Asif Ali Zardari began his tenure as president engulfed in a wildly concatenated series of corruption allegations. Since he entered the political arena by mere chance, through his marriage to the late Benazir Bhutto, he has never really shown a knack for leadership. The New York Times, since the beginning, has dubbed him a “wheeler-dealer”—a phrase reserved for those more so involved in the practice of scheming more than tending to actual political responsibilities. An individual who has always shown an obscure distaste for his background, Mr Zardari entered the presidency as a complete novice.
Growing up, the young man was well-known in his locality of Karachi as the son of Hakim Ali Zardari, the owner of the Bambino Cinema chain—which, when it was at its peak popularity, was rumoured to have been funded by the Gambino crime family in New York, who were looking to expand their asset catalogue into the Asian market, hence ushering in the name Bambino, which was also affectionately used as a nickname for Gambino family members. In his free time, Mr Zardari was often found hosting lavish discos in the basement of his family home. Forever wanting to prove his rigour to his neighbours, he would often pick fights with those who crossed him—he would often position himself to be seen with a dagger at his ankle when riding his motorbike across the city in order to further accentuate this image of supposed ‘strength’ he wished to plant in the minds of his peers.
Sticklers for education, the Bhutto family thoroughly vetted Mr Zardari before his arranged marriage to the late Benazir. An area of concern until this day, however, is the matter of his third-level education. He claims he studied Business and Economics at an esteemed London university in 1976 at an institution he calls the Pedinton School—however, such a place has never existed; any record of Mr Zardari studying in Britain doesn’t either. This matter became a point of contention prior to the 2008 elections in the Republic, which called for potential Parliamentary candidates to hold a college degree in order to ascend to their respective seat; this rule was overturned by the Supreme Court in April that year.
In the 1988 elections, Benazir Bhutto became the first female Prime Minister of any Islamic country, winning 94 out of 207 seats. The government was dismissed only some twenty months later, much due to Mr Zardari’s, although limited, presence within the party. He was a controversial figure in a conservative Pakistan: a man who was often seen trailing behind his wife, which was unheard of at the time. Whenever the couple would sign guest books, Benazir would write “Benazir Bhutto, Prime Minister of Pakistan.” Zardari, on the other hand, would write “Asif Zardari, a nobody.” He knew his place in the relationship.
During the PPP’s reign, he was often seen utilising Mrs Bhutto’s position of power in order to charge a personal 10% commission in order to set up loans or projects on behalf of the government; he was affectionately nicknamed “Mr. 10%” during those months. On the 10th of September 1990, Asif Ali Zardari was arrested on charges of kidnapping, extortion, bank fraud, and conspiracy to murder. He was freed after submitting a $20,000 bail in 1992 after being tried as a domestic terrorist in the country’s legal system.
Only two months after being freed in February of 1993, Mr Zardari re-entered the Pakistani leadership scene in order to involve himself in the second Bhutto administration after Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal that year.
Murtaza Bhutto, the younger brother of Benazir Bhutto, was the head of the Al-Zulfikar organisation, which was responsible for many headlines relating to plane hijacks in the 70s and 80s. AZ was a group which had been found to set out to gain revenge in any way possible for the death of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who had been assassinated by the Zia ul-Haq regime. Murtaza and Asif Ali were known for publicly lashing out at each other; this had become evident from the beginning, when Mr Zardari had submitted a marriage proposal to the Bhuttos for Benazir’s hand. Murtaza was the first to decline it at its mere mention: “How can you marry Hakim Ali’s son?”
In 1996, Murtaza Bhutto and his security team of seven others were killed in a shootout in Karachi. Nusrat Bhutto, Benazir’s mother, was quick to point fingers at Zardari for his death. The widow Ghinwa, too, accused him of being involved in his death. It was no secret that Mr Zardari had been having problems with his brother-in-law, especially due to his involvement in Al-Zulfikar.
Later that year, Mr Zardari was arrested in Lahore while trying to flee to Dubai to avoid being convicted for allegations of corruption and murder.
On the 5th of January in 1994, Capricorn Trading S.A. was founded in the British Virgin Islands—company #105280. With a registered business address of Bilawal House, Karachi, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, this was a funnel which Zardari used for years to drain money from Pakistani pockets into various bank accounts located throughout the Middle East and several Western and Central European countries. The banks which helped them carry out these vast transactions included Barclays of England, the Union Bank of Switzerland, and the U.S. Citibank.
