The late Annisul Huq represented true leadership
In 2015, BRAC’s then launched Urban Development Program hosted a TV debate between late Annisul Haq and Tabith Awal -- the two candidates for DNCC Mayoral post for the election in 2015.
Slum-dwellers from various slums in Dhaka, women, and people with disabilities came and filled the Krishibid Institute and asked them in the live TV show titled “Shobar Jonnyo Dhaka” what the candidates would do to make Dhaka a more inclusive city.
Predictably, like in any debates, the candidates made lofty promises. Green city, city with public toilets, transportation for women, etc were promised. The late Annisul Huq, a former TV star, got elected a few days later from DNCC and he started with a bang. Wherever he went, the media followed -- he became the rockstar of Dhaka politics.
When Korail slum burned, he was the first one to go along with us; he would get us into a breakfast huddle mobilizing resources for the rebuilding. Within two or three days, we would have resource committed, plans made, and execution would start.
He didn’t do everything -- but he got things done by getting everyone engaged. We trusted him. Whatever misgivings I had about his intentions went away, the morning when he called me asking for a plan for improvement of the slums.
It showed that he was constantly thinking -- also during his downtime. Rubana Huq, his wife, later said, he became a much better leader from his FBCCI and BGMEA days after he became the mayor of the city.
This was perhaps the testament. It was not just a job for him. He was the keeper of the city.
He got two years in office before illness got to him. In those two years, he did more with brute force, sheer courage, and leadership, than anything that his executive power enabled him to do.
Privately, in conversation, he said: “I know that the PM is with me and till that is true, I don’t care about what resistance I get.” With that he took on the vested interest groups with full force. By the end of two years, he was tired and fatigued. He was battered from the fights, lack of pace, and the lack of authority in having unified control of Dhaka’s various important services.
He half-jokingly would say that he was the glorified waste cleaner-in-chief for Dhaka (sweeper) because he only had authority over waste management. He also seemed angry with the media, friends in the early days, who he claimed judged things superficially.
When I spoke to him in May 2017, he had almost lost his fighting spirit and said he would finish whatever he could in three years with no intention of getting reelected. He was tired.
Then he disappeared -- we lost our Annis Bhai. Many of his projects remained unfinished. Many weren’t monitored and not followed up after his death.
But what he did in those two years in Dhaka is fondly remembered by the people in this city as an example of what true leadership can do. The subsequent three years showed a leaderless and rudderless Dhaka.
Dhaka was torn apart in 2018 during the student protest against reckless driving on the street. There was no one in sight to give leadership.
As we get ready to vote for the next mayors of Dhaka, there are lessons to be learned in this saga.
In the last 5 years, Dhaka hasn’t become greener, Dhaka hasn’t become more women-friendly, neither has the city become more inclusive for the poor.
We are left wondering what could have been possible if Annisul Haq finished his term as he had projects started on all those fronts.
Beyond wondering, however, what we can do is take lessons from this experience and figure out what are we looking for from the new mayors to be. Here are my three takeaways from this saga:
1. Dhaka mayor has very little authority to have complete control over the well being of the city. We don’t have a city government. The authority is fragmented across many departments and its “emperors.”
So, if the mayor is to be effective, a reform in the way the city is administered has to be done. However, until that is done, the only way for the mayor to be effective is to be perceived to be powerful enough to take on the multifaceted vested interest group.
For that, the mayor has to bring in all sorts of political, business, and social network work for him. So, the new mayor will need to have that X factor and the trust of these various networks backing him strongly.
2. While the quick wins and photo-ops are cute, the shelf life of such silliness and virality in this harangued city of ours is shrinking every day. The mayor will need real plans and he will need to communicate accordingly.
He will need strong managerial skills to ensure monitoring and delivering on those plans. Rather than trying to do everything himself, like any good CEO, he will need to motivate others to get things done for him.
But he will need to get it done quickly. So, the new mayor needs to have a track record of good strategic prowess and of turning things around and running projects successfully.
3. Last but not the least, the new mayor needs to “lead” from the front. He needs to have the courage to take on very powerful groups and fight for the little people. He can not complain. He can not lament over what he doesn’t have.
He needs to win everyone’s trust, build political capital, mobilize resources, and make things happen in a relatively short time. So, the new mayor needs to have a solid track record of leadership in adverse situations.
In the 2015 debate, I was one of the “expert” questioners who asked the candidates questions about the urban challenges Dhaka faced. In 2020, at the advice of our communication advisers, we are not having the same debate.
But if we did, then I wouldn’t have asked them any question on what they would do for Dhaka because I know none of it really matters in the absence of true leadership.
I would have rather asked them about what they have done in their past on these three areas that would highlight these skills which would guide us on how they would govern.
Dhaka can not afford another five years of neglect. There is simply too much and too many people’s lives at stake.
Asif Saleh is the Executive Director at BRAC.