FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

The numbers shift daily as undermanned rescue teams desperately search for remains in the sea. One estimate puts the possible number of casualties at about 20,000 – a fifth of Derna’s population of a hundred thousand.

North Africa, Libya in particular, is not known for water abundance. But a large storm, powered by record temperatures all around the Mediterranean Sea, dropped so much water on the Derna valley that two dams broke in sequence. The onrush of so much water washed much of the eastern Libyan city out to the sea.

Global warming did play a role on this outsized calamity. Summer temperatures in the northern hemisphere broke all records this year.

But this particular calamity is not due to natural processes alone. Derna is also a story of how failed governance could eventually take a gruesome toll.

What we call Libya is no longer a single country with a single government. It has broken up into several parts, each governed by a separate militia. The two main contending parties in the civil war are those based in Tripoli on the western side of the country and the one based in Benghazi in the east. Derna is Libya’s easternmost city.

Since the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown over a decade ago, Libya has been caught in a brutal civil war. One major faction is supported by the West and the other by Russia. The ongoing civil war does not leave much room for effective governance.

Derna is a particularly neglected city. During Gaddafi’s rule, it was the center of resistance to the dictatorship. Neither the dictatorship nor the embattled militia faction after the former was overthrown did much to care for vital infrastructure and look after the safety of the population.

The tragedy that happened at Derna is the result both of global warming and political history. For many years, its citizens warned whatever authority there was about the perilous condition of the dams. Even if the authorities listened, there was little they could do. Governance in general has failed in Libya.

The dams responsible for this calamity ought to have been repaired or reconstructed many years ago. But accomplishing such a task required effective government in a country that was once among the wealthiest in the Arab world. Since Gaddafi was overthrown, Libya has been without effective government.

One shudders at the thought that, like Derna, we do have some old dams that require serious technical evaluation. One of them is Angat Dam that supplies about 97 percent of Metro Manila’s water. Our lives depend on sustained and forward-looking governance.

Two governors

If Libya has two governments ruling over separate parts of the country, the newly created province of Maguindanao del Norte has two governors administering the same territory.

By some unclear inspiration, Congress passed a law subdividing the old province of Maguindanao. Like a few other laws passed by our Congress, this one had a serious omission. It had no provision on who would govern the new province in the interregnum between enactment of the law and the conduct of regular elections.

On the recommendation of the BARMM, President Marcos appointed an interim governor for Maguindanao del Norte. The appointee is a ranking MILF commander. The MILF’s largest camp is in the jurisdiction of the new province.

The appointment was contested by Bai Fatima Ainee Libona-Sinsuat, the former vice governor of the defunct Maguindanao province. When her nominee for provincial treasurer was rejected by the Bureau of Local Government Finance (BLGF) on the ground that another person was appointed interim governor, the matter was elevated to the Supreme Court.

Last June, the Supreme Court ruled that “Sinsuat, as duly elected Vice Governor of the Province of Maguindanao, and Mastura, as the next ranking member of the Sangguniang Panlalawigan of the Province of Maguindanao, validly assumed the office as governor and vice governor, respectively, of the province of Maguindanao del Norte, but only in acting capacities until elections for the permanent officials to the said positions shall have been held.”

Although the Supreme Court ruling was issued in June, it was announced only lately. The ruling is binding on the DILG and the BARMM, although both agencies have not clearly implemented it. The appointed acting governor still occupies the seat and the administrative issuances of Sinsuat remain in some sort of legal limbo. The President has not explicitly withdrawn his appointment of Abdulran Macacua, military chief of the MILF, as acting governor.

The ruling was clear: “Sinsuat, as Acting Governor, has a clear legal right to recommend the appointment of the Provincial Treasurer of the Province of Maguindanao del Norte.” She legally holds the post until regular elections are held in 2025.

In the face of the glaring omission in the law subdividing the old Maguindanao province, the Court puts preference on the electoral mandate enjoyed by Sinsuat. Such electoral mandate helps ensure accountability to the electorate – and, hopefully, responsiveness to the needs of the constituency.

The current situation where two governors are competing in exercising jurisdiction over the new province is obviously unsustainable. It could lead to failure of governance that causes harm to the governed. Not to mention that it is a laughable bind.

The Supreme Court ruling on the Sinsuat petition should provide reference for future cases where we have to deal with an inadequately crafted law. It assures us that electoral mandate enjoys primacy in determining who should rule.

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