When he decided to partially restore democracy, he made key amendments to the constitution ensuring the president the right to overrule parliamentary decisions in the national interest. As president he tried to maintain close links to Islam and to revive the country’s declining economy, while his foreign policy was marked by the support of the mujahideens in the Soviet-Afghan War.
Zia was born in Jalandhar on August 12, 1924, the son of a teacher in the British army. He first attended the Government High School in Simla, and then went on to earn his B.A. at St. Stephen College, Delhi. He was commissioned in the British army when he was 19 years old. At the time of the Indian partition he, like most Muslims, chose to continue his career in the Pakistani army. In the early 1960s Zia trained in the United States, and he was later sent to Jordan to help the formation of the country’s army.
In April 1976 Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto surprisingly appointed Zia chief of army staff instead of more senior generals. Bhutto probably underestimated Zia’s political abilities, ambitions, and his following in the army.
Yet when the opposition coalition of the Pakistan National Alliance charged Bhutto with rigging the electoral results, Zia took advantage of the situation, leading a military coup against Bhutto and decreeing martial law to reestablish order. Zia consolidated his grip on the government and created the Disqualification Tribunal, which forced many politicians and members of Parliament to retire from public life.
He also decided to dissolve parliament and replace it with the Majlis-i-Shoora, an assembly of 284 member from the different classes of Pakistani society who were, however, selected by the president himself. Former prime minister Bhutto was hanged in 1979 after a long and controversial trial. When Zia finally decided to call elections in the mid-1980s, he first secured his right to continue to be president with a referendum that closely linked his presidency with the Islamization of Pakistan.
He overwhelmingly won the referendum and appointed Muhammad Khan Junejo as the prime minister. Tensions between the president and the prime minister soon surfaced, and he removed Junejo from office in 1988. The president soon found himself in a difficult position due to the return to Pakistan of Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir Bhutto, who had started to gather the forces of opposition. Zia had not been able to decide how to solve his intricate political situation before he died in a plane crash near Bhawalpur on August 17, 1988.