ANTHEM AND A PRAYER Maguindanao del Norte acting governor Bai Fatima Ainee L. Sinsuat (center) and OIC Provincial Administrator Mohajiroe M. Labuan (left) lead the flag raising and prayer ceremonies with officials and employees of the newly created province at its temporary office in Datu Odin Sinsuat town. PHOTO FROM THE GOVERNOR’S OFFICE
DATU Odin Sinsuat, Maguindanao del Norte: The division of the province of Maguindanao into Maguindanao del Norte (MDN) and Maguindanao del Sur (MDS) was a dream come true for the more than one million residents of the area as shown by the 99 percent overwhelming approval rating of the electorate in a plebiscite held in Sept. 17, 2022.
The division was envisioned to jumpstart the economy of both provinces considering the fact that Maguindanao is among the top 10 poorest provinces in the country based on the 2021 survey of the Philippine Statistics Authority.
A robust economy would enable the two Maguindanao provinces to provide better basic services like public health care, education, and transportation to the most remote villages.
Republic Act (RA) 11550 entitled “An Act Dividing the Province of Maguindanao into Two Provinces,” paved the way for the creation of MDN and MDS. It was signed into law on May 27, 2021 by former president Rodrigo Duterte.
The division of Maguindanao was ratified in a plebiscite conducted on Sept. 17, 2022. It was approved by more than 99 percent of the electorate, and declared official on September 18.
The creation of the two provinces had long been hoped for by the Maguindanaoans and their elected leaders considering their sad experience in 2006 to create a new province out of Maguindanao was nullified by the Supreme Court.
It must be noted that on Oct. 31, 2006, Maguindanaoans also approved the creation of the new province of Shariff Kabunsuan out of Maguindanao. It was established through the Muslim Mindanao Autonomy Act 201 by the then ARMM Regional Legislative Assembly.
However, in July 2008, the high court nullified the creation of the province of Shariff Kabunsuan, ruling that “only Congress can create provinces and cities because the creation of provinces and cities necessarily includes the creation of legislative districts.”
Years of armed conflict hampered the development of Maguindanao although the peace and order situation has greatly improved. Proof of this was the declaration by the Commission on Elections (Comelec) that the conduct of the plebiscite for the ratification of the division of Maguindanao province was not only clean and orderly but also peaceful, an assessment shared by election watchdog National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, among others.
Pursuant to the transitory provisions of RA 11550, the corporate existence of MDN commenced upon the composition, qualification and assumption of its governor, vice governor and majority of the members of its Sangguniang Panlalawigan. The elected vice governor of Maguindanao, Bai Fatima Ainee L. Sinsuat, assumed acting provincial governor and elected highest-ranking member of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan for the first provincial district, Datu Sharifudin Tucao P. Mastura, assumed as acting vice governor of MDN.
Meanwhile, the rest of the members of the sanggunian for the first provincial district remained in office and still constituted a majority, thereby paving the way for the commencement of the corporate existence of MDN.
Following the official division of one Maguindanao and assumption into office of acting governor Fatima Ainee L. Sinsuat and other officials, they wasted no time preparing for the programs and action plans for implementation at the start of the corporate existence of MDN.
Under the 2023 General Appropriations Act, Congress allotted MDN a P1.8 billion budget, and P1.9 billion for MDS.
Having now its own budget and the commencement of its corporate existence, the new provincial government and its more than 200 employees have high hopes that it would only be a matter of time for MDN to emerge as the new economic gateway in that part of the region.
MDN has the advantage of having its own airport and seaport, located at the provincial capital town of Datu Odin Sinsuat, and host to a number of world-class but still to be developed tourist destinations.
As it is, a bright future, no doubt, is in store for the province and its people till they were rudely awakened by their first major problem — the province cannot use the P1.8-billion budget allocated by the national government to fund its programs and delivery of basic services.
