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Wahab Akbar: The Terror of Basilan

Wahab Akbar believes destiny made him governor of Basilan, the tiny island province with 332,828 people and thousands of loose firearms. Even if he has to instill terror in the hearts of Basileños, Akbar says he would do it to bring peace and development to his “godforsaken land." (Former Basilan Governor, later elected Representative Wahab Akbar was killed in the November 13, 2007 blast at the Batasan Pambansa Complex that killed two other individuals and wounded eight. This article was first published in Newsbreak's first special issue on Mindanao, January 2003.) “It would be better to kill 10 suspects than to let the criminals go and let everybody suffer," the macho governor says. “I have to be tough. I have to be a dictator. I must not show pity." Akbar is an ustadz (Islamic teacher) who admitted his Friday sermons in madrasahs (Islamic schools) and mosques might have inspired young Muslims to join the notorious Abu Sayyaf Group bandits. Born on April 16, 1959, in the village of Lantawan, Akbar, a Yakan, was only 11 years old when he joined his father, a rebel, in the mountains. “I was young, but I was already eating bullets in the jungle," he recalls. Akbar’s father, Hajji Mutamad Salajin (Akbar is the name of Wahab’s maternal grandfather), was a squatter in a logging concession owned by a multinational corporation. When security men burned his house and the mosque where he preaches on Fridays, Salajin took up arms. “[The struggle] was actually selfish. [Most of the rebels] just wanted to have a better life, but there was no opportunity for them, so they joined the revolution," Akbar says. After three years, the government persuaded Salajin to surrender. He was given a piece of land and Ferdinand Marcos appointed him mayor of Lantawan. Akbar came down from the mountains and resumed his studies in Isabela, Basilan’s capital town. He was sent to Manila after a year and enrolled at Gregorio Araneta University where he took up agriculture. He did not finish his studies. In 1979, at the height of protests against martial law, Akbar was arrested with other Muslim students and was detained in Bicutan for 40 days. After his release from detention, Akbar left for Sabah where he worked as a rice cake vendor, carpenter, mason, and driver until 1982 when he left for Syria to study Islamic jurisprudence. “I also studied Sufism in a special institution," he says, stressing that he did not become an “Islamic fundamentalist." He stayed in Syria for five years until 1987 when he was sent to Libya by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) to train as a commando. Influencing the Abu Sayyaf Akbar met Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, founder of the Abu Sayyaf, in Libya. “We met in a dahwah (Islamic preaching). He was a good student and was undergoing formal Islamic education in Libya while I was just bumming around," Akbar says. Akbar denies he had links with Janjalani or his group. He preached jihad (holy war) during his sermons when he came back to Basilan after six months in Libya. “If that is the context, then maybe I was able to inspire [future Abu Sayyaf bandits]," he says. Akbar, who used to wear a thoub, a longsleeved one-piece dress that covers the whole body, a white pilgrim’s cap, and a goatee, made his mark as a charismatic preacher in Basilan. However, he distinguished himself from Janjalani, who also preached jihad when he came home from Libya. “He had his own interpretation of Islam, which he might have read in books, but he did not really understand its teachings," Akbar says of Janjalani. Sources say, however, that a good following among young Muslims. Janjalani was arrogant, Akbar says. “He really believed in himself. That’s what I did not like in him. I told him, ‘Don’t tell me that you’re better than us, that you’re braver than us, that you know how to fight more than us.’" Akbar left for Sabah in the early 1990s. “When [the Abu Sayyaf] were in the mountains, they always called on me and it could not be avoided that I would be linked to them," he says. But sources say Akbar left because he did not become Abu Sayyaf’s emir (leader). Khalifah Connection When he returned to Basilan in the mid-1990s, Akbar resumed preaching in mosques and madaris. He tried to establish Islamic schools in villages with the help of some foreign donors, who included a certain Mohammad Jamal Khalifah. Khalifah, a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden, reportedly built significant financial and logistical networks between the Al-Qaeda and the Abu Sayyaf. “I learned that Khalifah was giving money to mosques and institutions, so I asked something for my family," Akbar says. “He gave me money for the hospitalization of my wife and provided the capital for a bakery I put up in Tabuk." Akbar’s relationship with Khalifah was short-lived. “I don’t actually like him," Akbar says. “He looked down on me because I smoked." Khalifah rejected a proposal submitted by Akbar for the building of a madrasah. “He said the concept was too shallow. He said he wanted other ways to help Muslims," Akbar recalls. When Khalifah had projects in Mindanao, he brought with him Palestinians and Arabs to run it. “He did not trust Filipinos," Akbar says. When his relationship with Khalifah soured, Akbar approached local politicians for help. But he was turned down. “It was painful. They looked down on me because I was just a preacher." Akbar ran for governor in 1998 to prove to the politicians that he could also be a leader. The people of Basilan supported him. They saw in Akbar an alternative to the traditional politicians who ruled the province for decades. “I was part of those who destroyed the province when I was a rebel. When the fighting stopped, I waited for someone to rebuild the island, but nobody even tried," he says. The war only worsened, Akbar points out, people became poorer and only the politicians got rich. “I thought, ‘Shit, my family will be affected, my children will become victims, all of us will be in deep shit.’ So I said, if nobody will do it, I will do it." He says he hardly spent to win the elections in 1998, unlike in 2001 when he solicited money to run for reelection. “I had to look for money to win in 2001. My opponents were spending a lot," he said. (Akbar refused to reveal his sources of funds for the 2001 elections. “It’s a secret among politicians," he says, adding that he is a “fast learner.") Role Model As a leader, Akbar points to his father as his role model. “He was hardworking and propeople. He became mayor but did not get rich." His father once told him that whoever would finish Basilan’s circumferential road would be remembered forever. Thus Akbar made it his mission to finish the province’s 230-kilometer road. When American forces came to Basilan in 2001 to hunt down the Abu Sayyaf, they rehabilitated the road, but Akbar says it should have been cemented for it to last. When he became governor in 1998, he built a capitol to house government offices. Inspired by the success of his first project, Akbar started dreaming of roads and bridges. He lobbied for money from the national government. His friend, then President Joseph Estrada, gave him P10 million for the circumferential road. He also borrowed P2 million from banks. Everything looked bright for Akbar until 2001 when Estrada was ousted. In June of the same year, when the Abu Sayyaf attacked the town of Lamitan, Akbar was accused of facilitating the payment of ransom for the release of Abu Sayyaf hostages in Lamitan. Akbar has denied the allegations. Akbar laments that when his projects started to take off, people began attacking him. “The Abu Sayyaf wanted me to fail, Candu [Muarip] and [Basilan Rep.] Gerry [Salapuddin] were happy that I would fail, [the Arroyo administration] didn’t want me as governor, and the military hated me," he says. Akbar is no different from other politicians, his critics say. “He changed a lot since he became a politician," says Djalia Turabin of the Moro Human Rights Center in Western Mindanao. She says Basileños supported Akbar in 1998 because he was a religious leader. “People looked up to him. They were willing to die for him." People saw in Akbar, who preached jihad, an alternative to Salapuddin’s traditional politics and bias for the Yakans. After four years in office, however, people say Akbar is worse than Salapuddin. Akbar appointed relatives to juicy positions in the provincial government and lobbied for his siblings: a sister became Basilan’s representative to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao while a brother is mayor of Maluso town. Akbar knows that people are angry. “They don’t understand me," he says. “But I have no time to explain to them what I am doing. I have no time to play politics. I have a lot of work to do." He adds: “I haven’t killed anybody. People look at me as if I am a killer, but nobody has been killed on my order. Many asked for my permission to kill, but I would always ask, is there really a need to kill?" In a message to the Abu Sayyaf during the kidnapping of students and teachers of Tumahubong in 2000, Akbar said: “I swear to God that if any of them [Abu Sayyaf hostages] are harmed I will kill all members of your family." He admits that he ordered the arrest of innocent civilians, including relatives of suspected Abu Sayyaf bandits, when the government put Basilan under a “state of lawlessness" in 2001. Akbar doesn’t want to listen even to his advisers. “Nobody should question me. I am the governor. I will do what I believe is good for the people, whether they like it or not, whether they will love me for it or not, I don’t care." Adjusting to the World On the personal side, Akbar stopped drinking at the age of 24 and stopped smoking early this year after doctors told him to quit. “My only vice is women, but I stopped [womanizing] last year," he says. Akbar has been married more than 10 times, but maintains four wives at a time to follow the tenets of the Koran. He has three children and his latest wife, a Christian, is pregnant. He recently stopped wearing his Muslim garb and shaved his moustache and goatee. “I have to adjust to the world around me. I don’t want people to look at me as a Muslim. I want them to look at me as governor of both Christians and Muslims," he says. “It’s a sacrifice, but someday, I will return to my being a Muslim when the problems of Basilan are solved." “When there will be enough jobs, people here will realize that it is better to go to school or work than clean their guns the whole day," a reflective Akbar says. It will be time then to go back to the mosques and madaris. - Newsbreak
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