By all accounts, President Aquino did not have since-resigned National Bureau of Investigation director Nonnatus Rojas in mind, when he expressed his concern about “less trustworthy” officials working in the NBI. Just the same, Rojas felt resignation was the right response, and the only option.
In a TV interview, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima recalled Rojas’ words to her during one of the three times she tried to change his mind: “I feel that it is the most honorable thing to do and I want to keep my honor and integrity intact.”
This is an unusual stance—at least in our day and age, when delicadeza has become almost a museum piece, something thoroughly old-fashioned, best preserved behind a glass window. When Rojas insisted on resigning, despite repeated entreaties from De Lima and public statements from Malacañang officials, his conduct had all the impact of a museum artifact rousing itself to life and then walking out the main door.
People were stunned.
The point of honor here is not wounded pride, the sense that one has been unfairly blamed for the faults and shortcomings of others. Rather, it is the opposite: the sense that leaders bear command responsibility for the institutions they lead.
While President Aquino was careful to make a distinction between the NBI as an institution whose reputation has been largely rehabilitated in the last few years and a few problematic officials and agents who answer to other bosses or baser motives, it is difficult to fault Rojas for thinking that the President’s lack of trust in certain NBI officials was a reflection of his lack of full confidence in the agency—and therefore in Rojas himself.
That crucial adjective “full” can be easily misinterpreted; it is only fair to state that in fact President Aquino has learned to depend on the NBI for critical tasks. But in the case of businesswoman Janet Lim-Napoles, the suspected mastermind behind the alleged P10-billion pork barrel scam, the President thought it necessary to bring in a third party: the national police.
Napoles and her brother had accused the NBI of harassment and extortion, related to the charges of serious illegal detention involving her former employee and main whistle-blower Benhur Luy; having the police take Napoles into detention seemed like a reasonable compromise.
This decision, together with the President’s concerns about moles in the agency tipping Napoles off about her impending arrest and especially his statement about “less trustworthy” officials undermining the work of the NBI, must have been received by NBI personnel as a slap in the face. For someone like Rojas, they must have amounted to an accusing finger, directed at him.
Taken together, the President’s statements and actions suggest that the rehabilitation of the NBI, even under Rojas, was not yet complete. Rojas took that to mean his time was up.
Unlike other officials whose offices have been publicly rebuked by the President (Customs Commissioner Ruffy Biazon comes to mind), Rojas did not ask his principal whether he should resign. He just did it.
An embattled OIC
Now that President Aquino has accepted Nonnatus Rojas’ resignation “with deep regret,” an overworked Justice Secretary Leila de Lima finds herself officer-in-charge of an elite agency which has enjoyed a revival of public esteem under her watch—but an agency which is also reeling from a confidence crisis that, rightly or wrongly, some officials and agents blame on her.
The second priority in her agenda must be to find an appropriate successor to Rojas—perhaps the official she has spoken highly of, Deputy Director for Regional Operation Services Virgilio Mendez.
The first priority? To stop prosecuting her other deputy directors in public. She has called on all the NBI’s second-tier officials to resign, in part because at least two of them have integrity questions. But: “These are [just] allegations, although rather consistent, or rather persistent. I have yet to come across or see solid evidence or at least [a] semblance of a solid or credible showing.”
Not exactly a slam dunk. We do not mean to minimize the challenges De Lima faces in the post-Rojas NBI, but if she wants to win the entire game, she must learn to work silently, and strike only when she has a clear shot.