MANILA -- Years into his retirement, Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel Jr. would move around in a wheel chair. His doctors had asked him to refrain from flying to the provinces to talk about federalism which believers and critics said was a radical change in the system of government. But nothing really stopped him from moving around.
“I am allowed to travel only around Metro Manila,” he told this newsman over lunch at his favorite Japanese restaurant in Quezon City. Sometimes, he felt weak, sometimes, he felt strong. “There are good mornings and there are bad mornings,” he said. But always, he was up and about before dawn.
Until he was brought to the intensive care unit early in October, his mind remained sharp, always focused, except that he had difficulty hearing with his left ear. He would remember in vivid details the things he and his family had gone through during the martial law years of President Ferdinand Marcos. He fought Marcos relentlessly, it eventually led to his arrest and detention, all a result of his refusal to embrace the dictatorship. If only for that, Joker Arroyo called him the face of martial law — or the poster boy of defiance to Marcos’ one-man rule.
Unless asked however, Pimentel hardly talked about his role in the fight against the Marcos dictatorship, if only because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. He had written a book titled “Martial Law in the Philippines: My Story.” And it is all there, he said. Months before the book went off the press in June 2006, he showed us the manuscripts asking us to take a good look. We didn’t say anything, except to whisper that indeed a good book emerges from an upheaval in one’s soul.
The book narrates Pimentel’s martial-law experience, a story of courage, daring and much faith to stand up to the dictator when it was extremely dangerous to do so. It talks about the Marcos dictatorship from the point of view of Pimentel, then a young lawyer-turned mayor of Cagayan de Oro City, and how his family based in Mindanao managed to endure it.
He wanted to talk now about federalism, a topic he had tackled with as much passion as dictatorship since we first met him in 1983, even when no one was listening -- not as an ideologue, but as a personal conviction, having experienced as a young mayor the agony of waiting for the Palace to release funds for his city.
He was one of the three original federalism proponents from Mindanao, long, long before other people cared to know. The other two were Reuben Canoy and Homobono Adaza.
“Things would change for the better in a federal system,” he told a breakfast forum at Club Filipino in San Juan in August 2018. “The LGUs will develop itself to stand on their feet. No more waiting from Malacañang to move, like you are waiting for Godot.”
Nene Pimentel believed, as he had always believed, in federalism. He was federalism’s best salesman, undoubtedly. Even people who had misgivings about federalism were willing to listen because it was Pimentel talking, because they believed he had the purest of motives.
One Sunday morning in May 2016, Pimentel sent us a text message inviting us to lunch to talk about it with some urgency. “Hurry up, my son, I am old, we don’t have much time.” He showed up, with an aide, a nurse and a secretary in tow. Again, he was in a wheel chair. But he was in his element talking, as if he had a prepared long, carefully written speech.
At 85, he noted that the renewed public interest in federalism came in late in his time when he was weak and ailing. But even so, he wanted people to remember him as the one bridging the people to the good news of federalism.
“Remember me as a bridge builder,” he said.
Before nighttime, he sent us an email, as promised, a copy of a 1900 poem titled “The Bridge Builder” by American author Will Allen Dromgoole, often quoted to promote the idea of building links for the future and passing the torch along for the next generation. The last three stanzas were his favorite which explained, he said, why an old man like him was pushing for federalism. He signed the letter, “Nene.”
The poem in full:
The Bridge Builder
An old man walking along a highway,
Came at the evening cold and gray
Upon a chasm vast and deep and wide
Through which was flowing a swollen tide.
The old man crossed in the twilight dim;
The swollen stream held no fears for him.
But he turned when he reached the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.
“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You’re wasting your time in building here.
Your journey will end with the closing day;
You have crossed the chasm deep and wide;
Why build you this bridge at even-tide?”
The builder lifted his old gray head.
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There follows after me today
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This stream, which has been as naught to me,
To that fair youth may a pitfall be.
He too must cross in the twilight dim —
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him.”