The following years involved Zardari in a further string of corruption charges. In 1998, a confidante of the family sold a multitude of their personal banking documents to a team of Pakistani investigators to the tune of a million U.S. dollars. The confidante, to this day, is anonymous—but the trail is readily available. The documents were taken from the Genevan offices of Mr Jens Schlegelmilch—the family’s legal authority in Europe since the 1970s. The seller, according to Pakistan, initially asked for $10 million, but later settled on $1 million after a trip to London where the offer was proposed. Mr Schlegelmilch insists he did not sell the documents—”it wouldn’t be worth selling out for a million dollars.”
This exposé was perhaps the worst PR headlining for the family in decades—it detailed how millions of dollars were routed through the UAE, Switzerland, Poland and France in order to hide the family’s extensive wealth from the poverty-stricken country they had power in. In 1995, Dassault Aviation, a renowned French military contractor, struck a $4bn deal with the People’s Party government to be the exclusive supplier of aviation equipment to the military—with Mr Zardari taking $200 million for his role in the transaction, which was paid directly into his Genevan bank account under another British Virgin Islands-based company, Marlton Business S.A., which, too, lists him as a director.
Early in 1994, popular gold bullion trader by the name of Abdul Razzaq Yaqoob deposited $10 million into Mr Zardari’s Dubai-based Citibank bank account in order to control the gold trade across the Arabian Sea—which was conveniently based across from Karachi’s pier—a fact which was frequently denied by Yaqoob. Using his trademark ARY Traders company, he traded over $500 million in gold to Pakistan over the next three years. A monopoly, indeed, had been made by Yaqoob. In 1995, a further $18 million was transferred by ARY Traders into the Capricorn Trading’s Genevan bank account. Over this year, smaller transactions were made between the company’s Genevan accounts and their Channel Island accounts, which earned Capricorn tens of thousands of dollars in interest.
In all, as much as $1.5bn was made by the Bhutto family as part of Zardari’s ‘kickback’ programme—which was mostly spent on shopping sprees by Asif Ali. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of this kickback money, routed through Citibank, was spent on Cartier and Bulgari watches by Mr Zardari. Almost half a million dollars was burnt on jewels for himself and his family.
Later in 1998, Swiss authorities submitted documents to their Pakistani counterparts declaring that Mr Zardari was a wanted criminal in Switzerland, on charges of money laundering. As he was being indicted for Murtaza Bhutto’s murder, Citibank closed his account, and he faced additional charges from French and Polish authorities for the same charges. Over $40 million which remained in the Citibank account in Geneva was transferred to another Geneva-based bank, La Financière de la Cité.
When the PPP government was ousted in favour of an interim PML(N) government headed by Nawaz Sharif, Sharif was quick to put forward twelve cases of corruption against the Bhuttos. This act, to Benazir Bhutto, proved to her that Nawaz Sharif was behind the family’s exposé, an allegation which is still shrouded in conspiracy today.
Asif Ali Zardari is, and always has been, a crooked, dishonest politician. To even call him a politician is a disservice to the subject of politics—to call him a con-artist would be apt, given the information which is readily available about him. It is no wonder that, after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2009, he opted for his son Bilawal to take the crown instead of what his late partner had initially opted for—himself. His rapidly decreasing popularity would have been the end of the PPP as we had once known it: today, it is up to Bilawal and his future decisions as a policymaker in the party to perhaps bring the party back to its former glory. For now, though, for as long as Zardari holds a leading position within the group, there is not an inch of hope for any progress to be made.
Has the man ever been serious about politics? Ask his colleagues and you will receive a resounding, “yes.” Of course he is—why wouldn’t he be? After all, he stuck with Benazir throughout their ups and downs. Even with her out of the picture, he still leads the party. He’s been elected a number of times in democratic fashion. But, if we are to follow this approach, we can see that anyone can stick with their party and be elected in a democratic fashion, only to cause mayhem to both that party and the voting public. If we are to look at the matter in an unbiased fashion, untethered from leftist or rightist policies, we can see a man who has only ever been involved in archaic political tendencies in order to fuel his own power-hungry, capital-driven heart; and this, paired with a dynastic approach to politics in Pakistan, means that Asif Ali Zardari isn’t going anywhere. The message, overall, is clear: he’s in the field for the wrong reasons entirely.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not those of The Thursday Times.