COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 17 September) – Three years after the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), residents of Cotabato City are finally feeling they are part of the region as projects funded by the regional government are now welcomed by the city’s officials.
Since the city voted yes to inclusion in the BARMM in the January 2019 plebiscite, and even after its formal turnover to the BARMM in December 2020, the Bangsamoro Government’s project delivery in the city was limited as then mayor Cynthia Guiani-Sayadi shunned projects from the regional government.
But what has been referred to as“harang” (blocking) system in this city, the seat of government of the BARMM, is now over with the election of a new set of officials in the May 2022 elections.
The city is now ruled by members of the United Bangsamoro Justice Party (UBJP), the political party of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The MILF has been leading the 80-member Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) since 2019, in accordance with the Organic Law for the BARMM, the enabling law of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, the peace pact it signed with the government in March 2014. The BTA is tasked with governing the BARMM during the transition period that has been extended until June 30, 20225.
It was the first time the UBJP fielded candidates in an electoral contest and although it lost in a number of areas where they fielded candidates, it won the votes in Cotabato City.
Cotabato City Mayor Mohammad Bruce Ali Matabalao, a city councilor for three terms, defeated reelectionist Sayadi, the city’s first female mayor. Matabalao’s running mate, Councilor Butch Abu, son of the late MILF vice chair for political affairs Ghazali Jaafar, also defeated reelectionist vice mayor Graham Nazer Dumama, his closest rival for the post. Seven of 10 city council seats were also bagged by UBJP candidates.
Sayadi was vice mayor to her brother Japal when the latter died on September 22, 2016. Sayadi succeeded as mayor on the same day and was elected in 2019 to serve a term until 2022.
As mayor, Sayadi campaigned hard against the inclusion of Cotabato City in the Bangsamoro region during the plebiscite on January 21, 2019 to ratify Republic Act 11054 or the Organic Law for the BARMM.
The ratification paved the way for the creation of the BARMM, which is governed by the MILF-led BTA. The BARMM replaced the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao that was established in 1990.
The creation of the BARMM is anchored on the peace agreement which the government and the MILF signed in 2014 after 17 years of peace negotiations. The Bangsamoro government was inaugurated by former President Rodrigo Duterte on March 29, 2019.
During the 2022 election campaign period, the UBJP, which the MILF founded in 2014, openly accused Sayadi of blocking the projects intended by the Bangsamoro Government for the city.
In an April 11, 2022 interview with Facts First host Christian Esguerra, Sayadi admitted rejecting at least P370 million worth of projects from the Bangsamoro government.
However, she claimed the projects from the Bangsamoro Government were not coordinated with the city government, bypassing her authority and going straight to the intended beneficiaries.
“It should have been coordinated with the LGU. There are certain processes, there are booklets to fill up. The problem is they only gave to those who they wanted to receive. There is no accountability, there is no signature or anything which is contrary to what we believe in the local government,” she said.
BARMM officials claim to have coordinated with the LGU but the LGU allegedly did not send representatives to planning meetings, would not submit lists of priorities for infrastructure projects or simply would not answer letters.
With Matabalao now at the helm, what they refer to as the “harang” mentality, is over.
“Hindi na uubra ang harang mentality sa Cotabato City,” Mayor Matabalao stressed, noting the city government will file cases against city and barangay officials who are blocking projects from the Bangsamoro government.
During his first day in office on July 1, the MILF-backed Matabalao immediately turned over the 100-bed COVID-19 isolation center worth P27 million to the Cotabato Regional and Medical Center (CRMC).
The Bangsamoro Ministry of Public Works built the COVID-19 isolation facility in response to the needs of CRMC to address the still rising cases at the time.
“We were supposed to hand it over three months earlier had they (Cotabato City government) not blocked this government project from the Bangsamoro region,” Minister of Public Works Edward Guerra said.
He said the administration of the former mayor made it difficult for the Bangsamoro government to secure the necessary permits for the project.
According to Local Governments Minister Naguib Sinarimbo, concurrent BARMM spokesperson, in 2021 alone, at least P370 million for infrastructure at 10 million pesos for each of the 37 barangays in the city was allocated to Cotabato City from the block grant of the Bangsamoro Government but was snubbed by Sayadi, who continued to oppose the inclusion of the city to the Bangsamoro region.
Cotabato City voted for inclusion in the BARMM with 36,682 in favor and 24,990 against.
The Sayadi camp did not accept the result and instead filed a protest, claiming threats and intimidation prevented voters who opposed inclusion in the BARMM from casting their votes. A voter had filed an electoral protest but the Supreme Court has yet to issue a ruling.
Sayadi even wrote then President Rodrigo Duterte a position paper on February 7, 2020 to “hold in abeyance the turnover of Cotabato City to BARMM” as she appealed for a “status quo until such time that the three-year transition period has been completed and the BARMM bureaucracy would have been fully operational.”
The three-year transition period would have ended on June 30, 2022 but a law was passed extending it to June 30, 2025.
The city was eventually turned over from Region 12 to the BARMM in December 2020 along with the 63 villages in six North Cotabato towns that voted for inclusion in the BARMM but Sayadi continued to snub BARMM-funded projects.
