Maguindanao: two temporary offices, two abandoned capitols

SULTAN KUDARAT, Maguindanao (MindaNews/11 August) —  Five weeks into the new administration,  two provincial capitols await occupants, as the new governor holds office “temporarily” in his hometown in Buluan town and the vice governor holds office “temporarily”  in his hometown in Sultan Kudarat town.

Security reasons have been cited for this unusual governance arrangement in the country’s third poorest province.

But Maguindanao Governor Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu  and Vice Governor Ismael “Dustin” Veloso Mastura are not taking any chances: the relatively new provincial capitol in Shariff Aguak is in Ampatuan Country and is in fact only 400 meters away from the mansions of three-term Maguindanao governor Datu Andal Ampatuan, Sr., and Datu Zaldy Ampatuan, suspended two-termer governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Esmael “Toto” Mangudadatu (L), governor and Ismael “Dustin” Mastura (R), vice governor of Maguindanao. Taken during their inauguration on June 30, 2010 by CO Arguillas

Security threat remains the reason cited by the Provincial Peace and Order Council (PPOC) when it recommended on August 5 the extension of the state of emergency declared by then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo a day after the massacre that left at least 58 persons dead, 32 of them from the media. The convoy from Buluan was on its way to submit to the provincial Comelec in Shariff Aguak Mangudadatu’s certificate of candidacy for governor when stopped, along with occupants in the two other vehicles that happened to pass at the wrong time, at the highway in Ampatuan. They were herded towards Sitio Masalay, in Barangay Salman, some 3.5 kilometers uphill, and were massacred there.

A total of 197 persons have been implicated in the massacre, 28 of them surnamed Ampatuan. But only six Ampatuans are detained: the patriarch, his junior, Zaldy, Anwar, Sajid and Akmad or Tato, husband of the eldest daughter of Ampatuan Sr. The rest are at large.

Mastura told MindaNews the PPOC proposed the extension of the state of emergency for the next six months or until February 2001. But Mastura said they might consider having the SOE extended only in the second district.

The Ampatuan-controlled towns are in the second district.

The first provincial capitol was reportedly in Maganoy (a part of which is now Shariff Aguak).

In post-EDSA Maguindanao,  the provincial capitol was in Sultan Kudarat town along the Davao-Cotabato highway but citing security reasons and an alleged ambush, Ampatuan Sr., elected governor in 2001 and reelected in 2004 and 2007, opted to have the capitol moved to Shariff Aguak.

Maguindanao capitol in Shariff Aguak town. MindaNews file photo by Froilan Gallardo

The new capitol in Shariff Aguak was opened shortly before the May 2007 elections. Then, the provincial Commission on Elections office was still on the ground floor (it was later transferred to one of the buildings within the capitol compound, lined up near the concrete fence).

But the capitol, complete with a jacuzzi whirlpool bath and a bedroom in the Governor’s wing, was inaugurated formally only on March 27, 2009.

Then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who referred to Ampatuan, Sr. as “Ama,”  personally came to inaugurate the P218-M building, P25 million of which came from the President’s Social Fund.

The stairway leading to the Governor’s office at the Maguindanao capitol in Shariff Aguak town. MindaNews file photo by CO Arguillas

Less than 14 months later,  on May 14, 2010, an armored tank and a convoy of security escorts would bring Mangudadatu from Buluan to Shariff Aguak, for his proclamation as governor-elect.

As early as their proclamation, Mangudadatu and Mastura (who defeated Datu Andal Ampatuan, Sr. in the vice gubernatorial race), had said they would not hold office at the newly-inaugurated capitol in Shariff Aguak; that they would hold office at the old capitol in Simuay, Sultan Kudarat town as soon as it is rehabilitated. In the meantime, Mangudadatu would hold office in his hometown of Buluan in Maguindanao and Mastura and the provincial board in the former’s hometown in Sultan Kudarat town.

It would have been a security nightmare to provide an armored tank and a convoy of  escorts to bring the governor daily to Shariff Aguak from Buluan or the vice governor daily from Sultan Kudarat town.

Mastura says the Mangudadatu administration has vowed to donate the Shariff Aguak capitol to a hospital. But Mastura acknowledged he does not have the details as yet if it will be converted into a provincial hospital.

Col. Ernesto Aradanas (chief of the Army’s 603r Infantry Brigade) was even joking that it will be the only hospital with a gymnasium, he said.  Almost behind the capitol is a huge gymnasium.

Old capitol at Simuay, Sultan Kudarat town, 68 kilometers from the relatively new capitol. MindaNews photo by Froilan Gallardo

MindaNews visited the old capitol in Simuay, Sultan Kudarat town on Tuesday, and saw how its cluster of one-storey buildings painted in white, requires rehabilitation. The grasses and weeds between the cemented pathways leading to the main building where the  Governor’s Office used to be,  have grown unattended.

Some enterprising citizens have brought their cows inside the compound for grazing.

Only one agency is functioning inside the otherwise abandoned compound: the Land Transportation Office, according to an LTO personnel along the highway.

Cows can be found inside the compound of the old capitol, grazing. MindaNews photo by Froilan Gallardo

Mastura said the rehabilitation of the old capitol, which will require several millions of pesos, may be done in phases. But no rehabilitation has been done thus far because they are still awaiting the report of the committee set up by the governor to look into the rehabilitation requirements. Without the report, no appropriation can be made.

Citizens have been heard on radio asking if it is possible to just have a “mobile capitol” so that it can be moved to any place where the governor resides.

Employees of the provincial government  reside mostly in Cotabato City. Sultan Kudarat town hall compound where Mastura is holding office, is about eight kilometers away. From the old capitol in Sultan Kudarat to the  new capitol in Shariff Aguak, passing through the Cotabato-GenSan highway is 68 kilometers. Shariff Aguak Capitol to Buluan passing through the same highway is 50 kilometers. Buluan to the old capitol, passing through the Tacurong-Makilala highway, M’lang in North Cotabato and the Davao-Cotabato highway  is about 140 kilometers.

Mastura acknowledges the distance between their offices but adds that the governor’s work is different from the legislature’s work, anyway.

The provincial government receives a monthly IRA (internal revenue allotment) of P93 million.

The new administration ran on the platform of education and health care.

Within the first month in office, the provincial board has allocated P15 million for a mobile hospital, Mastura said.

The provincial board has been awaiting the State of the Province Address (SOPA) of  Governor  Mangudadatu which was scheduled August 2, reset to August 10 and postponed to a still undetermined date. The governor is expected to spell out his legislative agenda in the SOPA.

In its five weeks in office, the provincial board  has agreed to change the session schedules. Mastura said they are mandated to meet at least once a week so the board members opted to meet twice a week and leave the remaining half of the month for committee meetings and visits to their constituents.

He said the board declared a recess for Ramadan.

Ramadan begins on August 12 and will end a month later. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)