Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, stumbling from one crisis to the next, has a new one on his hands with the resignation of John P. Sevilla, a onetime Goldman Sachs banker, whom Aquino had brought in to clean up the country’s notoriously scandal-ridden customs bureau.
In an interview with the Manila-based website Rappler, Sevilla, the customs commissioner, said other officials pushed him to make unwarranted political appointments to top positions in the department, particularly of nominees from Iglesia ni Cristo, a politically powerful but religiously questionable Christian sect headed by Eduardo Y Manolo that wields considerable influence on the political process.
Despite four years of economic growth and rising prosperity, with gross domestic product rising at better than six percent annually over the past two years, Aquino’s popularity has been on a steady downward trend, triggered by a badly botched police raid in January in which 44 elite police officers were killed trying to capture a couple of Islamic terrorists.
An official board of inquiry report released in mid-March ignited public outrage when it was revealed that Aquino was involved in planning the raid along with Alan Purisima, a former police chief who was suspended in December on graft charges, and that the President botched the rescue of the police officials. Beyond that, the botched raid and its aftermath have thrown the capstone of his presidency, a proposed agreement with Moro rebels in Mindanao, into danger. Members of the legislature who must ratify the pact have balked because of the deaths.
The president took office in 2010 on a good governance platform, vowing to combat corruption as a barrier to growth and poverty reduction. He has had some success, blocking a series of projects by his predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo while the government rebuilt the tendering process to make it more transparent. But, as the Global Security risk firm pointed out, “Bribes, payoffs, and shakedowns have characterized Philippine government and society at all levels.” At one point, according to the assessment, the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimated that a full third of the annual national budget was lost to corruption.
“Two problems, in particular, have plagued the civil service,” Global risk said: “Corruption, especially in the Bureau of Customs and the Bureau of Internal Revenue, and the natural tendency, in the absence of a forceful chief executive, of cabinet secretaries to run their departments as independent fiefdoms. Bribes, payoffs, and shakedowns characterized Philippine government and society at all levels.”
Reform of the customs department, given its reputation, is thus crucial to Aquino’s reputation. Indeed, after taking office in 2013, Sevilla introduced a series of reforms, making transactions transparent and issuing an “importer’s bible” describing what risks importers faced. He continued a high-stakes campaign against smugglers, filing cases nearly every week, according to the local press.
In his interview with Rappler, Sevilla didn’t elaborate on the reasons for his resignation, aside from saying that “when you do something right at the Customs, you will have to face some risks”.
Sevilla told Rappler that he ignored requests for favors and political appointments.
“Early on, actually days within I started, there were already lots of pressures for me to move certain people to certain sensitive positions,” Sevilla told Rappler in an exclusive interview on April 23, his first since he publicly announced his resignation.
“When it all started it was texts and phone calls,” he told Rappler. “From people I knew within government. None of these were, ‘Do this.’ It was all, ‘Hey you know so and so is counting on this. So and so wants so and so to be placed there.’ But I thought if you give in to one, it’s a slippery slope.”