ARMM: Failed experiment no more

ARMM: Failed experiment no more
The ARMM story deserves a more detailed telling

MANILA, Philippines – In October 2011, the province of Basilan witnessed one of the worst incidents in the recent history of the Philippine Army: 19 young soldiers were killed in a gun battle with rebels in the town of Al Barka.

Amid the shock and the mourning, the appointed leader of a region long battered by bloody wars and corruption did not only become the image of sobriety, but also the voice of the people’s longing for peace and justice. 

Mujiv Hataman, the man who would later get elected governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), stood barefoot in front of a stunned crowd and demanded an end to the violence that plagued the region.

“This kind of violence is one of the reasons why we are still so poor and way behind the rest of the world,” he said.

Three years later, Hataman – a Yakan-Tausug born in the town of Sumisip in Basilan – was once again barefoot, this time with soldiers. Together, they scoured the mountains of Basilan for the hideout of the Abu Sayyaf bandits that ambushed and killed 6 uniformed personnel who were providing security to those working on an P11-billion road project partly funded by the government of Saudi Arabia.

Hataman described the attack as cowardly. He noted its adverse impact on development projects in the region. He then declared an all-out-offensive against the Abu Sayyaf. 

Indeed, in his years of service as ARMM governor, Hataman has shown firm resolve in addressing the seemingly intractable problems of the region: warlordism, corruption, and armed conflict.

Failed experiment?

For the past 23 years, prior to Hataman’s term as governor, the ARMM was described by many as a failed experiment.

But not today. Not anymore.

When Hataman took office, the first order of business was to improve the organizational structure of the regional government’s line agencies. He also underscored professionalism and reorientation of public employees. This was an integral part of his reform agenda.

“I want a government that functions according to its mandate,” he said in a television interview. “For over 20 years, the orientation of those running the regional government has been dependent on who was the head. We have to democratize this and remind the employees that they are public servants and that their service is for the people.”

After his stint as the regional government’s officer-in-charge, he declared his candidacy as the Aquino administration’s official bet during the synchronized 2013 polls. His bid was backed by hundreds of thousands of signatures gathered from across the region.

NO TO 'GHOSTS'. ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman presiding over an emergency meeting of the Regional Disaster Risk Reduction Management (RDRRMC) that discussed the plight of civilians affected by the intensified law enforcement operation in some areas of Maguindanao last March.

The activist

Politics and public service are two things that characterize the Hataman family.

His grandfather was a Yakan tribal leader and his father was an undefeated barangay chairman during the time of former President Ferdinand Marcos.

In 2001, at the age of 29, Hataman was elected representative of the Anak Mindanao party list, which advocated peace and development in Mindanao. He was one of the youngest congressmen during that period.

He refused to be part of the so-called “silent committee” – a term reserved for legislators who performed poorly – and authored 14 House Bills including H.B. No. 3012 or the Anti-Discrimination Law, an important piece of legislation that highlights the concern of the Moro people as among those who experience discrimination in Philippine society.

He became an Eisenhower Fellow, an experience that boosted his knowledge of politics and economics. During the fellowship, Hataman met with elected leaders and public servants known for good governance and their expertise in internal security, climate change adaptation, conflict resolution, poverty reduction, as well as business and investments.

MANDATE. ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman and Regional Vice Gov. Haroun Alrashid Lucman hold a press conference following their official declaration as winners in the 2013 elections in the ARMM.

Reform agenda

Executing Hataman’s reform agenda first seemed as if the ARMM was biting off more than it could chew, with government employees finding changes hard to swallow as they have grown comfortable in a culture of corruption.

But the young governor was unshaken by the resistance.

“I think this deeply-rooted corruption does not only originate from one or two past administrations,” he said. “It is a system that has been tolerated, and has now evolved into a larger system of graft.”

His strong political will to eliminate irregularities in the autonomous Muslim government has led to the purging of ghost employees. The purge resulted in savings of P208 million.

In promoting transparency in public service, he ordered the disclosure of all government records, including project biddings and transactions. Telephone numbers of agency heads, including those deemed private, were also made public so that constituents can easily contact regional officials when needed.

