The Clan Politics of ARMM

Maguindanao’s misery: Absentee
officials, absence of rage, poverty

Second of Three Parts

FOR A PROVINCE that is turning only 40 years old this year, Maguindanao has managed to emerge as “the most governed,” if only by the number of governance structures physically erected for the province. In the last four decades, the provincial capitol has moved a total of six times to five different places in four decades, depending on the whims of the newly elected governor.

When Maguindanao province was spun off from the greater Cotabato empire province in 1973, the first governor, Simeon Datumanong, held office in Limpongo, in what is now Datu Hoffer town. His successor, Zacaria Candao, held office on PC Hill in Cotabato City before resigning in 1977. The replacement governor, Datu Sanggacala Baraguir of Sultan Kudarat town, naturally wanted the capitol in his bailiwick, and had a new capitol built in Sultan Kudarat. The fourth governor, Sandiale Sambolawan, returned the provincial government to Shariff Aguak.

Then Datu Andal Salibo Ampatuan Sr. was elected governor in May 2001. He built a grand columned capitol almost right beside the municipal hall of Shariff Aguak, where he used to hold office as mayor. A few years later, Andal Sr. would build a new and even more opulent provincial capitol, complete with a driveway that rivals a small EDSA flyover and a private toilet that houses a Jacuzzi, a stone’s throw away from the old capitol, on land that is rumored to be his own.

After the 2010 elections, Esmael Mangudadatu, the current governor who succeeded Andal Sr., moved the provincial capitol to his hometown of Buluan, accessible from Maguindanao only if one passes through Sultan Kudarat province first. At first, Mangudadatu referred to the new capitol as the Satellite Office of the Provincial Government. Later, to avoid complications and questions, he renamed the place as the Maguindanao Peace Center.

Capitol on wheels?

“The problem we have observed in Maguindanao is the new Governor always transfers the provincial capitol,” says Bobby Taguntong, Maguindanao spokesman for the Citizens Coalition for ARMM Electoral Reform or CCARE, a civil society group pushing for reforms in the election process in Mindanao. “Maybe we can suggest to the national government to make the provincial capitol mobile, perhaps even install tires.”

It is far more than an issue of confusion and inconvenience for those who need to conduct business in the capitol, wherever it may be relocated to next. Rather, the tale of the moving capitol symbolizes a bigger problem seen in places where governance is more personal than political, where families overrule political parties, and where blood trumps ideas and ideologies.

In Maguindanao, as well as in many other places where old families hold sway, governance is defined not by political institutions but by the politics of personality — in this case, personalities whose roots go deep into the bedrock of local history and tradition: the political clans. In these places, the centers of power are not the institutions of governance and democracy such as the local government units; the power instead emanates from the local families that inevitably head these LGUs. As such, a governor or town mayor may see no need or obligation to go to the capitol or the town hall. Rather, the capitol comes to him.

Taguntong sees this replicated in many of the 36 towns of Maguindanao, where local officials no longer bother to report for work. If anything needs to be done, official business is brought to the official at his or her residence. The residence becomes the de facto town hall where the local official holds court.

“Some say there is poor governance here,” remarks Taguntong. “But my conclusion is that governance here is not only poor, it is absent.”

Empty edifices

A cursory check of municipal halls strewn along the Cotabato-Isulan highway seems to confirm this. Some of the municipal halls are impressively built but seem largely empty, except for a skeleton staff of municipal employees who need to punch their timecards.

In Datu Unsay town, the municipal hall is modern and magnificent, yet there is little activity going on inside. The mayor is Reshal Ampatuan, wife of former Mayor Andal Ampatuan Jr. who is now in detention as a primary suspect in the 2009 Maguindanao massacre.

