Fearless parliamentarian. Fightingest mayor. Stalwart of democracy. These are but some of the sobriquets given to Aquilino “Nene” Q. Pimentel, Jr. in his years of public service. He has been called other names by his detractors, including Don Quixote de Pimentel for his courageous but sometimes lonely battle against a dictator, corruption in government, electoral fraud and even foreign imperialism. What sticks in the mind more, however, is the reputation that he, as a public official and private individual, has earned for fearlessness, incorruptibility, integrity and honesty. And, yes consistency.
Jailed for Protesting
Born into a political family in Cagayan de Oro, the man from Mindanao was catalputed to the national arena as an elected delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1971, representing Misamis Oriental. The complexity of what had promised to be an inspiring political exercise changed when then President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law on September 21, 1972.
A young and principled lawyer, Pimentel and a few like-minded delegates feared the Concon would produce a Marcos-scripted Constitution and were vocal in their opposition. Pimentel also protested certain provisions as being contrary to the people’s interest. Not surprisingly, in a roundup of those who opposed Marcos, he was arrested in early 1973 and jailed for three months at Camp Crame. Pimentel, who had a young family, bade his wife Bing “Be brave. Don’t cry,” and submitted to the incarceration.
He was released from prison in time for the signing of the Constitution. Uncowed by his incarceration, Pimentel refused to sign, along with a few other delegates. In the climate of fear of the Martial Law era, this was a bold move and it widened his repute as an oppositionist.
He then lawyered for the National Secretariat for Social Action of the Catholic Bishops Conference to help the poor peasants and the urban poor who were particularly oppressed during the Martial Law era. But he did not fade into oblivion nor did he cease being critical of the dictatorship.
Held for Leading Demonstration
In April 1978, Pimentel ran for a post in the Interim Batasan elections as an official candidate of the Lakas ng Bayan (Laban) party of Metro Manila with Ninoy Aquino. Members of Marcos’ Kilusan ng Bagong Lipunan (KBL) party swept the seats. Pimentel and other opposition leaders like Senator Lorenzo Tañada, Soc Rodrigo, Teofisto Guingona, Fr. Archie Intengan SJ, and Chino Roces loudly protested the defeat of all opposition candidates and denounced the massive cheating that had taken place. Pimentel was one of those arrested for leading a demonstration against what he termed farcical elections. He had spoken out against Marcos’ bid to produce a rubber stamp legislature to win legitimacy for his iron-fisted regime which was increasingly being criticized here and abroad. Pimentel was jailed for two months in Camp Bicutan, Metro Manila.
Pimentel’s second stint in prison did not silence him. In fact, it strengthened his resolve to fight for freedom and to oppose electoral fraud. Ever the parliamentarian, he brought the battle from the streets to the polls in January 1980 when Marcos allowed local elections.
His wife Bing recalled they launched his mayoralty bid in Cagayan de Oro with a mere P2,000 in his war chest – all the money the couple could muster. But Cagayanons who believed in him contributed to his campaign and penned his name on their ballot. Pimentel won by a 3-1 margin over his KBL rival, who was fielded by Marcos. Pimentel ran under the coalition banner of the National Union for Democracy and Freedom and the Mindanao Alliance which busted KBL dominance in Misamis Oriental. He and his entire slate of candidates for vice mayor and seven city councilors swept the elections in Cagayan de Oro. His candidates for governor and vice governor also won.
Ousted as Mayor
Pimentel was not to govern his city unhindered. In 1981, while he was on a five-week training course in the United States, the Comelec ousted him for “political turncoatism,” installing the KBL candidate as mayor. The Comelec cited Pimentel for switching from Laban in April 1978 to the Narional Union for Democracy and Freedom in December 1979 and then running as candidate of the Mindanao Alliance in January 1980.
The Comelec’s move ired the Cagayanons. Pimentel partisans immediately staged peaceful demonstrations to express their displeasure. About 30 of his supporters also started fasting in protest. Six days later, 10,000 of his supporters marched around the city in a nonviolent show of support for Pimentel who was then on an official trip to the US. Thousands more lined the streets to cheer them on. This first-ever demonstration of “People Power” came at a time when Marcos did not lightly tolerate dissent.
Meanwhile, in Manila, Pimentel’s lawyer, headed by opposition leaders former Senators Lorenzo Tañada and Soc Rodrigo, along with Abraham Sarmiento, Raul Gonzales and Joker Arroyo, claimed that the Comelec had acted without jurisdiction and contented that the electorate’s will should be respected. The Comelec, however, reaffirmed its decision to oust Pimentel.
The conflict made national headlines and photos of demonstrations in Cagayan de Oro appeared in a major daily. To defuse the escalating turmoil, Marcos engineered a truce and reinstalled Pimentel as mayor, pending a Supreme Council decision. Pimentel arrived from the US in time to pick up the reins of city government that had briefly been wrested from him.