According to acting MDN provincial administrator Mohajiroe M. Lauban, MDN cannot secure the release of its funds to support its operations and delivery of basic services to the prejudice of the public.
Lauban, a lawyer, said that without the fund appropriated by the national government, there’s no way for the provincial government to continue and sustain its operations and deliver basic services.
He also mentioned that the province was allowed to open its corporate bank account with the Land Bank of the Philippines-Buluan Branch, Buluan, MND, and the shares of the province from the National Tax Allotment for the months of January and February 2023 have been downloaded to the said account.
“To secure the release of funds, a provincial treasurer must be appointed or otherwise designated in MDN and to this extent, the province has requested the Bureau of Local Government Finance (BLGF), Regional Office 12, Koronadal City to allow the provincial treasurer of the defunct Province of Maguindanao to perform the duties of the said office while in transition,” he told The Manila Times.
“The BLGF, however, required the submission of ‘appropriate legal documents’ relative to the commencement of MDN which were then duly submitted but the said office still did not act on the request noting that the transitory provisions of RA11550 may no longer be applicable and sought the clarification and guidance of other offices on the matter,” he added.
Lauban stressed that the problem needs to be addressed urgently as the continuous delay on the designation of a provincial treasurer in MDN is already causing havoc on the day-to-day operations of the provincial government.
“Its (province) operations are either funded from the personal money of employees or borrowed to secure goods and services essential for delivery of basic services,” he said.
“These courses of action are not sustainable and are detrimental to the province. It cannot be over emphasized that the employees are also suffering as they cannot be paid their just salaries. They are now complaining that they cannot feed their families and provide for their other basic necessities,” Lauban stressed.
According to Lauban, only the President can provide a fast track solution to the financial problem besetting the new province through a certification of recognition that Sinsuat is the acting governor of the MDN.
The problem also lies in the interpretation of the governing law because the plebiscite was conducted by the Comelec four months after the May 9, 2022 polls when it should have been held before the said date.
By operations of law, he pointed out, Section 26 of RA 11550 authorizes the Secretary of Finance to appoint the provincial treasurer from a list of at least three eligible recommendees of the provincial governor, subject to civil service law, rules and regulations.
In an interview, veteran election lawyer Manuelito Luna told The Times that under the law, it is the President who has the authority to appoint or name the acting governor and acting members of the provincial board of the new province.
“Under the Administrative Code of the Philippines, the President may designate the incumbent vice governor of the old province of Maguindanao as acting governor of the new province of Maguindanao del Norte in the person of Vice Gov. Bai Ainee Sinsuat,” Luna pointed out.
“This is practical, logical and legal since she and her husband are residents of Datu Odin Sinsuat, one the municipalities of the newly created province of Maguindanao del Norte,” he added.
With the problem still unresolved, Lauban said that all programs, projects and activities of the province were put on hold until there are funds that can be used to implement them.
“Verily, how long will the province of MDN and its employees have to endure before they realize the very purpose for which the province was created, to serve its constituents and the public in general. Similarly, how long will the public have to wait before they can feel the public service promised to them. We hope that these are all settled in the soonest possible time,” Lauban further said.
Affected are institutions such as the provincial jail which cannot secure funds to pay for their general operations and more importantly feed its inmates. It also has no service vehicle to transport prisoners to court hearings. Provincial facilities and other properties cannot be maintained thereby.
Also affected are the operations of the provincial agricultural, veterinary, engineering, assessor, social services and tourism offices, among others.
According to Lauban, MDN was one of the worst hit by Typhoon “Paeng” last year, which flattened seaside villages that wiped the residents’ means of livelihood.
Lauban said that while assistance had been provided to the typhoon victims, “it does not stop there because you have to continue providing them with food and medical assistance, and more importantly livelihood assistance to provide them the means to stand up on their feet.”
“As of now it’s all planning but no action. The operations of the whole provincial government of Maguindanao del Norte is paralyzed. Unless and until we can access our budget, everything we envisioned for our province will remain a dream,” he said.