The same goes for the capital town of Shariff Aguak, now ruled by Zahara Ampatuan, wife of Anwar Sr., where the offices seem largely empty except for some rank and file employees. The municipal hall of the newly created town of Datu Hoffer, meantime, is even more impressive, standing like a shining white beacon on a hill and clearly so close and visible from nearby Shariff Aguak. But it is practically non-functional, its walls bright and spotless from disuse even though the mayor is Johaira ‘Bongbong’ Ampatuan, wife of former ARMM Governor Zaldy Ampatuan.

In all these town halls, municipal officers such as the mayors and vice mayors seldom come to work, and the town council is practically non-existent.

Absentee execs

“How many municipalities implement the barangay assembly?” asks Taguntong. “Has any municipality here formed a municipal peace and order council?”

“Let us not be hypocrites,” he says. “There are municipal halls here that do not have any offices during office hours. How will a town develop if the public servants do not report for work, or do not govern?”

Taguntong says PCIJ was fortunate to find employees still manning their posts despite the absence of their elective officials. In other municipalities off the beaten path or off the national highway, says Taguntong, even the civil servants do not bother to report for work.

There are more scientific indicators used by the government to gauge the performance of local government units. The National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) uses the Good Governance Index or GGI as a way to measure the responsiveness of local governments to the governance needs of constituents on three levels: economic, political, and administrative.

The economic governance index measures how responsive a local government unit is in providing economic opportunities for a constituency to grow and develop economically; political governance index relates to how an LGU effectively empowers a citizen to have a say in the governance of his community; lastly, administrative governance is how an LGU delivers basic public services such as health, education, and peace and order.

Cellar dweller

In the NSCB’s GGI ranking in both 2005 and 2008, Maguindanao placed last among all the 79 provinces then in existence in the country, meaning it performed the worst as far as good governance indicators are concerned. For example, poverty incidence registered at 48.50 percent in 2005, going slightly down to 47.62 percent in 2008, and then 44.6 percent in 2009. This means almost half of the Maguindanaoan population lives below the poverty line, roughly double the national poverty incidence that played between 25-26.5 percent from 2003 to 2009.

The per capita purchasing power of Maguindanaoans also paled in comparison to the rest of the country. Real per capita income in Benguet is the highest at P 80,000, followed by Batanes at P78,300. Maguindanaoans had only a fourth of the purchasing power of people from Benguet, with an annual per capital income of P 23,700. The NSCB says the purchasing power of the top five provinces in the country is almost three times more than the per capita purchasing power of the bottom five provinces, Maguindanao being one of them.

For the administrative governance index, Maguindanao does not fare any better. There were only 59 health personnel on average serving every 1,000 residents in 2005, going down to 38 health personnel per 1,000 Maguindanaoans in 2008. Phone density, or the number of telephones per 1,000 residents, was 9.24 phones in 2005, going up to only 27.98 phones in 2008

Another measure used by government in assessing social development in an area is the human development index or HDI. Unfortunately for Maguindanaoans, they fare no better with this other measurement.

Short life span

According to the 2009 provincial human development index released by the NSCB last year, Maguindanaoans have a life expectancy that was third shortest for all the provinces in the Philippines. Maguindanaoans have a life expectancy of only 58.5 years, just slightly better than Sulu with 56.8 years and Tawi-Tawi with 53.6 years. That means Maguindanaoans on the average die 10 years earlier than the average Filipino, whose life expectancy is 68.7 years. Filipinos from La Union have the longest life expectancy of 76.4 years, or 18 years longer than Maguindanaoans.

Also, adult Maguindanaoans are lucky to have an average of 6.3 years of schooling, the fourth lowest in the country, and three years less than the national average of 8.9 years. This is in contrast to people from Batanes who have 11.5 years of schooling on the average.

Surprisingly, it is in the political governance index where Maguindanao appears to have had some positive indicators, although for reasons that may have little to do with good governance. The crime solution efficiency rate, or the percentage of reported crimes that were solved by the local police, was tagged at 85.27 percent. It is a surprising figure for a province known for violence and the proliferation of firearms, until one realizes that most crimes go unreported in the province.

