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Story Publication logo September 9, 2007

Trying to keep it all in the family dynasty


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Photojournalist Ryan Anson returns to Mindanao, southern Philippines to examine the pitfalls and...


After weeks of vote counting, sporadic bombings and allegations of election fraud, the insurgency-racked island of Basilan in the southern Philippines finally has a new congressman. It also has a new governor and mayor of the provincial capital where al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf terrorists once dined in local restaurants by day, and kidnapped priests and schoolteachers at night.

In a twist on the long Filipino tradition of dynastic rule, Basilan's new governor and the mayor of Isabela City are both married to congressman-elect Wahab Akbar.

Like their husband, Jum, Wahab Akbar's first wife, and Cherrylyn, his second, campaigned on a platform of economic development. The two women routinely attended rallies together in the weeks leading up to the Philippines' May 14 midterm elections, during which they listened to Wahab tell a mix of Catholic and Muslim voters that Basilan needs a dynasty to solve its security and financial problems.

"We'll have the most progressive province in the country," former three-term Gov. Wahab Akbar said at one rally. "When the people have dynasty, they have more development."

Consolidating all of the island's resources into one family will help leaders tap the vast rubber resources. But with a recent escalation in insurgent and election-related violence, some residents, policy analysts and military officers are worried about what the Akbars will do on an island once designated by Washington as a second front in the war on terror.

"You can never survive here and run for office without a single gun," says one Philippine military intelligence officer who goes by the name Joe. "You'd be like a garlic waiting to get crushed."

Basilan, an 800-square-mile island just off the southern Mindanao region and home to three Islamic secessionist groups, has experienced dozens of kidnappings and bombings during the past decade. U.S. government-funded counterterrorism training and humanitarian aid are believed to have helped contain the threat of militant groups during the past five years.

But just days before the election, supporters of both Akbar and his rival Gerry Salappudin were caught with unlicensed weapons. On voting day, a firefight between political foes in a polling station resulted in three deaths and a monthlong delay in ballot canvassing. A school where some of the re-counting took place was bombed. And as a contingent of U.S. Marines trained local troops near Isabela City, Filipino soldiers clashed multiple times with a mix of gunmen allied to Wahab Akbar and fighters from the Abu Sayyaf extremist group. (Abu Sayyaf, which the Philippine and U.S. governments have linked to al Qaeda, has claimed responsibility for the country's worst terrorist attacks, including the 2001 kidnapping of an American missionary couple in Basilan and a ferry bombing in 2004 that killed more than 100 people.)

Not everyone wants a single family to rule the island.

"Akbar is an unconventional leader who uses unorthodox methods," says Manny Muarip, an Islamic religious leader and human resources officer in the provincial government. Muarip says that Basileños aren't accustomed to being governed by one family. "If he manages it for good, then fine," he said. "But if he doesn't, it will be very bad because it would be difficult to change. Eventually he will control all of the areas."

Keeping politics within the clan is nothing new in the Philippines. Roy Olivares, founder of the Citizens Anti-Dynasty Movement, estimates that more than 180 families control the Philippine Senate, Congress and most provincial positions. Even the president of the country, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, comes from a well-known dynasty. Her father was a congressman and a vice president who was elected president of the Philippines in 1961.

It's the first time, however, that a man and his multiple wives have become elected officials at both the national and provincial level. Seven other politicians related to Congressman Akbar by bloodline, including a niece, nephew and several cousins, also won election victories in smaller towns around the island.

Olivares says this nepotistic pattern of leadership is more dangerous in places like Basilan and the entire southern region of Mindanao, where extreme poverty and multiple 30-year Islamic insurgencies have already created an unstable environment.

"With all the killings and vote buying and dynasty being there, it's a mockery of democracy," says Olivares. In a place awash with military hawks, weapons and virulent religious ideology, politicians need friends within both government and insurgent circles, he says.

"If one is to survive there, you have to play both sides," says Olivares. "It's very bad. It's very feudalistic. The old people want to hang on, and the new people believe that the only way to get in is by using guns and goons. It becomes a cycle."

A former provincial official named "Joy" says that she is concerned about growing corruption in Basilan since Akbar began his first term as governor nine years ago.

"Something went wrong along the way. Maybe it's money or fame. The power they have is already being abused," says Joy, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In 2002, Tahira Ismael, the governor's niece and mayor of Lantawan, was charged with graft after $22,000 disappeared from the city's coffers. The money was supposed to finance the pensions of government employees. Ismael is still fighting the charge in court. In Isabela City, where Cherrylyn Akbar is now mayor, Joy says teachers have not been paid salaries in more than four months.

The Philippine military also worries about the emerging dynasty.

Col. Ramiro Alivio, former head of local military intelligence and the current commander of Basilan's 1st Marine Brigade, says Akbar and several other local politicians use private armies to secure their hold on power.

In mid-April, Alivio's soldiers monitored the movements of 500 armed men believed to be affiliated with the congressman. Less than a week ago, a band of 300 insurgents, most of whom belonged to Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (the largest Islamic separatist group in the Philippines), ambushed a unit of Alivio's men and killed 14 of them. Ten of the soldiers were later beheaded. Alivio says that Karam Jakilan, one of the suspected fighters whose brother led the attack, received 60 guns from Akbar.

"Akbar uses terrorism to rule the province," says Alivio. "Those he views as a threat to his leadership, he systematically annihilates, including their families."

Akbar, a former Islamic preacher who once fought with the Moro National Liberation Front against the government that now employs him, says he knew Abu Sayyaf founder Abdurajak Janjalani but disagreed with his violent methodology.

"We were like two competing snakes in the jungle. But we weren't birds of the same feathers," Akbar says.

He doesn't deny handing out weapons to villagers and always attended election rallies with heavily armed bodyguards. In the past year, he says, he distributed or purchased an average of 10 guns for every village. There are more than 200 recognized villages on Basilan.

"It's an unorthodox approach," he says. "Guns are everywhere. Everybody loves guns here. The best solution is to give guns to those people who cannot protect themselves."

Aside from guns, the congressman says that the island's vast rubber resources will lift local Muslim and Christians out of dire poverty. He has already planted 5 million rubber trees and hopes to plant 20 million more.

Roy Tan, a businessman who ran with Akbar's second wife, Cherrylyn, for a city councilor position, says that in spite of the periodic violence, the governor-turned-congressman transformed Basilan into a relatively peaceful province. "This was once a very dark and chaotic place," Tan says. "Kidnappings were rampant and killings were unsolved. (Former) Gov. Akbar brought light again to Basilan. Now people can sleep peacefully in their homes."

With the looming military assault against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front troops and the Abu Sayyaf terrorists suspected of beheading the Philippine marines, it is doubtful that the first 100 days of any of the Akbars' terms will be peaceful - or that any of the newly elected Akbars will be sleeping peacefully.


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