Today, February 24, marks the second death anniversary of the iconic central banker AKN Ahmed who presided over the Bangladesh banking sector in the turbulent days of the 70s. His towering presence at the defining moments in the country's history reminds us of his inspirational leadership to resuscitate the country's seriously ailing banking industry.
Although Mr Ahmed left the Bangladesh banking arena several decades ago, he left behind a rich legacy that could serve us in good stead at this chaotic hour in the financial sector. Our reminiscence of the legendary banker this year carries special significance in the backdrop of the recent pandemonium in the banking industry characterised by poor management, large-scale loan defaults and plunder of bank money by fly-by-night shady characters masquerading as businesspeople.
The nine-month-long war with Pakistan had inevitably left a long trail of destruction in the country's infrastructures and economic lifelines. The banking industry was also equally in shambles. Dismayed by the failure of the leadership in the central bank to restore normalcy in this crucial sector, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman handpicked AKN Ahmed in 1974 to head the bank to turn the situation around.
The governor wasted no time to start rebuilding the country's fragile financial structure literally from scratch. He initiated crucial measures to revamp the banking and financial sector. Among his notable deeds were strengthening supervision of banks, rationalisation of exchange rate structure of taka and demonetisation of higher denomination notes to flush out black money and fake notes. He orchestrated the demonetisation process so adroitly that it did not trigger chaos of the kind witnessed in the neighbouring country a little more than a year ago.
A former renowned governor of Reserve Bank of India, Dr C Rangarajan in his lecture under the programme entitled “AKN Ahmed Memorial Lecture” arranged by the Bangladesh Institute of Bank Management last month paid rich tributes to Mr Ahmed for his skilful management “to restore stability in the financial sector.”
An avid disciplinarian, Governor Ahmed had the admirable quality of leadership to organise people to achieve difficult goals with consummate ease. He left his distinct footprints wherever he worked during the course of his long professional career in the central banks in Pakistan and Bangladesh and other organisations including the World Bank. He even ventured into the world of diplomacy as Bangladesh ambassador to Japan and South Korea.
The late governor is particularly remembered for his courage of conviction to swim against conventional thoughts, especially on complex economic phenomena. He never hesitated to candidly express his thoughts in his own inimitable ways—without caring for their bitter fallouts. His frank opinions often earned the inevitable wrath of his detractors walking in the corridors of power. After the August tragedy in 1975, they wasted no time to see him off from his favourite milieu of banking.
It was not the first time that he fell out with the powers that be. In 1971 he was interrogated at the military camp for days to close ranks with the junta to testify against Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman at his trial in their kangaroo court. He did not hesitate to put his job, and even his personal safety, on the line for his refusal to implicate Bangabandhu. The latter himself publicly acknowledged the courage and sagacity shown by Mr Ahmed at that trial.
The repertoire of AKN Ahmed's achievements was not confined to the important positions he held. He squeezed time from busy schedules to churn out a prodigious amount of articles and books on diverse topics ranging from central banking to world economic and political order, environment and technological changes. He demonstrated his versatility in penmanship by writing a book on Japanese culture and society. It earned him Alexander the Great gold medal from the Institute of Oriental Philosophy, Soka Geiki University, Tokyo. Late in his life he even ventured into the world of philosophy and spiritualism and penned a number of poems dealing especially with the traumas he experienced at different stages of his life.
Mr Ahmed launched a lifelong campaign for strengthening ethics in banking and contributed money and support to set up an annual lecture programme at the Bangladesh Institute of Bank Management. Unfortunately, his pleadings seem to have fallen on deaf ears as demonstrated by falling ethical standards.
Mr Ahmed, being the visionary that he was, could foresee the dire consequences awaiting the banking sector for too much reliance on developing software without erecting a strong platform for developing hardware. The failure of the banking system to build adequate safeguards in their ATMs that led to a spate of frauds and forgeries in recent years, followed by leakage of a sizable chunk of the central bank's foreign exchange reserve, demonstrates how prophetic he had been in seeing these catastrophes coming.
While paying tribute to the late Mr Ahmed on the occasion of his second death anniversary, we join his widow, Mrs Nilufer Ahmed, who has come to Dhaka from Washington to join his relations and well-wishers to observe the death anniversary of her beloved consort, and pray for the salvation of his soul.
Syed Ashraf Ali is a retired executive director of Bangladesh Bank.