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So near and yet so far away

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(BY: VICENTE R. SOLIS, LAWYER)  With the Bangsamoro Basic Law or BBL topping the list of legislative priorities of President Aquino for the 16th Congress, it’s just a matter of time that the BBL becomes law. And, when it does, what would become of the so-called “Cabatangan Complex”, a 96-hectare  rolling land acquired by the national government for the construction of the physical structures of the Sangguniang Pampook (SP) and the Lupong Tagapagpaganap ng Pook (LTP) of the Autonomous Government of Region IX?

As we all know, the area later metamorphosed and became the government’s regional center until October 12, 1990 when the late President Cory Aquino ended Zamboanga City’s status as the administrative hub of southwestern Mindanao by issuing Executive Order No. 429, designating Pagadian City as the new regional seat.

Will the Bangsamoro government take over this strategic property which has a commanding view of the city’s commercial, business, and government core? If Zamboanga City stays out of the Bangsamoro area of coverage, can the Bangsamoro government impose its presence and hold sway over the Cabatangan Complex? The answer is yes, it is possible, unless our city officials get their act together now and wrestle seriously with this issue before the draft of the Bangsamoro Basic Law becomes a republic act in the not too distant future. In this regard, the national government’s own timeline calls for the launching of a Bangsamoro transition government in 2015 and the holding of general elections for its ministerial form of government in 2016. Meaning, with this tight schedule and considering that President Aquino is heavily invested in pursuing his peace deal with the MILF, expect the chief executive to apply optimal pressure on Congress for the swift passage of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

Mayor Beng Climaco-Salazar must now gather her legal eagles, led by former RTC Judge Jesus Carbon, the city’s chief legal officer, and find a way, a means, a mechanism by which the city government is able to wield control over the Cabatangan Complex before and not later than, the abolition of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), as provided in the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Under the said agreement, the ARMM is deemed abolished upon ratification of the Bangsamoro Basic Law.

In retrospect, the first attempt to deal with the Cabatangan property was through legislation, initiated by the late Mayor Maria Clara L. Lobregat twenty-five years ago in 1989, when she was the city’s representative in Congress. This is manifested in Section 1(3), Article XIX (Transitory Provisions) of RA 6734 or the Organic Act creating the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), approved on August 1, 1989, which states: “(3) Properties and assets of the present Autonomous Governments in Regions IX and XII shall be turned over to the Regional Government (of ARMM). Those lands, buildings and other permanent structures located in the provinces or cities that do not vote favourably in the plebiscite for the ratification of this Organic Act may be acquired by the province or city concerned for value.”

Expectedly, Zamboanga City did not vote favourably in the plebiscite held on November 19, 1989. However, the city government was not able to acquire the Cabatangan Complex, or parts thereof, whether from the national government or the autonomous government of ARMM, as authorized by the original ARMM law.

The second try, again through legislation, was made twelve years after in 2001 by former Mayor Celso L. Lobregat, when he represented the city in Congress. This is evidenced by Section 1, Article XVIII (Transitory Provisions) of the amendatory ARMM law or RA 9054, approved on March 31, 2001, which provides: “Sec. 1. Disposition of Certain Real Properties of the Autonomous Region. The land and permanent buildings or structures owned, controlled, administered, or in the possession of the Regional Government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, including those formerly owned, held, administered, or controlled by the defunct autonomous governments in Regions IX and XII located in provinces and cities which do not vote favourably for the inclusion of their respective areas in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao as provided by this Organic Act shall be purchased by the central government or national government at a price to be determined by the Oversight Committee as provided for in Section 3 of this Article, within three (3) months from the holding of the said plebiscite. Any dispute on the price as determined by the Oversight Committee may be appealed to the President of the Philippines, who shall decide on said price with finality within three (3) months from the receipt of the appeal. The proceeds of the purchase shall be remitted to the Regional Government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The national government or central government shall within three (3) months from its acquisition of said land and permanent buildings or structures sell, transfer, and convey the said properties in favour of the local government unit having territorial jurisdiction thereover and willing to purchase the said land and buildings or structures, or portions thereof, at the price agreed upon by the central government or national government with the local government concerned.”

Predictably, Zamboanga City did not vote favourably in the plebiscite held on August 14, 2001. But, again, the city government was not able to acquire the Cabantagan Complex, or parts thereof, notwithstanding the mandatory character of the cited provision of the ARMM amendatory law.

And so, here we are, twenty-five years and two plebiscites after, and with the Bangsamoro Basic Law a distinct reality in the offing, still facing the same issue surrounding the Cabatangan property.  After going through four Presidents (Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) and four years of incumbent President Aquino, the Cabatangan Complex has remained beyond our grasp, so near and yet so far away. Looking back, it could have been partly because our past officialdom was not politically aligned or entrenched with the national leadership in Manila which prevented our city’s acquiring, or at the very least, gaining control over the Cabatangan property. (Alas, we are a country where politics substantially dominate and continually suffocate almost all aspects of governance.) Consider that during the term of the late President Cory Aquino (1986-1992), our representative in Congress was the late Congresswoman Lobregat, who did not share Cory’s political company. Mrs. Lobregat likewise was not part of the Lakas army of President Ramos, who succeeded Cory in 1992. True, President Estrada, who followed President Ramos in 1998, was the exception, and Mrs. Lobregat, who became city mayor in the same year, was just a telephone call away from and politically bonded with the former actor. But, that linkage was lost when President Estrada was ousted in 2001 after barely two and a half years in office. It was déjà vu with President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo from 2001 up to 2010, which was extended from 2010 up to 2013, covering the first three years of the incumbent President Aquino, with neither Mrs. Lobregat nor Celso, who became our congressman in 1998 and mayor in 2004 until 2013, sharing the same political page with the occupants in Malacañang.

Today (and starting June 30, 2013), however, we have Mayor Climaco-Salazar, on the mayor’s chair at city hall. She is the local party chief of President Aquino’s Liberal Party and is well connected and familiar with the existing government machinery at the national capital, having been former deputy speaker of the House of Representatives. Clearly, her color preference (yellow) and direct linkages to the executive and legislative branches of government put her exactly on a pivotal and exceptional spot where she can succeed on the Cabatangan Complex issue where Mrs. Lobregat and her son Celso did not. (POBox 333, ZC, vicrsolis@hotmail.com)




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