The process of hiring employees was made more open and competitive, eradicating the practice of “vacancy for sale,” wherein job applicants during previous administrations reportedly pay bribe money to get choice positions or just to get employed.

The governor’s crusade against irregularities didn’t stop there. Various regional line agencies were ordered to use biometrics as part of eliminating ghost employees and preventing absenteeism.

In 2011, the region’s Gross Regional Domestic Product was at negative 0.3%, but this took a dramatic leap to 3.6% in 2013. Foreign investors have expressed interest in providing capital for projects in various parts of the region.

And with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investments in the pipeline, the long overdue economic transformation of ARMM is finally becoming a reality.

In his State of the Region Address last December 2014, Hataman cited economic developments that were aided by reforms instituted within the past few years. This includes a total investment amounting to roughly P3.4 billion as of late 2014 – more than twice the previous year’s P1.46 billion.

These achievements, the governor said, should be attributed not only to reforms introduced by the regional government but also to the success of the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. In turn, investors’ confidence was heightened these past few years making ARMM a more attractive destination for business and trading.

On the delivery of social services, major indicators have also been encouraging.

Maternal mortality rate was down to 51 per hundred thousand live births in 2013 from 245 per hundred thousand live births in 2008. Infant mortality rate went down to 32 per hundred thousand live births in 2013, from 28 per hundred thousand in 2012.

Meanwhile, the number of residents with PhilHealth cards reached 1,535,661 as of October 2014 from only 835,153 in 2008. The number of PhilHealth-accredited hospitals also increased to 37 from 28 in 2012. To further improve the delivery of health care, regional health units were increased to 50 last year from only 19 in 2012.

“Hataman’s leadership exudes signs of success for President Aquino’s reform agenda in ARMM,” said Judge Abu Ali Cali of the Ulama League of the Philippines, one of the groups behind the signature campaign supporting Hataman’s 2013 bid as regional governor, in a media interview.

REFORM TALK. ARMM Gov. Mujiv Hataman, flanked by Executive Secretary Laisa Alamia, presides over a cabinet meeting.

‘Unusual presence’

Hataman has become an “unusual presence” in the autonomous regional government.

Unlike his predecessors, he walks around the ARMM compound and makes surprise visits to the local offices. He exchanges banter with rank-and-file employees. He is also active on social media, aware of how the platform can become a tool he can effectively use to push for his reform agenda.

Senator Loren Legarda has praised Hataman’s efforts to rid the region of ghost employees, ghost projects, and ghost transactions.

“We support you on that and I hope other regions and provinces can follow suit as well,” Legarda told Hataman during a Senate budget hearing. “If it can be done in ARMM, it can be done in all provinces in the country because ARMM is where it is most difficult to implement anything.”

President Benigno S. Aquino III himself acknowledged Hataman’s accomplishments. In his 2012 State of the Nation Address, Aquino noted how Hataman’s reforms have led to the eradication of “ghosts,” including “ghost students walking to ghost schools on ghost roads to learn from ghost teachers,” as well as ghost employees.

Hataman’s war against non-existent employees does not stop there. The region’s various line agencies have been ordered to use biometrics to eliminate ghost employees and stop absenteeism.

Hataman says the series of reforms under his belt is part of his administration’s effort to lay the groundwork for the transition towards the new Bangsamoro entity.

“The reforms that are being undertaken in the region are also geared towards helping the government and the MILF eradicate corruption, poverty and unstable peace and order, prior to the agreement signing,” Hataman said. “There is a need for political and economic reforms in the region once the Bangsamoro takes over the existing ARMM structure.”

In February last year, President Aquino said, “If I had to choose a poster boy or model for good governance, I will choose Hataman.”

But Hataman acknowledges that his administration’s term is only transitional.

“The proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law is hoped to end the decades-old war in this region,” Hataman said. “The pact brings the negotiation close to achieving its final goal, a lasting peace for the coexisting peoples of Muslim Mindanao.” –



The author is the public information officer of ARMM

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