The Life And Times Of Mohammed Khan Junejo

The Life And Times Of Mohammed Khan Junejo
18 March 2023 marked the 30th death anniversary of Mohammed Khan Junejo, but the date passed by with scant mention of the memory of Pakistan’s former prime minister. This is not surprising, since Junejo is obviously not in the league of heavyweight politicians who have held the prime ministerial slot in the last 50 years, such as the father-daughter duo of the Bhuttos or Mian Nawaz Sharif.

In addition, the fact that Junejo was an unassuming, self-effacing and taciturn man, not blessed with charisma, flamboyance or the gift of the gab, no doubt contributed to his vanishing from the nation’s collective memory.

However, it cannot be denied that as prime minister Junejo uniquely distinguished himself in the cause of upholding civilian supremacy, which sets him apart from all his predecessors and successors. Sadly, he did not temper some of his key decisions with prudence, discretion and sound judgment, otherwise he may well have gone down in Pakistani history as a great prime minister and as the standard-bearer of civilian rule.

Nevertheless, there are some unique features of Junejo’s tenure in office which definitely deserve to be discussed and which justify his remembrance.

But first a little about the man himself. Junejo was born in August 1932 in the house of Deen Mohammed Junejo, a landowner from Sindhri in present-day Mirpurkhas District. Apart from having sired the future prime minister, Deen Mohammed’s main claim to fame is that in the 1930s he introduced a South Indian variety of mango to his plantations, which over time developed into the Sindhri mango that has now become known internationally as one of Pakistan’s most famous mango brands.

Educated at Karachi’s St Patrick’s School and armed with a diploma in agriculture from the UK, Mohammed Khan Junejo entered politics in the early 1950s on the platform of the Pakistan Muslim League, a party to which he remained attached till his dying day. Focusing first on local politics – he was elected chairman of the Sanghar Local Board in 1954 – Junejo later became a member of the West Pakistan Assembly as a result of the 1962 elections under the Basic Democracies system. From 1963-1969, he served as a provincial minister in the cabinets of successive governors of West Pakistan, the Nawab of Kalabagh and General Musa Khan, holding various portfolios ranging from health, communications, local bodies and railways.

Remaining absent from the public eye for the ensuing nine years, Junejo next came to prominence in 1978-1979, when he briefly served as Railways Minister in the Martial Law cabinet of General Zia, as a nominee of the Muslim League and its president, Pir Pagaro. It should be noted that Junejo was a devoted disciple (murid) of the Pir, and this bond with his spiritual mentor was to prove instrumental in the former’s ascent to the prime-ministership.
Known for his frugality and prudence in matters of public expenditure, Junejo ordered all government officials, including military officers, to switch to 1000cc vehicles

The tale of Junejo’s nomination as prime minister is an interesting one. Following the party-less polls of February 1985, General Zia was in search of a prime minister who would not challenge the president’s authority and be content to serve as willing subordinate. Once Zia and his advisors decided that the prime minister should be from Sindh, to help assuage the sense of bereavement felt by that province at the hanging of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the choice had to be made between two newly-elected MNAs from the province: Illahi Buksh Soomro and Mohammed Khan Junejo. Although the majority of the provincial Martial Law Administrators and other key aides recommended the selection of Soomro, Zia opted for Junejo, his hand being forced by his vital political ally in Sindh, the Pir of Pagaro. And hence the die was cast!

At their first meeting, Zia cordially informed Junejo that he had decided to nominate him as prime minister. In response, without a word of thanks, Junejo point-blank asked the president about his plans to withdraw martial law! This left the president somewhat nonplussed, particularly as he was not expecting this blunt query, and that too so early on, from his hand-picked prime minister and political non-entity, to boot.

The exchange between the two men also gave an important insight into the character of the prime minister. It underlined the fact that Junejo was not going to be a push-over or a dummy chief executive, but it also revealed the gentleman’s penchant for tactlessness, lack of sound judgment, impatience and, to a great extent, naivete about the dynamics of Pakistan’s power politics of the day. That last point eventually brought the curtain crashing down on his premiership.

Over the next three years, Junejo kept steadily chipping away at Zia’s powers and asserting the authority of the prime minister’s office. A few examples drive home the point. Firstly, he declined to accept several of Zia’s nominees for the federal cabinet, and even in the case of those that he grudgingly accepted, he managed to ease them out over time – Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan and Dr Mahbub-ul-Haq being the most obvious cases. Secondly, he overrode Zia’s bitter opposition and insisted on having the same military staff as the president (MS and ADCs), on the basis that as prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had enjoyed the same privilege. Third, he exercised his own independent judgment in the appointment of key officials, including federal secretaries, ambassadors, chief secretaries and inspectors-general of police. Fourth, he demanded the right to join the president in the ceremonial state-coach and to jointly take the salute on the occasion of the 23rd-March parade, and when the president demurred, he won the right to independently act as the chief guest on the 14th August official ceremony.