Even more surprising is the voter turnout rate, which remained steady at 97.66 percent, meaning almost all of Maguindanao’s registered voters eagerly cast their ballots in the 2004 and 2007 elections. It is worth noting that Maguindanao was the center of election controversy, after then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and then Governor Datu Andal Ampatuan Sr. were accused of manipulating election results to deliver swing votes in favor of administration candidates both in 2004 and 2007.

IRA black hole

With its abject poverty, one would think that Maguindanao was one of the least supported provinces in terms of the allocation of resources.

Yet the internal revenue allotments that have poured into the province tell a different tale. In 2011, the national government poured in P 3.87 billion pesos in IRA into Maguindanao: P1.16 billion for the provincial government, P1.9 billion for the 36 municipalities, and P711 million for the barangays. The total dipped to P3.7 billion in 2012 and P3.4 billion in 2013, following findings by the National Statistics Office (NSO) that the previous population figures for Maguindanao appeared to be bloated.

In comparison, provinces that have received similar amounts of IRA seem far developed compared to Maguindanao. Ilocos Norte received P2.7 billion in IRA in 2011; Ilocos Sur got P3.1 billion; Nueva Vizcaya P2 billion; Bataan P2.1 billion; Tarlac P3.7 billion; Zambales P2.5 billion; and Oriental Mindoro P2.9 billion.

In Maguindanao, it is hard not to think that funds were pouring into what appears to be a giant black hole.

Indeed, economic and political activities appear to be at a standstill in many Maguindanao towns on regular days. Town centers are often devoid of people, except in the late afternoon when children get off from school and public servants clock out of work. The public market and public utility terminal of Datu Unsay is barely used, and many of the stalls are vacant. In Shariff Aguak, the capitol town, most of the economic activity is centered around the small rotunda across the public square, where a few hardware stores and copra and grain dealers are located.

Only 2 banks

A good indication of economic activity, or the lack of it, would be the number of banks located in Maguindanao itself. In 2009, the NSO reported that the number of banks in Maguindanao had doubled in the past year. This is because Maguindanao only had one bank serving the vast province in 2008; in 2009, the Land Bank of the Philippines, a government bank that handles most government transactions, opened a second branch.

The dire statistics raise a confounding question: If governance in the province is ineffectual, or even non-existent, how then are the ruling political families able to continue to exercise control over the population? Is the lack of development and governance tied to the rule of the political clans in the area? Is the province poor because of the political clans, or are the political clans strong because of the poverty in Maguindanao?

Some things are clear at the outset: in many clan areas, the clan dictates who runs for public office. In these areas, the command vote still reigns supreme. Consequently, the choices open to the voter are limited by the willingness of the clan to expand the field it has traditionally dominated to other entrants in the political arena.

The problem is compounded by the apparent failure of the clans to exercise actual governance of the areas they had fenced off for themselves; the clans, it seems, prefer to lead instead of governing, and command instead of administering.

Clan selects mayors

Several primary grade schoolteachers who hitched a ride with PCIJ along the Cotabato-Isulan highway spoke of how the senior clan members of their town simply select the next town mayor from among themselves. That candidate would then almost certainly run unopposed after the clan has announced his selection.

Generally, the clan gets its way. Conflict arises only when another clan decides to contest the seat, as what happened between the Ampatuan and Mangudadatu families in 2009 that led to the Maguindanao massacre. When a conflict arises, the clan with the support of the biggest patron in Manila often wins.

It is a tragic situation that is made worse by the apparent apathy or sense of submission by their constituents to the interest of the clan. It is the tragedy of missed opportunities and extremely low expectations.

Comments Taguntong: “The mindset of people here is, I will not go anymore to the voting precinct, because even if I do not go, someone will vote for me anyway.”

“They feel that whatever they do, the result will be the same,” says human-rights lawyer lawyer Naguib Sinarimbo, who was once the executive secretary of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. “As for others, they sell their votes because at least it is one way of getting cash. That is the only benefit they will ever get from their leaders.”

