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Dispirited, non-performing MOFA needs drastic overhaul

Nadeem Qadir :The repeated flak taken by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has raised questions as to why qualified and dedicated officers are not performing or are staying away. Reliable ministry sources have blamed a top official for the current state of affairs as he rules like a dictator, giving unilateral postings, extensions and resorting to vengeance.

“He has connections in the right places” and his actions have remained not only unexplained, but have lacked professionalism and reflected more of his personal likes and dislikes, the sources alleged.

Officials of the ministry held a meeting recently with Foreign Secretary M. Shahidul Haque in the chair to review the ministry’s non-performance, a sign that the situation has turned serious for the nation’s diplomatic establishment.

An instance of the poor performance of the ministry has been a most embarrassing defeat for the position of OIC assistant secretary general for science and technology, despite being the host country for the recent foreign ministers’ meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) against Kazakhstan. Bangladesh lost by 18 to 5 votes, clearly a most shameful election defeat for it in any international forum and that too on home ground.

Serving and retired officials of the ministry have categorically pointed out that it is the responsibility of the secretary of every ministry, as its top official, to brief his or her higher-ups on issues of national significance.

The Rohingya crisis is a major failure and experts have held the Foreign Ministry responsible as it slept on it until the situation became serious. It needed to take what is called “preventive diplomacy” — the key to solutions in the changing global politics. It didn’t.

The other damaging performance, which has left the government red in the face, is the UN Human Rights Council’s (HRC) adoption in Geneva recently of a draft report on a review of the human rights situation in Bangladesh.

Those whom we call our friends made serious recommendations that are embarrassing for the government, and have included calls for inclusive, free and fair elections, concerns about the treatment of human rights defenders, journalists and civil society, and worries about enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings. These issues have been explained by MOFA to Dhaka-based diplomats, but appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

On the other hand, the Bangladesh embassy in Vietnam has reportedly become non-functional due to the ambassador’s alleged misbehaviour and wrongdoings as she is reportedly among the ministry’s powerful coterie.

Serving and retired diplomats had one answer when asked why there were such major failures and allegations of dictatorship, unilateral postings, vengeance, internal conflicts and a sense of fear among the majority. The answer is categorically the following — “When one individual assumes all powers, corrupts is the result and dictatorship sets in, which could be the reason behind all the complaints and inactivity. Extensions are particularly one thing that create demons and lead to frustration among those in the queue.”

One mid-level official alleged that if an officer is in the bad books of the top official or his cronies, then life becomes hell for him or her.

“Files are held up, pension payment processes are delayed …. all these are done whimsically because of the power this officer wields,” one diplomat posted abroad told the Asian Age, adding that people have been posted abroad and at home in whimsical manner despite everyone’s knowing that they will not serve the government’s interests as they are either turncoats or incompetent, but are otherwise the officer’s batch-mates or are in his good books.

Another case in point is the rehabilitation of one officer who was recalled from the Tokyo embassy for “degrading behaviour with a pregnant lady officer.” He serves as the Director FS. “No departmental proceedings have been lodged against him, but the lady officer is being harassed with a prolonged DP,” complained one ministry source.
It has also been alleged that junior officers have been posted in Birmingham, Sydney and Milan despite superiors waiting in the queue.

They alleged that the withdrawn deputy high commissioner in London Khandker M. Talha, who is the grandchild of Bishu Mia and later known as “Bishu Razakar” of Faridpur, hob-nobbed with BNP leaders Khaleda Zia, Morshed Khan and Reaz Rahman. However, he quickly became close to the power bloc in the Awami League government when it came to power in 2009 and again enjoyed privileges as he is close to the Foreign Secretary.

“A huge sense of frustration is building up,” one serving diplomat said, adding that unless an immediate overhauling is done it will be difficult for the government to face issues which may crop up in this election year.

One identical opinion about Foreign Minister Mahmud Ali is that he is “a nice and polite man who does not want to get involved in any crisis … he cannot exert himself as the leader of MOFA.” On the other hand, State Minister Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam is a novice and is happy globe-trotting or acting as the spokesman of the Foreign Ministry.

Veteran diplomats in separate interviews told the Asian Age that with these two politicians’ failure to assert themselves, has made Foreign Secretary M. Shahidul Haque the de facto leader of MOFA, giving him  extraordinary powers.

Incidentally, Shahidul is blamed for all the wrongdoings along with his cohorts by his own officials, who naturally remain anonymous out of fear mainly. Besides, government rules prohibit them from talking to the media without authorization.

