With less than a year in office, President Rodrigo Duterte has already sacked a high-ranking Cabinet official of his administration. Interior and local government (DILG) honcho, Ismael “Mike” Sueño was axed from his post due to the President having a “lack of confidence” and a “lack of trust” in his ability to serve.
Despite the earlier forced resignation of the National Irrigation Authority’s (NIA) head Peter Laviña due to corruption allegations, Sueño’s departure is still the most high-profile firing of the incumbent administration yet. Foreign Affairs secretary Perfecto Yasay has also been replaced in his post, but that was because he failed to get a confirmation from the Commission on Appointments as opposed to a deliberate ousting.
Bearing such a dishonor is undeserved for an individual like Sueño, who has a solid pro-poor record that fits in the style of governance that Duterte wants to implement. He has demonstrated this while serving as mayor of Koronadal, Cotabato and later as governor of South Cotabato. His work experience proves that the Mindanaon has adequate experience with local government units, which makes him a competent choice to head the DILG.
During his foray into local government, Sueño clashed with the logging industry – one of the most pernicious and highly influential industries plaguing Mindanao. As governor of South Cotabato, after the Martial Law era, he orchestrated a blanket logging ban to counter the devastation wrought by illegal logging. Prior to his rule, the province saw heightened deforestation caused by an unregulated and corrupt logging sector lobby as well as the clearing of forests for livestock ranches.
Sueño’s courage to go toe-to-toe with a reputable industry is akin to the ferocity we see from other Duterte-appointed Cabinet members such as environmental secretary Gina Lopez and social development secretary Judy Taguiwalo. Both have bumped heads with powerful corporates, with Lopez most notably waging war with the equally-devastating mining industry. Having this much drive for change is a recurring trait among the current administration, the President himself is a prime example.
Hence why Sueño’s departure comes as a surprise. His ouster was caused by allegations from his department subordinates indicating corruption from his end. The biggest gripe from the three undersecretaries who filed a complaint with President Duterte is that former Secretary Sueño carried on with a transaction deemed anomalous by transparency advocates. The said transaction involves the purchase of seemingly overpriced firetrucks from Austria signed by the preceding DILG boss and Duterte’s biggest presidential election rival, Mar Roxas.
The deal costed the department an added Php78 million due to overpricing. The transaction was put on hold subject to a case pending at the Supreme Court, but Secretary Sueño decided to push through with the acquisition instead.
In a statement given after the sacking, President Duterte opined that Sueño had seemingly lied to him. Asked if he had read the opinion of the legal officer of the DILG regarding the transaction, the now-disgraced secretary claims he had not. This answer irked Duterte immensely, saying Sueño is either taking him as “stupid, an idiot, or you are lying through your teeth.”
The altercation with the President was the last straw for Sueño, whose job was already at risk from the numerous accusations against him. To his defense, the former interior secretary said that he was merely following the provisions of the said contract which was finalized even before his tenure. Still, Duterte axed Sueno and issued a warning to other Cabinet officials regarding corruption accusations against them.
For a known anti-corruption crusader to do a complete 180-degree turn on government malpractice and be accused of being corrupt himself is seemingly hard to fathom. What is even more suspicious is that part of the complaints launched against Mike Sueño is his alleged coddling of non-appointed DILG undersecretaries, who both are accused of being allies of the previous administration. The irony in that allegation is that both bureaucrats – Austere Panadero and Catalino Cuy – served not just the previous administration but all of the chief executives of the past two decades, being career bureaucrats themselves.
There seems to be more than what is being reported in the ouster of Sueño, and political observers believe that the vacancy was deliberately done to accommodate another Duterte ally. Until the corruption allegations against him have been proven, Mike Sueño’s record still consists of solid pro-poor reforms. If proven false, the Duterte administration would have lost a tremendous fighter in its ranks.