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Mending Maguindanao after the Massacre

January 6, 2010

On November 23, a group of relatives, supporters, and journalists traveling to file a certificate of candidacy of Esmael Mangudadatu for Governor of Maguindanao province was massacred. The worst recent example of election-related violence in the Philippines, and the worst ever single killing of journalists in the world, the gruesome event has received enormous attention both in the Philippines and across the entire globe. As the search continues for some still-missing persons from that day, the trial of accused mastermind Andal Ampatuan, Jr. has begun in Manila.

Meanwhile, in Maguindanao in the southern Philippines, low levels of violence continue in the province, but overall peace seems to be reigning. The government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front are utilizing agreed-upon mechanisms to avoid violence. The United States government has resumed development projects that were suspended due to security considerations. And the provincial government has begun to function once again after many top officials from the Ampatuan clan were detained.

Acting as provincial governor is Nariman “Ina” Ambolodto, who was a member of the provincial legislative council, a faculty member at Notre Dame University in Cotabato City, and a neutral between the two main contending factions:  Ampatuans and Mangudadatus. How she got into this position is remarkable, and the need for assistance to the provincial government is immediate.

In 2006, a new province, Sharif Kabunsuan, was created out of the first district of Maguindanao. Within that new province, the division of the municipality of Kabunsuan created a new municipality, North Kabuntalan. The Regional Legislative Assembly of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao has often created new units of local government, often with the justification that different clans need different “turfs” to prevent conflict. Ms. Ambolodto is from the area, and her husband (Attorney Suharto Ambolodto) was active in the movement to create the new municipality from part of the “mother” municipality of Kabuntalan. Thus, it was not unusual that she was appointed vice mayor in January 2007 (pending elections scheduled for May 2007). When the May 2007 elections occurred, both towns (Kabuntalan and North Kabuntalan) supported her as she ran for a seat on the province’s legislature. That, plus the fact that she was the only female in the ruling party’s slate of candidates for provincial council of the newly-created province of Sharif Kabunsuan, allowed her to become the number one elected councilor. When no candidate was proclaimed governor of Sharif Kabunsuan (due to election disputes), the elected vice governor (Ibrahim Ibay) became acting governor, and she became acting vice governor. The province of Sharif Kabunsuan was dissolved by the Philippine Supreme Court a year later, ruling that the Regional Legislative Assembly exceeded its powers in creating a new province – rather than just municipalities – since provinces are entitled to seats in the national legislature, the Philippine Congress. At that point, Sharif Kabunsuan was re-absorbed into the territory of Maguindanao, and Sharif Kabunsuan was included in the council of the “mother” province, Maguindanao, as representatives of the first district of Maguindanao.

In short, Ms. Ambolodto became one of the leading members of Maguindanao’s provincial council by a somewhat long and winding road. She became acting governor on December 15, after President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo lifted martial law in the province, which ran from December 4-12. Because she had decided not to run for any position in the upcoming May 2010 general elections, she is not involved in either major political faction in the province, and being female, she is seen as less threatening in an area prone to violence. Thus, Acting Governor Ambolodto has some space to maneuver to accomplish three goals in the short time available to her:  stabilize the operations of the provincial government, help conduct peaceful elections, and transition to an elected governor taking office in July.

Once the December regular monthly block grant from the national government (the “internal revenue allotment”) was received, it was possible to give worried employees their salaries, a clothing allowance, and the Christmas bonus that all government employees receive. It was required that all employees physically receive their cash payments to ensure that each employee actually exists and that each employee received the entire amount to which they were entitled. (A sign of how suspicion pervades financial matters, Ms. Ambolodto and her husband decided not to proceed with their planned repainting of his mother’s house, lest a suddenly spiffy residence be interpreted as the result of diversion of government funds.)

The next step was to begin operating the provincial government by constructing a budget for 2010, consulting lower levels of government on what investments should be made throughout the province, and interacting with the heads of various provincial offices. In keeping with her background as an academic and NGO worker, Ms. Ambolodto ran the meetings in a participatory fashion, allowing personnel to interact directly with her and asking for their opinions. This was a welcome opportunity for the employees to once again exercise their technical skills.

In order to continue to make the operations of the province more regular, Acting Governor Ambolodto has requested and received technical assistance from The Asia Foundation in two areas:  organizational development and financial management. The organizational assistance will focus on helping the province: 1) conduct organizational and functional audits of offices and personnel, 2) help her team design an organizational and functional structure responsive to the existing functions and capacity of the provincial governments, and 3) assist in the smooth transfer of personnel. Hitherto, there have been many employees who are appointed in one position but designated to function for another position.

For the financial management assistance, the acting governor needs help putting in place effective internal control and cash advance systems for the province. For the year 2010, plans (annual investment plan, annual procurement plan, etc.) and a program of work use as a basis for expenditures are not present, and the procurement system is not even in place.

As part of her effort at rapid improvement, Ms. Ambolodto wants to present the reforms related to these two areas in a mid-January meeting with representatives from national government agencies and foreign-assisted projects. This is to assure those willing to help put the province on the mend (such as the United States Agency for International Development) that any resources provided would be utilized in a responsible manner.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

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One comment on this post:

  1. [...] that this is true even in the most challenging of situations. In Maguindanao, where the infamous massacre took place last November 2009, the clan head of the alleged perpetrators, Datu Andal Ampatuan, ran [...]

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