Along stretches of highway and railway tracks across Pakistan, walls bear a familiar inscription: Mard kabhi boorha nahin hota, a man never grows old. It’s an advert by quacks and herbalists peddling eternal virility to aging Pakistani men. It would appear that Pakistan’s former military leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf has taken this roadside assurance too seriously.
Nine years after his ouster from the presidency, and many humiliating attempts to reclaim political relevance later, he is at it again. In a recent interview with Sky News, he said that if he could return to power now he would have more legitimacy than the first time around because back then some people thought he was a dictator. He said this with a straight face.
Musharraf’s dreams are as hopeless as the claims of the roadside quacks, but that doesn’t stop him from coming up with elaborate plans to bring them about. Despite what the aphrodisiac sellers say, men do get old, and they don’t get any wiser with age.
Back in his day, Musharraf sold himself to the world as the last man standing between the Taliban and Western civilization. In the bargain, he achieved everything that a developing country’s military dictator could want: a trip to Camp David, a house in Dubai, a flat in central London, a book deal, his own TV show. You would think that after all that, he would retire, play golf and occasionally show up on the after-dinner lecture circuit. But earlier this month he announced the creation of a 23-party political alliance and appointed himself its chairman.
Many of those parties were previously unheard-of, and some of the ones that were known announced that they had nothing to do with Musharraf or his grand alliance. Still, within days Musharraf was back on TV reminiscing about his glorious rule and pitching himself as a savior-in-waiting — the man who would deliver Pakistan from its current political crisis, caused by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification from office on corruption charges.
Other Pakistani army chiefs have found lucrative post-retirement employment. The last one to go, Gen. Raheel Sharif, is now the head of a new Saudi-led military coalition of mostly Sunni states that is being billed as a Muslim NATO. The one before that, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, managed to wrangle a three-year extension of service and now appears to be leading a quiet life — which may have something to do with the fact that his brother is wanted in a land scam worth 17 billion rupees (more than $161 million) that he ran for the army while Kayani was army chief. But Musharraf, having tasted absolute power for almost a decade, won’t give up.
There’s a slight problem, though. He wants to rule a country that he has refused to return to since leaving it last year. He is an absconder in multiple court cases, some involving charges of murder and treason. And there is his record as president of Pakistan.
From 1999, when he seized power from the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to 2008, when he resigned to avoid being impeached, this man was responsible for the fate of the nation and an army at least half-a-million-soldiers strong that was standing at the forefront of an existential battle against terrorists. A pistol in one hand, a cigar in the other, he was a man’s man. In the late 1990s, he sent several hundred Pakistanis to their slaughter against Indian forces in the Siachen area of Kashmir, and even after being called out for that blunder expressed largely self-pity. His staunchest political enemy, Benazir Bhutto, was assassinated on his watch and he blamed her for her own death. He once claimed that Pakistani women get themselves raped to obtain Canadian visas, and then laughed at his joke.
You don’t have to be a military dictator or the head of the army to feel entitled to power in Pakistan. There are mini-Musharrafs all around us. More than 1,000 women were killed in Pakistan last year, many of them shot or hacked or poisoned by male relatives. They were killed by their fathers and brothers and husbands and jilted lovers, whose violence is legitimized by Pakistani society and law.
Two male legislators have been squabbling over the fact that, in a village in their constituency in northern Pakistan, armed men stripped a 16-year-old girl and paraded her naked in the streets because of a family dispute. In the southern city of Karachi, Pakistan’s most famous TV evangelist accused journalists and bloggers of committing blasphemy or treason, hence endangering their lives, and said he had been told to do so by his bosses. Another man, a cleric in a wheelchair, is leading a siege of the capital Islamabad because he believes that religious minorities in Pakistan are having too good a time.
Like Musharraf, these men know they’ll get away with all this. Both the legislator who is accused of supporting the men who paraded the girl naked and his accuser will get another shot at elections because the political party they belong to is a male club. The TV presenter will move to another show and may even get a more lucrative contract. When the cleric’s siege is over, he will find other platforms to harass other minorities. All are protected by institutions or cabals of men like them.
Three years ago, Musharraf was on trial in more than a dozen cases. He was on his way to court for a hearing when his convoy was diverted to a military hospital. He then managed to stay away from a courtroom until the army and its intelligence operatives secured him bail in all the cases and in 2016 bundled him out of the country. Later, he boasted that General Sharif had helped him get out.
When Musharraf was in power in Islamabad there was a joke going around: What’s the difference between Musharraf and God? God doesn’t think he is Musharraf.
And who can blame him?
Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” and Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, and the librettist for the opera Bhutto.