Remembering AKN Ahmed, an iconic central banker

Remembering AKN Ahmed, an iconic central banker

A K Nazir Uddin Ahmad was popularly known as A.K.N. Ahmed, or simply by the initials AKN.  He served as the second governor of Bangladesh Bank, the central bank of the country, from November 19, 1974 to July 13, 1976. The celebrated banker passed away on February 24, 2016 in Washington DC in his residence at the famous Watergate complex. He was known at home and abroad as a shining star in the banking arena, and an ardent exponent of central banks' autonomy.

During his long professional career, Nazir Ahmed worked as  Executive Director of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), Deputy Managing Director of the Industrial Development Bank of Pakistan (IDBP), Chairman and Managing Director of Sonali Bank, Governor of Bangladesh Bank, and lately Bangladesh Ambassador to Japan.

Under the tutelage of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, governor Ahmed and his team dedicated themselves to restore sanity in the country's crisis ridden volatile financial sector.  Ahmed won the admiration and accolades of the government and the donors by demonstrating his prudence and relentless initiatives to rebuild the fragile financial structure of the country literally from scratch.

In particular, he left behind a unique legacy of addressing the financial sector problems, and initiated prompt measures to restructure the money and banking system, put new bank notes into circulation, massive devaluation of taka in the backdrop of post-independence realities, and demonetisation of high-value banknotes to flush out black money and fake currency notes.

Working hand in hand with the government, governor Ahmed played a pivotal role to resuscitate the war-torn Bangladesh economy and rein in the runaway inflation. His tough stance earned him the epithet of a legend in his lifetime.

Many people even dubbed AKN Ahmed as the Greenspan of Bangladesh. The latter was the long-time chairman of the US Federal Reserve System from 1987 to 2006. Greenspan courageously deflected the high voltage pressures from the executive branch of the government and refused to walk along the dotted lines drawn by the government to promote their political agenda. Greenspan earned the sobriquet 'rock star' for his uncompromising attitudes. Apart from the world of banking and finance, AKN Ahmed also proved his mettle in the country's diplomatic arena. On his appointment as the Ambassador of Bangladesh to Japan, he promptly applied himself to strengthen the bilateral relations between the two countries.

His stints at home and abroad provided a golden opportunity to observe, on a larger canvas, the rapidly changing panorama in the international financial and political arena.  In the light of his experience, Ahmed penned a number of outstanding articles and books on various subjects including central banking and its autonomy.

While serving as the Ambassador of Bangladesh to Japan, he authored a book on the Japanese culture and social milieu. In recognition of his landmark work, the Institute of Oriental Philosophy, Soka University, Tokyo awarded him the prestigious Alexander, the Great Gold Medal.

Endowed with the sterling qualities of clear thinking, deep insight and analytical ability, A K N Ahmed did not hesitate to break away from the shackles of traditional ideas to attain his goals. 

Swimming against the current was part of his character to address the emerging problems. To underscore his love for innovations, Ahmed  used the title of one of his books as 'Against the Current'.

A K N Ahmed's dynamism and 'never say die' attitude inevitably spawned webs of intrigues spun by the interested quarters  to put him away from the limelight.  In the aftermath of the tragic assassination of Bangabandhu along with most of his family members in 1975, his opponents did not waste time to see him off from his favourite arena of the country's banking and finance.  In his own words, "Finally, after the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, I resigned from the post of Governor of Bangladesh Bank when I came to the conclusion that it was no longer possible for me to carry out that position with a clear conscience".

Leaving the country broken-hearted, Ahmed worked for an international bank, and was a consultant to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). On secondment from the IMF, he served as the central bank governor of an African country and short term consultant to the Sri Lanka's central bank.

That was not the first time he had earned the wrath of the powerful coterie.  In 1971, AKN was interrogated for days on at the Pakistan's Lyallpur military camp to testify against Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  He came under the wrath of the military court by refusing to implicate Bangabandhu on any count.  Bangabandhu himself acknowledged Ahmed's bravery and prudence.

AKN Ahmed held the view that economic growth alone could not contribute to the welfare of the common people. Too much reliance on the capitalistic ideology as a vehicle for economic progress and prosperity, he believed, was not an ideal strategy to build an egalitarian society.

A KN Ahmed laid emphasis on the need to keep pace with the rapidly developing digital technology in order to survive in the dog-eat-dog business environment.

He, however, cautioned against over-reliance on the reckless use of  software without building a robust hardware platform.  The failure of the banking system to develop adequate safeguards to ward off cyber frauds in recent years is a testimony to his foresightedness. Absence of safety measures led to scammers, tricksters and cyber thieves siphoning away money from the banking system literally with carefree abandon.

AK Nazir Ahmed also embarked on a one man crusade to stem the growing moral decadence in the banking arena.  As part of his struggle, he provided monetary support to the Bangladesh Institute of Bank Management (BIBM) to run an annual lecture programme on 'ethics in  banking'. Prominent people of the country and abroad, who participated in the programme, had been laying emphasis on dealing with the decaying ethical standard in the banking sector. Unfortunately, those recommendations had little impacts on the ethical standards of this important sector of the economy. Indeed, it has become a playground for fraudsters, loan defaulters and embezzlers. Polarisation between the rich and the poor, foreign exchange crisis, and social unrest can be attributed to the handiwork of the unscrupulous fortune hunters.

Syed Ashraf Ali is a retired Executive Director of Bangladesh Bank.

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