In early 2009, only days after the Awami League-led alliance returned to power with a thumping majority, a Bangladeshi lobby group organised a seminar in collaboration with Johns Hopkins’s University’s South Asia division here in Washington.
I covered the seminar not so much for its title “Future challenges for Bangladesh”, but mostly out of interest to learn from a young panellist — Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed.
You guessed it right. Yes, he’s the prime minister’s only son, commonly known as Joy. Most of the 50 or so audience also appeared to have turned up to hear from Joy. I do not even recall who the other two panellists were and what they said.
Walter Anderson of the Hopkins, the seminar’s moderator, introduced Sajeeb Wazed as an adviser to the Bangladesh prime minister. Joy spoke for about 15 minutes. He appeared smart, articulate and confident. After the presentation of all three panellists, the floor was opened for Q/A.
I stood up and asked for a clarification of Joy’s identity. “The new government appointed six advisors to the prime minister with the rank and status of a cabinet minister. Nowhere did I see the name of Sajeeb Wazed among the advisers. Could you please clarify when you became an adviser,” I asked.
Joy replied that he was not an adviser to the prime minister but to Sheikh Hasina. When I pointed out that Sheikh Hasina also happened to be the prime minister of Bangladesh, he mumbled.
I then followed up with my actual question. I asked him whether he would publicly say that he would not in any way get involved in running of the government, especially in business dealings as did Tarique and Arafat Rahman, the two sons of former prime minister Khaleda Zia.
“You’re perhaps aware of the ignominious departure of Khaleda Zia largely blamed for her sons’ naked involvement in almost all the major business dealings,” I added.
What Joy said in reply not only puzzled me but also the rest of the audience. “I’ve a Masters degree in Public Administration from Harvard,” he said tersely. But I persisted that I wanted to hear from him an unequivocal reply to my question about whether he would get involved in business dealings.
A moment of discomfort followed. Somewhat perplexed, the Bangladeshi organiser, ostensibly to avoid any further unpleasant question, gestured to the moderator to cut me off. The moderator obliged and gave the floor to another questioner.
The reason what prompted me to relate that episode is the increasing visibility of Joy in Bangladesh affairs in recent months. The readers must have noticed that too. Although he lives in the United States, he often travels to Bangladesh and appears in public forums, especially as the quintessential front man of the government’s much-touted ‘Digital Bangladesh’ programme. (It’s hard to imagine how a country can be digitalised without first ensuring uninterrupted electricity supply and access of the vast majority to the Internet. But that’s another matter). He’s also becoming a permanent fixture in the prime minister’s entourage to official visits overseas.
Again, he does all this in the capacity of an unofficial adviser to the prime minister. In plain words, what it means is that he doesn’t get any salary from the government and is not entitled to any official perks and privileges. That begs a crucial question. What does he do to make a living in the US and how does he pay his mortgage for the million dollar home he owns and other bills.
Well. The answer is murky. I checked with several people who know him and they all said they were unaware of his job in the United States.
According to Fairfax County public records, Joy is the president of Wazed Consulting Inc., located at 3817 Bell Manor Ct, Falls Church, Virginia 22041. He bought the brand new 4-bedroom, 4.5 bath single family home in 2006 for $996,875 dollar. The record also reveals that he bought another home at 4823 Martin Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22312 for $749,000. It was not clear whether he still owned the house.
Even if he has sold the Alexandria house, it costs a lot of money to meet monthly expenses for the home in Falls Church, a wealthy suburb just outside Washington.
And since there’s not much information available about the precise activities of Wazed Consulting, especially what he does as a consultant; who are his clients; and how much money he makes out of the business, it’s perhaps legitimate for the people of Bangladesh to demand a clear answer.
Why? Because Sajeeb is no ordinary Bangladeshi. He’s the prime minister’s only son. And for the sake of Sheikh Hasina’s personal reputation as incorruptible, she must do something immediately to defuse the growing discontent against her government, increasingly being seen as lurching towards disaster.
Let’s not forget that that it was the perception of widespread corruption in the BNP-led government, especially committed by Khaleda Zia’s two sons, which finally led to her ignominious downfall.
I’m not suggesting that Joy is in a race to beat Tarique and Coco. But what is deeply disturbing is that there’s growing perception that he is. And, I’m sure Sheikh Hasina being a politician knows very well that perception could be fatal. She’s also smart enough to see the red flag and hope she’ll do something decisive to turn the tide of anger, even from Awami League supporters, against her family before it’s too late.
Arshad Mahmud is a senior editor and Washington Correspondent for bdnews24.com.