Sticking The Bhutto In

Benazir Bhutto’s niece, Fatima, has been seriously pounding the South Asia media circuit in the past few weeks to flog her book, Songs of Blood and Sword, which apparently paints Auntie Benazir in a distinctly unflattering light as a murdering, power-crazed megalomaniac.

As if Fatima was in need of more publicity, this week also saw the release of the UN’s report into Benazir’s murder in December 2007. Everyone is praising the UN report for taking a pretty tough line on the Pakistani establishment, criticising them for failing to adequately protect her and whitewashing the subsequent investigation. The unsubtle message is that the military establishment were behind the execution, possibly using Islamist terrorists to carry out the actual attack, and that the motivation was to remove the threat of a such a popular politician to then-president Pervez Musharraf’s regime.

Benazir was certainly a threat to Musharraf, whose regime was crumbling in the face of rioting lawyers and an upsurge in Islamist terrorism after the siege of the Red Mosque. But it’s less clear that she was a threat to the broader military establishment. She did little to break their hold on power during her stints as premier in the 1990s and all the talk of her being some shining beacon of democracy was, as William Dalrymple puts it more eloquently than I, balls:

Benazir …  colluded in wider human rights abuses and extra-judicial killings, and during her tenure government death squads murdered hundreds of her opponents. Amnesty International accused her government of having one of the world’s worst records of custodial deaths, abductions, killings and torture.

Far from reforming herself in exile, Benazir kept a studied distance from the pioneering lawyers’ movement which led the civil protests against President Musharraf’s unconstitutional attempts to manipulate the Supreme Court …  Later she said nothing to stop President Musharraf ordering the US-brokered “rendition” of her rival Nawaz Sharif to Saudi Arabia, so removing from the election her most formidable democratic opponent. Many of her supporters regarded her deal with Musharraf as a betrayal of all that her party stood for. Her final act in her will was to hand the inappropriately named Pakistan People’s Party over to her teenage son as if it were her personal family fiefdom.

That doesn’t mean the military were not behind the killing, of course. Musharraf was still the boss and an army man. Perhaps her enemies had actually started to believe the hype about her democratic ideals and got scared.

We will probably never know, so for now just enjoy the rest of Dalrymple’s article which repeats some of a story he wrote in 1994, in which Benazir, then prime minister, comes across as frankly insane and terrifying, and gives a glimpse of the vicious family hatred that eventually led to the murder of Fatima’s father, Murtaza Bhutto, a couple of years later. As for Fatima, daughter of the murdered Murtaza, she gives off a lot of well-poised righteous anger in her interviews, so the book is no doubt a great, if unflinchingly bitter, read.


2 responses to “Sticking The Bhutto In

  1. Hi,

    It seems to me that much of the mourning for Benazir Bhutto is not so much mourning for her as for the hopes and expectations she represented. The media here in the US presented her as the one leader who could turn Pakistan from an unstable nuclear armed military dictatorship into a democratically ruled US ally. The media, and possibly the people, of Pakistan did not want to look too closely at her. With the alternative being Musharraf, who can blame them?

    Which is not to say that she would have lived up to all of the hopes placed in her. But looking at Pakistan now, it is hard to see how she would have been significantly worse than what actually happened.

    But yes, she was the leader of Pakistan for a fair amount of the 1990’s, and she played a significant role in giving us the Pakistan we have today.


  2. I think she represents quite a good lesson in the limits of democracy in countries where feudal landowners still hold enormous power and where a well-educated English accent can fool the world into thinking they will turn Pakistani politics into an honest game. I remember seeing her on a TV debate years ago, before I knew much about Pakistan, and being entirely duped myself.

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