While the above-mentioned instances primarily related to administrative and protocol issues, Junejo also crossed swords with the president on policy issues, which caused considerably more anguish to the latter. In this regard, he removed virtually all of the onerous restrictions on the press, allowed Benazir Bhutto to make her historic return to Pakistan without any hindrance, re-asserted civilian control over the Intelligence Bureau in 1986 by summarily replacing a serving major general, Agha Nek Mohammed, who had been made IB head a week before Junejo’s assumption of office, with a veteran police officer, Mian Aslam Hayat and, most importantly, he staked a claim to primacy over foreign affairs by signing the US-sponsored Geneva Accords to bring the Afghan conflict to an end, much against the wishes of General Zia who saw this pact as a sell-out of the Afghan Mujahideen.

Another policy issue on which Junejo clashed not only with the president but also with all of the military top brass was in relation to the prime minister’s austerity drive. Known for his frugality and prudence in matters of public expenditure, Junejo ordered all government officials, including military officers, to switch to 1000cc vehicles. He led by example, shunning his official Mercedes limousine for a 1600cc Toyota Corona car, while his ministers gave up their luxury vehicles and transferred to 1300cc sedans.

Although the austerity drive was in principle a much-needed effort towards simplicity, reduction of colonial-style trappings of office and curtailment of non-developmental government expenditure, the manner in which it was announced yet again exposed Junejo’s lack of sound judgment. He declared that through this policy “generals will be put in Suzukis”. Even if this was the key driver behind the policy, there was no point in trumpeting it as such, since it only served to unnecessarily single out the military, and this further antagonized the president and the top military hierarchy.

In addition, Junejo showed considerable courage in standing up to a serving military man like General Zia on matters that were very close to the latter’s heart and which concerned an area that has been the jealously-guarded preserve of every COAS: military transfers and postings. To replace the outgoing VCOAS, General KM Arif, Zia had recommended Lt General Zahid Ali Akbar Khan. However, Junejo turned down the recommendation and instead promoted the senior-most lieutenant general, Mirza Aslam Beg to the position, much to Zia’s chagrin. Similarly, when Zia sought the promotion of Major General Pirdad Khan, Junejo declined to do so on account of the general’s share of responsibility for the loss of the Siachen Glacier, and instead he proposed the promotion of Major General Shamim Alam Khan.  With the president and prime minister on loggerheads on the matter, in the end a compromise was effected by the promotion of both officers to three-star rank.

The final straw which broke the camel’s back was the fall-out of the Ojhri Camp disaster. All investigative reports on the matter affixed responsibility on General Akhtar Abdur Rehman for having placed a depot bristling with lethal weaponry in the midst of a heavily-populated civilian area. Junejo was determined that action should be taken against the general for his role in the matter, and this was a line that General Zia could not allow to be crossed, since it would have meant the downfall of his closest military confidant and it would set a dangerous precedent for the future. Thus, Junejo’s fate was sealed, and the denouement came on 29 May, 1988, when Zia used the infamous Article 58(2)(b) of the constitution to dissolve the National Assembly and dismiss Junejo’s ministry.

Gracefully, Junejo rode out into the sunset, his political career at the front-bench all but over, but with his reputation as a decent, honest and well-meaning statesman very much intact. There was not a single charge of corruption, malpractice or impropriety to his name, which is no mean achievement in the Pakistani context. Rather, by having eased out three of his ministers, Prince Mohyuddin Baloch of Kalat, Chaudhry Anwar Aziz from Narowal and Islamuddin Sheikh from Sukkur, on account of corruption charges, Junejo set a precedent which none of his more famous successors have ever emulated. And the fact that this action against his cabinet colleagues was taken by a prime minister who was hamstrung by an all-powerful president on the one hand and by an essentially party-less parliament with fickle loyalties on the other, was, and remains, truly unprecedented.

Defeated at the hands of Shahnawaz Junejo of the PPP at the 1988 elections, Junejo was re-elected to the National Assembly at the 1990 election on an IJI ticket. In March 1993 he was still the president of the PML and it would have been interesting to see what course of action he would have adopted in relation to the impending showdown between president Ghulam Ishaq Khan and prime minister Nawaz Sharif. However, his untimely death from cancer in that month rendered this question nugatory.

On the whole, history will judge Mohammed Khan Junejo favourably, as a decent man who, notwithstanding his lack of gravitas and limited political dexterity, refused to kowtow to a military dictator and tried his best to courageously defend the principle that governance over the state must be wielded by the people’s elected representatives and not by the military establishment. In that latter respect, he boldly set the tradition which many of his successors have tried to uphold, albeit with varying success to date.

The writer is a barrister with over twenty years of varied legal practice in Pakistan, UAE and Australia. He is currently an entrepreneur and the co-founder/operator of an online home-based confectionery business. The history and politics of Pakistan is his abiding passion. He can be reached at