In 1983, while he was in Cebu City, Pimentel was arrested on charges of rebellion and was detained. He had allegedly given P100 to new People’s Army commander. Bing Pimentel recalled it was horrible time as the family did not know where he was. They traced him to Camp Sergio Osmeña and later to Camp Cabahug in the City of Cebu. Even as he was held in the military detention centers, his followers from Cagayan De Oro and other parts of the country visited him by the hundreds to boost his morale and keep his spirits high.
Nene Pimentel disputed the charges and was later released. Returning home, he was mobbed by thousand of his supporters upon his arrival at the pier of Cagayan De Oro. Later, he was again arrested for allegedly engaging in ambuscades. His supporters contributed centavos and pesos in small denomination to bail him out. Subsequently, Pimentel was placed under house arrest which lasted for almost seven months.
From the confines of his home, Pimentel continued to keep abreast of national news. He helped rally the opposition, ran the city and launched his bid as assemblyman for the Batasang Pambansa. He was, if anything, not quite. He protested relentlessly and fearlessly against injustice, fraud, corruption and Marcos’ dictatorial rule.
OUSTED AND REINSTATED
Then, in the aftermath of the assassination of Marcos’s chief rival, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino in 1983, Pimentel won a seat in the Batasan Pambansa elections of 1984. But the Marcos government ousted him on the allegation that he had cheated in the elections. The Supreme Court itself recounted the ballots in an electoral contest.
The feisty Pimentel, a relentless critic of the Marcos regime, was often seen with Ninoy’s widow, Cory, as they rallied the opposition. At one point, Cory asked him to be her running mate in the 1995 Snap Elections and he agreed. However, at the 11th hour, when Cardinal Jaime Sin brokered a political marriage between Cory and Salvador “Doy” Laurel, Jr., Pimentel graciously stepped aside and let history run its course.
The widow toppled the dictator who fled the country. Upon her ascent to power President Aquino appointed Pimentel as Minister of Local Government. He had the unenviable task of dismantling the structure of dictatorship and corruption left behind by the Marcos regime. Pimentel wielded the axe deliberately, gaining a breathing space for the new administration. His critics alleged he had sold positions in the new government, but none could make the charge stick. Pimentel incurred the ire of some but also the respect of those who saw that he did it without fear or favor or taint of corruption.
Pimentel’s next assignment in the Aquino administration were as presidential adviser and chief negotiator with the Muslim rebels. He resigned from those post to run for the Senate in the 1987 elections.
As Senator, he authored and sponsored several key pieces of legislation, among them the Local Government Code of 1991, the Cooperative Code, the Philippine Sports Commission Act, the Act Creating the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and the People’s Small-Scale Mining Act. He also authored and co-sponsored the Generic Drugs Act and the Act Establishing the Philippine Police under a Reorganized Department of Interior and Local Government.
Pimentel lost bid for the vice presidency in 1992 when he stood as Jovito Salonga’s running mate. During the hiatus in his political career, he established his law practice in Metro Manila, gaining repute as a brilliant and meticulous lawyer, further enhancing his national stature.
Back in the arena of politics, Pimentel was cheated of victory in the 1995 senatorial race through the Dagdag/Bawas scheme. He launched what some termed a quixotic campaign against electoral fraud, but drew enormous support from the populace who sent in their donations to help fund the recount. His quest was not so forlorn after all. Before the Senate Electoral Tribunal, Pimentel established by incontrovertible evidence the existence of a massive Dagdag/Bawas fraudulent count. He also sued the cheaters before the criminal courts where the cases are still being tried.
In the 1998 elections, convinced of the man’s integrity and inspired by his passion for truth and electoral reform, voters resoundingly returned Pimentel to the Senate for a six-year term. Today he serves as Chairman of the powerful Blue Ribbon Committee (the Committee on Accountability of Public Officers and Investigations) and the Committee of the Local Government.
As chair of the Blue Ribbon Committee, he has recommended the prosecution of top government officials of previous administrations in relation to the Expo Pilipino centennial scam and the misuse of the funds of the Retirement and Separation Benefits Systems of the Armed Forces. He has also recommended the prosecution of certain personnel of the Land Registration Administration for involvement in faking of land titles. Recently his committee also conducted series of investigations into the allegation of Governor Luis “Chavit” Singson on jueteng scandal.
As Chair of the Committee on Local Government, he has supported far-reaching amendments to further strengthen the role of local government units in national development. He has also gotten senate approval to return the police to the supervision of LGUs and has authored a law to fix the date for elections of ARMM officials.
Yes, in just a few short years, Nene Pimentel has made the leap from feisty oppositionist to inspiring leader, from parliamentarian to respected statesman. Today he would say life’s meaning is found in serving God, country and people, especially the poor.