Suspense behind the choice of AFP chief: And they waited and waited
MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Lieutenant General Hernando Iriberri arrived at the holding area in Camp Aguinaldo in a white duck uniform on Friday, July 10, similar to the suit that outgoing Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr was wearing.
It was only at that time that other contenders for the top military post – who were all wearing their major service uniforms – confirmed their gut feel: the Army chief was President Benigno Aquino III's choice to become the next chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Everybody inside the holding area stood up to acknowledge him. "Ikaw pala (So it's you)," they cheered, according to an officer who was inside the room.
At least one of the contenders had asked his family to prepare to join him in Camp Aguinaldo in case he got the appointment. When he learned he was unsuccessful, he made them stay at home.
As late as 6:30 am Friday, the contender was told that the President and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin had yet to meet to make the final choice.
This has been the case in the military under the Aquino administration. He makes up his mind at the last minute, leaving the entire organization waiting. The officers have learned to live with it. "Palagi naman ganyan," one of them said. (It's always that way.)
There were 5 contenders to the post: Iriberri, Air Force chief Lieutenant General Jeffrey Delgado, Southern Luzon Command chief Lieutenant General Ricardo Visaya, Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, and Central Command chief Lieutenant General Nicanor Vivar.
It was a big win for Iriberri, who bested two contenders who are close to President Aquino. Delgado was the President's former aide; Visaya was the brigade commander deployed to Hacienda Luisita, the estate of the President's maternal side of the family, during the violent clashes with striking workers in 2004.
Iriberri was the pick of Defense Secretary Gazmin, a father figure to the President who always has a huge say on the President's decisions when it comes to appointments in the military.
Iriberri later revealed he was informed about his appointment a week earlier. But Camp Aguinaldo knows the fight for the coveted post is never over until Malacañang signs the appointment orders.
"I cannot speak for the Office of the President. Late last week, I was already informed. I was not at liberty to inform the public, I had to wait for the official announcement," he said.
The night before he assumed the post, Iriberri said in a text message: "Wala pang announcement ng decision. Hintayin natin." (The decision has not been announced. Let's wait.)
Protocol officers in Camp Aguinaldo stayed up late Thursday, waiting for the name of the appointee so they could finalize preparations for the turnover ceremony.
The other contenders waited for the call that never came.
One was told on Thursday that the President was waiting for Gazmin to arrive from The Hague – where he attended oral arguments on the country's case against China – to discuss the appointment. As far as he was concerned, it was still an open ball game.
Even Iriberri's own men weren't certain until shortly before the ceremony. One of them had to visit the Public Affairs Office at 7 am to ask if the appointment was already official.
At 7:30 am, a general told Rappler: "Honestly, there is no official announcement." Unofficially, the names of Iriberri and Visaya, were still being floated. They both belong to the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of 1983.
Camp Aguinaldo assumed Friday last week that Iriberri had gotten the post. Aquino joined the AFP in a command conference and interviewed some Army generals. It could only mean that Iriberri would vacate his post in the Army.
The navy and air force contenders for the AFP chief post were not interviewed.
But there was no announcement, leaving them to wonder if the President had a change of heart.
At 8 am Friday, Rappler got the first categorical confirmation from a source in Camp Aguinaldo that Iriberri had been appointed.
At about 8:30 am, we spotted Iriberri's spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Noel Detoyato, outside the venue. He couldn't give a confirmation, saying the announcement had to come from Malacañang.
Iriberri's mistah passed by and congratulated him and later confirmed to Rappler the appointment. It was the second confirmation we needed to publish the story.
But inside the venue, most officers still weren't sure. We were told the "general orders" for the next chief of staff were still blank.
They knew it was already Iriberri, but they weren't sure. "It couldn't be murkier than that," the officer said. – Rappler.com
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