A recent study on political dynasties by the Asian Institute of Management Policy Center is revealing in that it demonstrates a link between poverty and the prevalence of political dynasties in an area. According to the Center’s director, Ronald Mendoza, the study indicates that higher poverty incidence increases the chance for dynasties “to grow and dominate the political positions” of an area such as Maguindanao.

“There seems to be strong positive evidence that if you have more poverty, the chances are you will have more ‘fat dynasties,’” Mendoza said.

“Fat dynasties,” he explains, refer to political dynasties that expand sideways to occupy multiple elective positions for a certain period of time. This type of dynasty, which Mendoza says is increasing in number, is an evolution of the thinner variety where an elective position is merely handed over from one relative to another.

Fattest dynasty

Mendoza says that in Maguindanao, the Ampatuans are the fattest dynasty of all, holding 16 out of the 54 elective positions held by members of political clans after the 2010 elections. The Ampatuans are followed by the Midtimbangs, with whom they are related by marriage, with seven positions, and then the Ampatuans’ rival, the Mangudadatus with five positions.

In the case of a fat dynasty that is in Maguindanao, Mendoza says that there are potentially two failures: “One is, is the power to choose who should be the leader of a municipality still with the people? If the dynasty is fat, it has a lot of resources in its grip, and there is a lot more power that it can apply to that jurisdiction. So you begin to wonder, where is power residing? Is it still in the electorate, or in the dynasty that has entrenched itself?”

Continues Mendoza: “The second potential failure in terms of governance and democracy is, if you are all related, will you still exert the same checks and balances in the system? If the mayor sees that his dad the governor is doing something wrong, would he be able to tell his father off?”

“The saying is a cliché, that blood is thicker than water,” says Mendoza. “But in many places the party system is so weak that what they replace with the party system is a family-oriented system where family members are invited into power. Some of them are trying to rationalize it by saying they are helping each other out to govern a region. But even if they are the cleanest leaders around, there is an awkwardness to it.”

Voters corrupted?

For all the problems that political clans and dynasties bring up, however, the most alarming is the impact they have in shaping the point of view of the constituency, the people they are supposed to serve. Zainudin Malang, director of the Mindanao Human Rights Action Center based in Cotabato, says that more and more communities now measure their appreciation of their clan leaders in terms of who oppresses them less, instead of who serves them more. It is the ultimate corruption of the concept of the public servant.

“It is so tragic and sad, that our expectations of our leaders are already this low, that we no longer expect them to perform well,” says Malang, himself a member of a political clan. “We just expect them not to do anything really terrible, and that is already fine with us. For us, they may steal the money of the people, and that is still fine, so long as they do not steal my carabao, or grab my farm.”

“The social contract has been distorted and corrupted.” he says. “People now have a different understanding of that social contract. Even the voter has been corrupted.”

Sinarimbo also asserts, “Governance is inefficient because you don’t have accountability. What is the skill you need? You need to be able to drink coffee in Manila and talk to national officials. That is the only skill you need. You do not have to be in conflict areas or flooded areas or know the needs of your constituency. The only skill you need is to be able to drink coffee with the people in Manila, and you are sure that you will be in power.”

In the end, says Sinarimbo, it is the central government that has the burden of providing the avenue for people to express their real desires, whether through elections, through mass media, or any other form, regardless of the interests of the clans who govern them. After all, it was the state, which cloaked the clans with its own brand of legitimacy; it should also be the state, through its institutions of national governance that must return the power of the clans to the people.

Says Sinarimbo: “There is no manifest expression of outrage, even though the people can see the disparity between the huge mansions (of their leaders) and their own tiny shanties. The people know there is something wrong with the setup. But the ability and the willingness to express this manifestly is not there. There is no sense of security that assures me that if I do this, the state will be there to secure my right to express. So long as the state is unable to provide that, we will not see any significant changes in this system in the immediate future.” — PCIJ, April 2013