10 health facilities and an ambulance
Dr. Zul Qarneyn Abas, acting Bangsamoro Minister of Health, said there were 10 rural health facilities amounting to P1.5 million each that should have been built and an ambulance worth P2 million allocated for Cotabato City.
The Ministry of Health (MOH) was forced to give it to the other parts of the region because the city kept snubbing the offer, he said.
“They are not responding to our communication. They did not accept (the allocations). (There’s) nothing we can do (about it),”Abas stressed.
He said only Cotabato City refused to accept projects from the MOH.
Sulu, which also opposed the BOL, and Maguindanao, which was against extending the transition period in the Bangsamoro, were open to projects from the MOH and other agencies in the BARMM, Abas said.
With the victory of the UBJP in the May 2022 polls in the city, Abas said the Bangsamoro government expects a harmonious working relationship.
On July 29, the supervision of the City Health Office was officially turned over to the MOH.
Dr. Marlow Niñal, City Health Officer II, handed the copy of the CHO’s annual health investment and operational plan to the MOH, which Abas promised to respond to accordingly.
Niñal lamented that lack of facilities and lack of human resources are among the major problems that he hopes the MOH will address to enhance the quality of the CHO’s service delivery.
“If only we had received help from the Bangsamoro region before, maybe we would have achieved excellence in service. Now that we are here in the BARMM, we can help each other,” Niñal said.
Sinarimbo, the UBJP deputy secretary general, exposed during a campaign rally in March in Kalanganan exposed the “harang” system by City Hall to block the entry of emergency relief services and the implementation of regular projects intended by the regional government for the city.
Some barangay officials admitted being advised by City Hall to refuse any form of assistance and services from the BARMM, citing the petition before the Supreme Court opposing the inclusion of the city in the autonomous region.
Then mayor Sayadi had announced in an online message that she would never recognize the authority of the BARMM government over this city pending the resolution of the petition.
At the height of the pandemic, a truckload of rice intended as “ayuda” or assistance to ease the economic impact of COVID-19 was stopped at the entrance of Pedro Colina Hill in Rosary Heights 1 by policemen from Police Station 1.
The policemen who talked to this reporter said the distribution activity was not coordinated with the city government.
In Rosary Heights 4, several residents were lining up on the street, discreetly receiving the ayuda from the Bangsamoro government.
“Our teams usually serve Cotabato City villages in a hurry for fear of being caught by resenting City Hall officials and followers,” according to a social worker who requested not to be named.
“We are anxious about our physical security,” Dr. Ameril Usman, BARMM Health Ministry director general, earlier said in Filipino in a virtual press conference, as he shared the difficulty then of delivering services to the city.
BARMM comprises the provinces of Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur in the mainland and the island provinces of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi; the cities of Marawi, Lamitan and Cotabato; and the 63 villages in six North Cotabato towns or the Special Geographic Area (SGA).
The BARMM allocated funds to assist local government units in their COVID-19 response at 5 million pesos each for provinces, 2 million each for cities and one million pesos each for towns within the first two weeks of the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020.
Sinairimbo said the financial assistance was distributed ahead of the national government’s Bayanihan Grant for Cities and Municipalities and Bayanihan Grant for Provinces. It was a quick response for the region to help the LGUs but the city government under Sayadi snubbed the assistance.
BARMM Education Minister Mohagher Iqbal, concurrent UBJP vice president for Central Mindanao, also disclosed the same difficulty besetting his ministry’s implementation of projects, such as the building of classrooms, as a result of Sayadi’s non-recognition of the regional government.
During a March 25 election rally, BARMM Senior Minister Abdulraof Macacua, concurrent UBJP secretary general, recalled that he himself was once barred by the local police from entering the city, which hosts the regional government compound.
The incident, he said, became tense when Philippine Army members came and offered to usher him inside.
“But since we don’t want trouble, I decided not to push through,” said the battle-tested Macacua (also known by his nom de guerre, Sammy Gambar), chief of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces, the MILF’s armed wing that is currently undergoing decommissioning.
Cotabato City is an independent component city with an area of 176 square kilometers and a population of 325,079 as of the May 2020 national census.
In1979, the city became the capital of the Regional Autonomous Government for Central Mindanao, which, along with the RAG of Western Mindanao, was abolished with the establishment of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 1990. The city also served as the seat of the ARMM.
Before the 2019 plebiscite that ratified the BOL, Cotabato City was part of Region 12 or Soccsksargen, which is composed of the provinces of South Cotabato, North Cotabato, Sultan Kudarat and Sarangani and the cities of General Santos, Koronadal, Tacurong, Kidapawan and Cotabato.
With Matabalao at the helm, the “harang” system busted, and the COVID-19 cases at manageable levels, the 100-bed capacity isolation facility that has been turned over to CRMC, now caters to dengue cases and other infectious diseases. The isolation facility building, though in the same compound, is far from the main government hospital.
Records show that with the UBJP party ruling Cotabato City, at least P845 million worth of development projects for the locality had been poured in by the Bangsamoro government, among them barangay roads, housing units for indigents, Sangguniang Panlungsod hall, drainage system to address frequent flooding, solar streetlights and sea and fish ports. (Ferdinandh Cabrera / MindaNews)
(This report was produced through a story grant from the Philippine Press Institute under the auspices of the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The theme of the journalism fellowship is Governance and Health)