foreign Minister that the Foreign Secretary's position could not be compromised.

It was indeed sad that Fakhruddin Ahmed was sent on LPR where he spent a year doing nothing just because he was not willing to surrender to the whims and likes of the President and the Foreign Minister. While a talent was wasted, the President chose Nazrul Islam to become the Foreign Secretary. Nazrul Islam was a brilliant individual. He had joined the erstwhile Pakistan Foreign Service by giving up his right to join the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan for which he had qualified. His ability to articulate himself in English and Bengali was perhaps the best among his peers. Those days, the Foreign Secretary used to hold weekly briefings for the journalists. In those briefings, Nazrul Islam was at his best. He made the President more than happy, for a while, on both counts on which Fakhruddin Ahmed "failed"; in using the Red Phone as well as not losing any opportunity to meet the President personally. It was not very long into Nazrul Islam's aborted tenure that the President realized what the rest of the Foreign Ministry knew when he was appointed Foreign Secretary; that temperamentally he would be ill suited to lead the Foreign Ministry. From day one of his tenure he failed to carry the senior officers of the Ministry with him, some of whom were afraid to meet him because of his temper. The Foreign Minister should have briefed the President about Nazrul Islam's mercurial temper at the time of his appointment. As it became known in the Foreign Ministry that the President was not happy with Nazrul Islam, everyone knew that it was just a matter of time for him to make way for a new Foreign Secretary. He was removed as arbitrarily as he was selected as the Foreign Secretary.

When Nazrul Islam was named Foreign Secretary, I was apprehensive as I was told by those who knew him about his temper. However, on that count, my experience was the reverse because the Foreign Secretary treated me with affection. I remember one incident even today with a smile on my face. As I sat across the table from him, clearing files, he suddenly opened his cigarette packet and offered me a cigarette. I was taken aback and said I did not smoke. He retorted back and said he saw me smoking many times. I then admitted that I smoked but I was not ready to smoke in front of the Foreign Secretary out of respect for him and the office he held. He accepted that and next moment, I saw packets flying in the air with the Foreign Secretary telling me that he wanted to see how good a cricketer I was. I caught half a cartoon of packets that day! Nazrul Islam, despite a very hard exterior, was not so in reality and the senior officers stayed away from him without trying to find out the real qualities of the man. If the senior officers had not stayed away from him and instead interacted with him from his first day in office, perhaps things could have worked out differently for Nazrul Islam.

Nazrul Islam spent a few more months while waiting to go out as Ambassador to the Soviet Union. I continued to keep in touch with him even more closely in those months. I felt sad at the way he was made to leave. However, there was one thing he did while he was Foreign Secretary that left an unhappy impression in me about him. The US Embassy those days used to invite an officer to visit USA for six weeks. That year, they invited an officer by name for the visit that was against the established procedure. A file came to the Foreign Secretary to name someone for the visit. He called my friend Iftikharul Karim who was then Director (FMO) for a name. He walked into my room after meeting the Foreign Secretary to give me the good news that I would soon be going on a trip to the United States. After a while the same day, the Foreign Secretary called me to his room and handed the file on the US trip, asking me to contact the US Embassy for visa for the officer named for the trip. I came to my room and what I saw written in the file was totally unexpected. The officer named was then posted to a Mission and closely related to the Foreign Secretary. In retrospect, I would like to consider that incident was an aberration because Nazrul Islam was impeccably honest. Nevertheless, at that time I felt sad that he did not consider me for the trip.

The Foreign Secretaries I served were extremely capable. The Foreign Service cadre was competent. Unfortunately, they were up against the rest of the civil bureaucracy that did not see much relevance of a powerful Foreign Ministry, a view in which the President actively indulged. Nevertheless I left the Ministry with some hope because at that time it seemed like Anisul Islam as Foreign Minister and Abul Ahsan as Foreign Secretary were bringing back the Foreign Ministry to reckoning with the President beginning to realize that he needed the Foreign Ministry for extending his hold on power.

(The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and can be reached on email

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