“Where is his source of power?” asked one senior serving diplomat who was a victim of Shahidul for no good reason. “I had no issues with him, but he held up my file for about three years until I personally intervened and got it through  … this is so because there is no democracy or transparency or anyone to question him.”

Retired ambassador M. Anwar Hashim told the Asian Age that in his days in the ministry there was teamwork. He said in the changing global politics and diplomacy “we have to be more intelligent and have a strong set-up… the defeat in the OIC election might have been due to lack of inadequate homework and necessary pre-election campaign.”

Haroon Habib, a valiant freedom fighter and leader of the Sector Commanders’ Forum as also the Bangladesh correspondent of the Indian news outlets The Hindu and Frontline, noted, “If the allegations are found to be true, the whole leadership must go … it must be done urgently before it is too late.”

He added, “The Prime Minister has some priorities, including building a positive international image for the country, but to what degree the ministry has achieved that goal so far is a million dollar question.”

On the attack on the Bangladesh Mission in London earlier this year, Haroon said, “It looks like it was a planned one with an inside job … if the seniors were known to be pro-liberation then this would not have happened. We are happy to see some action is being taken, but where is the probe report?”

“Opposing forces in diplomacy can fundamentally destabilise the government’s foreign policy objectives,” he said, adding, “We must ensure pro-liberation officials are present at our missions in key global capitals.”

“It is a lack of coordination …. we need professional and competent people,” said retired Ambassador M. Humayun Kabir, when asked to comment on the Rohingya crisis as well as the situation in MOFA.

Talking to the Asian Age, Kabir, currently vice president of the private think-tank Bangladesh Enterprise Institute, said there was once an office of director general foreign affairs in the Prime Minister’s Office. This office, he added, maintained liaison with the Foreign Ministry. “Maybe a fully equipped cell can be set up at the PMO to keep the Premier updated around the clock along with needed advice,” he added.

Some diplomats were of the clear opinion that the Prime Minister’s International Affairs Advisor Gowher Rizvi should have powers to check bureaucratic crimes or wrongdoings in light of the list of complaints that has been growing about MOFA and especially about its top bureaucrat. On the widespread complaints of misbehaviour against officers posted from other ministries, MOFA officials admitted that it was true, but was undesirable.

The Foreign Secretary once withdrew five senior diplomats at the same time from various countries without assigning any reason for his action. Many suffered tremendous psychological trauma, diplomats have said.

Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque was little known until he assumed his current post in 2013, having returned from an unprecedented 11-year lien, granted by BNP-era Foreign Minister Morshed Khan, with the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). He joined as one of the directors and was promoted to the rank of additional secretary in a very short span of time.

Questions were raised when he was moved to the top bureaucratic post quickly as he had never represented Bangladesh as an ambassador or served in a senior diplomatic rank. Only one other career foreign service officer, who had served only as a deputy high commissioner, was earlier given the office of the Foreign Secretary.

Shahidul, thrown out of the Bangladesh Military Academy, is also alleged to have had “close relations” with the BNP leadership and got his lien to IOM. He also obtained the blessings of the Awami League through some very calculated and shrewd moves, according to ministry sources.

His official bio in the ministry website wrongly says “Mr. Haque is married with two daughters,” leaving out his only son from his troubled first marriage, which ended in a fiasco during his posting as First Secretary in London.

According to papers obtained by the Asian Age, Shahidul Haque has in all practicality disowned both his first wife and son, which raises the question of moral turpitude under the government’s “Discipline and Appeal” rules, 1985 bidhi -2, Misconduct” and “The Dowry Prohibition Act 2017” incorporating the 1980 Dowry Prohibition Act and amendments thereafter.

His first wife, according to the documents, complained to the then Foreign Secretary on 14 November 1993 about Shahidul’s misconduct with her, saying (in brief) that after taking her to London in 1990 he “mentally tortured me regularly and also sometimes physically tortured me … Then one night he tried to throw me out of our home with my five-month pregnancy… I returned to Dhaka with a ticket bought with borrowed money.”
The eventually estranged couple were blessed with a son on 30 October 1992.

His wife continues “He not only ignored the information of the baby’s birth, but did not give any support for me and my son…He has never bothered to see his son and suddenly divorced me on 10 September 1993. I demand his punishment for all these serious wrongdoings.” The Director of the Women’s Affairs Directorate also wrote to the foreign secretary after Shahidul’s wife complained in writing.

It may be mentioned here, that Shahidul in recent weeks tried to gag reporting on the MOFA by the Asian Age in different ways, thus going against the government’s stand on free press and expression.

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