Gotta know when to fold'em

By Prof Alemayehu G. Mariam / August 26, 2008
The sisterhood of misfortune

Pakistan and Ethiopia are sisters in misfortune. First, for much of their modern political history, they have been the playgrounds of autocrats and tinhorn dictators. For over one-half of its 61 year existence as a state, Pakistan has been ruled by iron-fisted generals, including Mohammad Ayub Khan (1958-1969), Mohammad Ziaul Haq (1977-1988), Yahya Khan (1969-1971) and Pervez Mushrraf (1999-2008). Ethiopia languished long under the autocratic regime of Emperor Haile Selassie, followed by the murderous rule of a communist military junta. For the last 17 years, she has been plundered by a bloodthirsty dictatorship of thugs. Second, Pakistan and Ethiopia have two of the most corrupt governments in the world.

On the 2007 Corruption Index, Ethiopia and Pakistan are tied for 138th place out of 179 countries. But last week Pakistan’s fortunes turned decidedly against dictatorship and in favor of the rule of law and democratic governance. Poor Ethiopia (Oh! Poor Ethiopia!) continued to hurtle on its trajectory of the past 17 years and fell deeper into the abysmal quagmire of famine, war and political turmoil.

Musharraf’s Time to Fold’em

“You just gotta know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em,” sang country great Kenny Rogers. For Pakistan’s president Pervez Musharraf, August was the time to fold’em. The general-cum-civilian president often raised a clenched fist in the form of a hammer to defiantly warn his opponents that he will always “lead from the front” in any hostile confrontation. But in his resignation speech last week, Musharraf led from the moral and patriotic high ground: “This is not the time for individual bravado, but for serious thinking,” he reflected. He said he had done no wrong to be impeached; and vigorously pleaded that “no [impeachment] charge-sheet can stand against me. No charge, not one charge can be proved against me because I have confidence in me that I did nothing for my own self. Whatever I did was in [putting] Pakistan first.” He said he was resigning to serve a higher purpose: “After considering this whole situation and consultation with my legal advisers and political supporters and with their advice, it is for the sake of the country and the nation that I have decided today to resign from office… I don’t need anything from anybody, I have no concern. I leave my future in the hands of the people. Let them be the judges and let them do justice.” It was a stunning end to the political career of a man who had ruled Pakistan with an iron-fist for nearly a decade. It was a humble concession to the sovereignty of the people.

Impeachment of Musharraf

Pakistan’s Constitution (Art. 47) provides for impeachment (constitutional removal from office) of the president “on the ground of physical or mental incapacity or impeached on a charge of violating the Constitution or gross misconduct.” A vote of 295 parliamentarians out of the 439 in both the Houses of parliament (Majlis-e-Shoora) is required to remove Musharraf from the presidency. The coalition party leaders who were spearheading the impeachment effort -- Asif Ali Zardari (Pakistan People’s Party) and Nawaz Shariff (Pakistan Muslim League, and the man Musharraf ousted in a coup in 1999) -- would have needed an additional 29 votes beyond the 266 seats they currently hold to meet the minimum two-thirds required for conviction and removal of Musharraf from office.

But Musharraf’s conviction on impeachment charges was not a sure thing. Musharraf had an arsenal of legal defenses and offensive political capability if he had chosen to fight back. In fact, until he announced his resignation, his closest aides said that he has “vowed to fight his impeachment through all legal and constitutional means”. Musharraf could have opted for a knock-down-drag-out fight in Parliament, Pakistani constitutional lawyers tell us. Since Musharraf’s impeachment would have been the very first for the Pakistani parliament, the whole process would have to be improvised. The rules and procedures for an impeachment trial would have to be made as the “trial” unfolds. The novelty of the impeachment process would have given Musharraf a special opportunity to wreak havoc on the process with procedural snafus and technical challenges, keeping parliament in a state of chaos for weeks or even months. Musharraf intimated as much when he said going through an impeachment process would prolong a state of uncertainty in the country, “horse-trading” in parliament, putting “my (political) associates to a difficult test” and the severe “tension between the government and the presidency”. In other words, Musharraf could have conducted trench warfare and made it exceedingly difficult for the impeachment managers to get the required two-thirds vote to obtain a conviction. But Musharraf also had other extra-parliamentary political options to keep himself in office for a quite a while longer. He could have appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court (where his cronies are in charge), declared a state of emergency in collusion with his powerful generals, and even used the “nuclear option” of article 58 of the Pakistan Constitution and dissolved parliament. But he subordinated his personal lust for power to the glory of Pakistan and the well-being of the Pakistani people.

From Dictator to Statesman?