‘Let the people decide’
He had written a book on federalism, which he said was a far different version from the one the party he founded has released. The one closer to his was the report of a panel he and former Chief Justice Reynato Puno submitted to Malacanang. Never mind the difference, he said, everything would be part of the public discourse.
“The people will decide,” he said. “It is best that we gave birth to the idea.”
Would people care to listen, we asked, given the public’s short-lived excitement. “Jesus began with 12,” he replied.
By any standard, a shift to federalism is a radical change in government. But Pimentel was radical, by any standard.
A few days after President Corazon Aquino named him head of the ministry of interior in March 1986, Pimentel kicked out of office all the governors, board members, mayors and councilors, triggering an uproar against the government. He wanted to rid the government of all the thieves and warlords -- the first and possibly the most daring attempt to abolish all existing dynasties across the country. It was so radical people thought he would lose in the first senatorial elections after the dictatorship in 1987. Luckily, he won.
Years into Senate, Pimentel introduced a bill, which was later called Local Government Code, seeking to devolve the powers of the national government to the LGUs, which did not sit well with his former colleagues at the Aquino Cabinet, some of whom called him a communist.
He ended up getting only the approval of three secretaries, including Health Secretary Alran Bengzon, another outspoken Cabinet member. Not enough, he said of the bill that made people call him the “Father of the Local Government Code.”
Not bad either, he said, looking back. “I wanted it all, but my former colleagues in the Cory Cabinet didn’t like it,” he recalled. The law caused the devolution of health powers services to the countryside. It was a game changer for local executives.
At the height of the US bases controversy in September 1991, Cory Aquino personally called him to convince him to vote in favor of an extension of the US military bases in the Philippines. She later joined a pro-bases rally outside the Senate building for everybody to see.
Inside his room, Pimentel saw on television the woman who wanted him as her running mate in the 1985 snap presidential elections. It was raining outside. But he voted against her wishes. “It was one of the saddest days in my life,” he said.
Pimentel first entered politics as a delegate in the 1971 Constitutional Convention. He was detained four times after Marcos declared martial law in 1972, each time nearly breaking her family’s hearts.
“Naturally, Marcos did not have me in mind when he proclaimed martial law,” he said. "As a small-town dabbler in politics, I was surely outside his political radar screen. Still, I had this problem with one-man rule and perpetuating one’s self to power.”
Joker Arroyo recalled Pimentel did not enjoy the incarceration. “If experience is the best teacher,” Arroyo wrote in Pimentel’s book, “Nene seemed impervious even to life’s simplest instruction.”
“Indeed, as far as Nene was concerned, life was not trying to teach him the obvious, which was to quit, a lesson he couldn’t learn,” he said.
Lessons for Marcos
“On the contrary, it was Marcos who just couldn’t learn — in election after election that the dictator stole from Nene and the Filipino people — to uphold the Constitution and the laws. Nene wasn’t just being bullheaded. He was just being persistent, like a tireless teacher of mentally challenged students of democracy like Ferdinand Marcos.”
Pimentel’s passing would leave a great void in Philippine politics, like a few good men who have gone ahead of him. Men of great virtues and little vices, they all died quietly. Among them: Jose Diokno in February 1987; Lorenzo Tañada in May 1992; Jovito Salonga in March 2016; Ramon Mitra in March 2000; and, Arroyo in October 2015.
“My marching days are over,” he told this newsman over another hastily-called lunch a few weeks before he was brought to the hospital. “I am running out of time,” read the text message before we arrived at his favorite restaurant. True enough, he showed up ahead of us.
Without much ado, Pimentel gave us the manuscripts of an unfinished book titled “His Crown of Thorns: The Impeachment, Trial and Conviction of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona.”
We accepted the copy. “Read it, read it, then let me know.” Pimentel’s instructions came as clear as his thoughts, as clear as his convictions.
But when we were ready to let him know, Pimentel slipped into the night, leaving us the unfinished book and a huge memory of his greatness.
Every man has his time, every time has its man. We will remember Pimentel and his time, and we will remember him for standing up for his fighting faith. And we will remember him with that poem titled “The Bridge Builder."