Corruption and abuse keep Mindanao poor

While describing former president Rodrigo Duterte’s call for Mindanao to secede as heart-wrenching, Sen. Imee Marcos has claimed she “kn[e]w exactly” where it was coming from, that it was borne out of years of neglect by the national government.

“I’ve heard this secession of Mindanao many, many times out of sheer frustration and anger at the abject lack of equity, of injustice, really,” she said in a Feb. 1 interview with anchor Karen Davila on ANC.

In the same breath, the older sister of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the Dutertes “did a great deal” in Mindanao, citing that “Davao is stunning.” But six years was not enough to reverse “centuries upon centuries of deprivation, neglect and ignorance,” she said.

Marcos is exaggerating, as she has often been in her use of adjectives. Or, she must be pulling our leg. How can the abuse and corruption by Mindanao’s leaders skip her mind and blame this latest tantrum of the Dutertes on “historical injustice” and “decades of neglect”?

“I know exactly where it’s coming from because I’ve been to Mindanao so many times. I’m Ilocana, and I’ve seen the roads in Ilocos Norte in stark contrast to the historic injustice of Mindanao,” the senator said, trying to illustrate the wide gap between the northern and the southern parts of the country.

The comparison lacks context. Both the Marcoses and the Dutertes have been the dominant power in their respective political turfs. Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. was president for 20 years and served in other public positions for 16 years before that. Rodrigo Duterte served as mayor, congressman and vice mayor of Davao City for 30 years before he was elected president in 2016.

Besides, the administrations that followed Marcos’ ouster in 1986 had prioritized Mindanao in their development plans. Billions of dollars in foreign assistance were poured for various programs and projects. However, issues of corruption and abuse by the Mindanaoan leaders were endless.

Following the signing of the 1996 peace agreement, which signaled the end of the insurgency by the Moro National Liberation Front led by Nur Misuari, international donors and aid agencies extended assistance packages for post-conflict reconstruction programs and development projects in the Muslim Mindanao areas.

However, the provinces within the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) have remained among the country’s poorest.

We’ve heard reports about how development funds were squandered, but the few that reached the courts had been either dismissed or withdrawn for lack of sufficient evidence. Falsified disbursement vouchers, purchase orders, canvass reports, sales invoices, delivery receipts and other documents to make it appear that transactions were above board went missing.

State auditors were said to avoid being assigned to Mindanao for safety reasons. Those who survive avoid coming out with adversarial reports.

An anecdote that circulated during the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has it that during a visit to Mindanao, she cracked a joke that officials there should see to it that when auditors come, it is the cash advances that are liquidated, not the auditors.

In 2019, Duterte said Commission on Audit (CoA) auditors have been hampering the work of his administration. CoA auditors are responsible for examining the accounts and spending by government agencies.

“Let’s just kidnap people from CoA. Let’s bring them here, then we will torture those sons of w*****,” Duterte said in an expletive-laden speech in mixed English and Filipino. “They always make things difficult. That’s what I don’t like, making things difficult,” he complained.

A year before that, Duterte joked during a meeting in Ilocos Norte that the provincial auditor should be pushed down the stairs so he would not be able to report on the local government’s transactions.

He was apparently reacting to the then governor Imee Marcos’ complaints about various prohibitions that CoA was imposing on her local government’s spending.

In 2021, Duterte told government agencies to ignore the CoA reports and asked state auditors to stop publishing their initial findings that “condemn” departments and officials and create the impression that they are corrupt.

Duterte was the country’s first president from Mindanao. After his election in 2016, the Senate president and House speaker were also from Mindanao. Funds in unprecedented amounts were once again poured into Mindanao.

Just recently, it was disclosed that Duterte’s elder son, Paolo, who is the incumbent congressman of Davao City’s first district, got an unprecedented and scandalously high allocation of P51 billion in what can be described as pork barrel funds in the last three years of his father’s presidency. Where did that huge amount go? The list of projects provided on his website was mostly for dole-outs. And now he’s ranting about the P1.5 billion cut in his 2024 allocation, from P2 billion in 2023 to P500 million for 2024.

CoA had also reported that the Dutertes had received several billions of pesos in confidential funds from the Davao City Hall.

This came out after many Filipinos were astounded and furious upon hearing reports in 2023 that Vice President Sara Duterte spent P125 million in confidential funds on the last 11 days of 2022.

Perhaps it is about time for Mindanaoans to hold their leaders accountable for their performance in terms of public spending, delivery of better services, improvement of their welfare and protection of human rights.

Mindanao holds the record of having the highest levels of poverty in the country, but it is not solely because it was not given priority in the national government budget and development plans. According to the United States Agency for International Development, the region is also beset by weak rule of law and poor accountability.

The story of the Ampatuan clan that had lorded it over Maguindanao province for years is another sad episode about the abuse of power and misuse of public funds in Mindanao.


The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.
This column also appeared in The Manila Times.