People from various walks of life also aired their concern on the financial woes of their province and appealed as well for help from the national leadership.
Agriculture technologist Shiela T. Abdulgani said that everything hangs in the air, adding that even basic services for small farmers could not be implemented because “we don’t even have funds for our transportation expenses.”
Dr. Marilou V. Samar of the provincial veterinary office also expressed the same sentiment, saying that “March is anti-rabies month but we don’t have provisions for the vaccination of animals.”
Haddah Gayak, 32, of the provincial tourism office, said that it’s good that at present, the provincial government is providing employees with buses to transport them to their offices free of charge.
But what concern’s employees most, Gayak added, is “what if the provincial government can no longer sustain its operations, who will provide for our salaries,” adding that it is not only the provincial employees that would suffer but also the thousands of small farmers, the typhoon victims, and poor families who could no longer be provided with the basic services the government is providing under normal circumstances.
Allan Pusta, a barangay lupon member, said that the landslide victory of the Mangudadatu-Sinsuat tandem and for governor and vice governor of Maguindanao, down to the municipal level was a testament of the people’s trust and confidence, knowing that they would lead the two Maguindanao provinces.
He pointed out that the same trust and confidence was shown when 99 percent of the electorates in Maguindanao agreed to ratify its division in a plebiscite held in September 2022.
Floren Jane Diagbel, a person with disability (PWD) from Parang, MDN, told The Times that their group had a dialogue with the acting MDN governor and they were assured of a livelihood support program.
“We wanted to go into the rice retailing business through a cooperative run by PWD members. Initial capitalization would come from the provincial government,” she said in Filipino.
“We are banking on the assurance of the provincial government that it would help the PWDs and their families,” said Diagbel.
Same sentiment was aired by Norma Tamboong, 72, who said that senior citizens like her don’t receive anything at all from the local government nor from the provincial government.
She called on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to intervene with their problem so that MDN can normally function as an independent province and able to provide the basic services and support for its constituents.
“We voted for the division of our province, hoping that we would be provided with the needed assistance and support in our twilight years. That is why we are calling on the national government, to President Marcos, to help Maguindanao del Norte with its problem,” Tamboong added.
Under RA 11550, the law authorizing the division of Maguindanao province into two provinces, MDN will be composed of the municipalities of Barira, Buldon, Datu Blah Sinsuat, Datu Odin Sinsuat, Kabuntalan, Matanog, Northern Kabuntalan, Parang, North Upi, Sultan Kudarat, Sultan Mastura, and Talitay. Its seat of government will be Datu Odin Sinsuat.
On the other hand, MDS will be composed of Ampatuan, Buluan, Datu Abdulla Sangki, Datu Anggal Midtimbang, Datu Hoffer Ampatuan, Datu Montawal, Datu Paglas, Datu Piang, Datu Salibo, Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Datu Unsay, Gen. Salipada K. Pendatun, Guindulungan, Mamasapano, Mangudadatu, Pagalungan, Paglat, Pandag, Rajah Buayan, Sharif Aguak, Sharif Saydona Mustafa, Sultan sa Barongis, Talayan, and South Upi. Its seat of government will be Buluan.
Maguindanao has a total land area of 9,968.31 square kilometers or 3,848.79 square miles. Its population as determined by the 2020 Census was 1,342,179. It has a 54 percent poverty incidence.
Maguindanao became one of the most talked-about provinces because of the Maguindanao massacre wherein 57 people were killed, including the wife and sisters, supporters of Buluan Vice Mayor Esmael Mangudadatu, local journalists, and bystanders.
The Maguindanao massacre was followed by the bloody Mamasapano encounter on Jan. 25, 2015, where 44 members of the Special Action Force were killed allegedly by Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters in Mamasapano after they killed the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist Zulkifli Abdhir alias Marwan.
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