Could dictators somehow become statesmen? Could Musharraf have been a closet statesman all these years? Surprisingly, when push came to shove and impeachment charges were a virtual certainty, Musharraf proved to be a man of courage, a crusty old general who put the interests of his country above his own. His resignation was not merely an act of vacating a public office; it was a courageous act of patriotism, a refusal to drag his country through a prolonged and agonizing impeachment trial. Few dictators would have shown such guts even when they know the jig was up. Most would have fought to the bitter end hopelessly clinging to power. Not Musharraf. He proved he had the guts to do the right thing. He showed grace under fire, an act of heroism rarely shown by tin pot dictators in the Third World. In his parting words, Musharraf showed the qualities of a statesman: “I am sad that Pakistan is going down fast, poor people are being pressed by price hikes. I pray that the government will provide relief to the people… For the people my heart is weeping. We were going in the right direction, our children were getting education. But now, where are we going?... If we continue with the politics of confrontation, we will not save the country. People will never pardon this government if they fail to do so.”

When Musharraf took power in 1999 in a “bloodless coup”, he was the archetypal Third World tinhorn junta dictator, and an insignificant player on the world stage. He promised to institute “true democracy.” In 2001, he appointed himself President of Pakistan. In 2003, he changed the Constitution (Amendment 17) and gave himself sweeping powers to fire the prime minister and dissolve Parliament. He promised to give up his position as army chief of staff in 2004, but conveniently reneged on it. By 2007, his perverted definition of “true democracy” was to fire Supreme Court judges wholesale (and replace them with his cronies) and jail lawyers who opposed military dictatorship and his unconstitutional efforts to be head of the armed forces, and a civilian president. In a six-week state of emergency in 2007, Musharraf jailed thousands of political activists and imposed strict media censorship.

After studying Musharraf’s resignation speech, one is tempted to conclude that Musharraf may well have been a statesman-manqué (a man who had a strong desire to serve the general welfare [not the General’s welfare] but just could not cut it), a closet statesman. It was evident all along that he had streaks of statesmanship in him. He actively sought peace with India; and even though he did not succeed in resolving the problem of Kashmir, by opening dialogue he averted the chances of a third catastrophic war between the two nuclear powers. He advanced the cause of women’s rights in Pakistan by reserving seats for them at the local and national levels. He helped America fight the global war on terror. And so on. Is it possible that in his resignation Musharraf showed his true colors, that he is really a statesman in thug’s clothing?

No one can diminish Musharraf’s historic last act in office. By stepping down and abiding by the Constitution, Musharraf made his resignation a defining moment for himself and his country. He upheld the rule of law and the supremacy of the Pakistani Constitution; and he demonstrated his acceptance of civilian multiparty democracy and the ultimate sovereignty of the Pakistani people. In a final act of statesmanship, Musharraf chose to speak his peace, leave office with dignity and honor for himself and Pakistan, and “future (fate) in the hands of the people.” When General Douglas MacArthur was relieved of his command in Korea, Congress asked him to address a joint session. He closed his speech with a famous line from an old army ballad: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” For Musharraf, “Old soldiers never die. They just ‘leave their future (fate) in the hands of the people’.”

Prosecution or Exile for Musharraf?

It is unclear what Musharraf will do now, or what his opponents will do to him. Some suggest that he has cut a deal to go into exile, possibly in Saudi Arabia. Idi Amin went there after he left Uganda. The tradition in Pakistan seems to be exile than prosecution, e.g. former prime ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. What eventually happens to the Supreme Court judges sacked by Musharraf could be determinative on the issue of prosecution. Shariff wants all of them reinstated (which is likely to increase the chances of prosecution) but Zardari does not (possibly because he is afraid full reinstatement of the judges could revive a corruption case against him). Ironically, in that balance may hang the fate of Musharraf and Pakistan’s embryonic coalition government. Pakistan is facing many pressing problems, including food and energy shortages, galloping inflation and declining economy, rise in fundamentalist militancy and terrorism, an increase in al-Queida presence and a growing insurgency in Balochistan along its southwestern border with Afghanistan, and in the tribal areas of Waziristan in the northwest. If the coalition civilian regime should fail (as it appears it might with Shariff threatening to leave the coalition on the issue of reinstatement of all the judges and significant curtailment of presidential power), Musharraf’s dark prophesy that Pakistan will be plunged in abysmal political and social turmoil may come to pass after all. Hopefully, the specter of another general perched atop an armored personnel carrier in black sunglasses will encourage the coalition government to manage a successful multiparty democracy in Pakistan.

Musharraf’s Message to All Dictators: “Don’t be Gamblers!”

There is a great lesson for all dictators in Musharraf’s resignation. It is a lesson taught in the lyrics of Kenny Rogers:

You got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’ is done.

It’s time to fold’em, Zenawi! There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’ is done!

One Ethiopia today. One Ethiopia tomorrow. One Ethiopia forever.

The writer, Alemayehu G. Mariam, is a professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, and an attorney based in Los Angeles. For comments, he can be reached at