Rebirth and reform

Abdul Mannan and Tom Deegan look back on the political vicissitudes of a country that rose from the ashes of civil war to become one of South Asia’s socio-economic success stories

Forty-seven years ago, following nine months of bloody civil war between West Pakistan and what was then called East Pakistan, the state of Bangladesh was born. During that war some three million people were killed and another ten million fled to refugee camps in India. Ten million more were displaced internally. Food warehouses were burnt and the country’s infrastructure and agricultural industry lay in ruins.

The first independent government under Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, faced the problem of feeding 70 million people. It was a daunting challenge for Mujib, who became known affectionately as Bangabandhu, ‘Friend of Bengal’. He had spent 13 years of his life in jail during the 23 years of united Pakistan, fighting for the socio-economic rights of his people, and he was again taken prisoner on 26th March 1971 when the West Pakistani army launched its attack on the unarmed Bengali people of Bangladesh.

The country was liberated under the stewardship of the Awami League, the party Mujib led. Although the League had won a Pakistan-wide general election in 1970, the West Pakistan military elite refused to accept the will of the people. Their response was a murderous campaign to kill Awami League leaders and supporters. They were opposed by a hastily organised resistance movement known as the Mukti Bahini, and in the course of the conflict millions of Bengali people died in a genocide perpetrated by the West Pakistani military. But the Mukti Bahini became more and more effective and eventually they achieved victory and independence, while the West Pakistanis suffered a humiliating defeat and the loss of their ‘colony’ in the east.

In the years immediately after the war, the government struggled for its very existence in a ruined country. Rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and industries and restoring its agricultural output was a mammoth task. The Bengali half of Pakistan had always been the most economically successful but it had also been the most deprived of the benefits of that economic success. Although it was an extraordinary challenge, Bangabandhu used his charismatic leadership qualities and sound economic policies to overcome the difficulties and, with the help of some friendly countries – notably India, the former Soviet Union, Japan, Britain and Australia – he got the country back on its feet.

However, as the economy began to improve, Mujib fell victim to an international conspiracy and in 1975 he was assassinated by rogue military elements, along with his family. Only two of his daughters, who were then travelling in Europe, escaped. General Zia, the Deputy Chief of the Army, assumed power and rewarded Bangabandhu’s killers.

FOUNDING FATHER: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman
FOUNDING FATHER: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

Military rulers do not usually bring economic success or social justice to any country, and the history of Bangladesh from 1975 to 1990 is marked by corruption, misrule, autocracy and rent seeking. While he was still in power Zia formed a political party of his own, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), but then in 1981 he was himself assassinated by another group of military officers and the country was plunged further into chaos. After just a few months, General Ershad stepped in and ruled the country with an iron hand until 1990, when he was removed from power by a popular public uprising.

The Mukti Bahini became more effective and eventually achieved victory

In 1991 a new election was held under a non-party government. The late General Zia’s widow, Begum Zia, was elected to power. Hopes were high that conditions would improve because she was a democratically elected prime minister, but her ineptitude soon became evident. She ran the country with a cavalier approach, giving a free hand to corrupt officials and her own party workers. She ended her five-year term in 1996, having made virtually no contribution towards development. The GDP growth rate never exceeded five percent during her tenure, while80 percent of Bangladesh’s national budget and 100 percent of its development budget depended on foreign aid and loans. The most inefficient sector was energy. The country produced approximately 2500 MW of electricity, with no options for alternative sources. This hindered industrial growth and caused immense harm to the national economy. Begum Zia was voted out of power in 1996.

The Awami League won the general election of 1996 and for the first time since the death of Bangabandhu, the party was back in power. Its experience in government was limited but, with the determination of the new prime minister, Sheik Hasina – one of Mujibur’s surviving daughters – conditions began to improve as she, aided by a team of competent advisors, did her best to reverse years of economic decline. One of the major problems she inherited was the inefficient state machinery left by previous governments. She gave priority to those projects which define a nation’s progress and prosperity, such as generating internal revenue and reducing dependence on foreign aid, financing national development, energy, infrastructure, education, skill development and the empowerment of women. She also pledged that those responsible for the murder of her father and family would be brought to justice, as would those who had collaborated with and participated in the West Pakistani genocide against the people of Bangladesh. In due time, many criminals who had escaped justice for atrocities committed in 1971 were tried and imprisoned or executed.

By the time Sheik Hasina had completed her first five-year term in 2001, the country’s social indicators were showing signs of positive change. The GDP growth rate improved to six percent, per capita income increased, the power generation capacity increased to 3400 MW, and school enrolment increased from 50 to 75 percent. More and more girls were attending schools all over the country and the government declared that the education of girls up to high-school level would be free. Internal revenue generation improved and the dependence on foreign aid and assistance decreased notably.

Rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and industries was a mammoth task

However, in 2001 Begum Zia and her party were voted back into power, this time along with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islam, a political party that had opposed the creation of Bangladesh. Worse still, the new leader brought into her ministry two proven war criminals from the 1971 conflict. During this period Bangladesh witnessed the rapid growth of militancy and fundamentalism, often with state sponsorship. Misrule and corruption after 2001 was widespread. Begum Zia’s son, Tarique Rahman, who had previously been low-profile, suddenly began to run a parallel civilian government from a separate office, with his own henchman and cohorts. Anyone signing a government contract had to pay him, in advance, a substantial sum, and he soon became internationally known for his flamboyant lifestyle and shady practices.

During Begum Zia’s five-year rule, Bangladesh became the most corrupt country in the world, according to the Global Transparency Ranking. People’s purchasing power and quality of life deteriorated. The energy sector suffered most, declining to 3000 MW.

HIGH ACHIEVEMENT: Bangladesh’s Padma Bridge construction project
HIGH ACHIEVEMENT: Bangladesh’s Padma Bridge construction project

One of the worst events during this period of misrule was an attempt to assassinate Sheik Hasina, when 14 hand grenades were thrown at one of her public meetings. Miraculously, she escaped but the attempted assassination killed 23 of her party members. Tarique Rahman, who currently lives as a fugitive in London, has been found guilty of this attack in courts in the US and Singapore, and sentenced to life imprisonment. His mother, Begum Zia, has been convicted of corruption by a trial court in Bangladesh and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment.

A landslide victory in the 2008 election saw the Awami League returned to power, with Sheik Hasina forming a government in January 2009 and for another term in 2014. The BNP and their allies boycotted the 2014 elections but they went ahead anyway.

This consecutive two-term rule of Sheik Hasina proved to be the most successful period for Bangladesh in its 47-year history. Her father Mujib gave the people an independent nation and she gave it an identity. Today Bangladesh has become an international role model for underdeveloped countries. Its progress has been acknowledged by international bodies such as the UN, the IMF, the World Economic Forum, the Asian Development Forum and the G-7 and G-10 countries. The World Bank president visited Bangladesh in 2017 to showcase to the rest of the developing world the way a country should bring about socio-economic improvements. Although Bangladesh is not a member of the G-7 or G-10, Sheik Hasina has been invited on two separate occasions to share her experiences of taking an impoverished and corruption-riddled country to new heights of development.

Amongst Bangladesh’s greatest achievements during 2009-2018 is the revolutionary change in its agriculture sector. Today it is a food surplus country, producing huge crops of fruit and vegetables as well as fresh water fish. The country’s GDP growth rate has shown a remarkable continuity of 7 percent plus over the last ten years, surpassing all neighbouring countries, including India and Pakistan. It has emerged as the second largest readymade garments exporter in the world, and its current foreign exchange reserves are US $39 billion, up from US $3.5 billion when Sheikh Hasina formed her second government in 2009. In terms of PPP, the IMF and the World Bank have ranked Bangladesh as the 34th largest economy in the world, destined to become 26th by 2030 at the current growth rate.

Today Bangladesh is capable of producing around 20,000 MW of electricity and is currently in the process of having its first nuclear power plant in Ruppur. Once completed, it will be able to produce 2,400 MW of electricity. The biggest achievement of Sheik Hasina’s last two terms in office is the Padma Bridge construction project, costing about US $3 billion, the entire funding for which is coming from Bangladesh’s own sources. The 6.15-km-long bridge, once completed, will benefit approximately 55 million people and increase the country’s GDP by at least 2 percent. Bangladesh’s budget, both revenue and capital, is currently 90 percent financed from internal sources, with just eight percent coming from foreign aid and two percent from grants. Its economic capability has been acknowledged internationally and this country that was once an aid receiver has emerged, in a modest way, as an aid-giving nation.

Bangladesh’s disaster management expertise has also been recognised and followed, even by developed countries. The current literacy rate stands at 72 percent and the total number of students in the education sector at all grades is 58 million, of which approximately 44 percent are females. Enrolment at primary school level is 100 percent. The empowerment of women in Bangladesh has become an example for all developing countries. Militancy and political violence, which grew under the shadow of the 2001-2006 government, has now been totally subdued due to the government’s zero tolerance policy.

During the last ten years Bangladesh has not only prospered economically but has also shown its humanity. Today, 1.1 million refugees from the Rohingya region in neighbouring Myanmar have found shelter in Bangladesh. Their only offence is that they are Muslims. The international community has termed this ethnic cleansing policy of the Myanmar government a genocide and the country has been condemned internationally.

At the time of writing, the December 2018 elections have not yet taken place, but it is to be hoped that Sheikh Hasina will continue to govern afterwards. As well as being a prime minister, she has emerged as a figure of great international stature and a remarkable ambassador for Bangladesh. But the country still has a long way to go to achieve its millennium development goals (MDG), and to fulfil its aim of becoming a fully developed country by 2041. For this to happen, it needs a leader and statesperson such as Sheik Hasina.


Abdul Mannan is the Chairman of the University Grants Commission of Bangladesh, December 2018. Tom Deegan is a freelance writer

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