In the nation’s pantheon

As we mark the 152nd birth anniversary of Andres Bonifacio, who led the revolution against Spanish colonial rule, there is a clamor to honor his role in our nation’s history by proclaiming him as the nation’s first president. That place is presently reserved to his archrival, Emilio Aguinaldo, who declared Philippine independence from Spain on June 12, 1898.

The call is no doubt fueled by a rekindling of popular interest in the murky events that led to the downfall of Bonifacio and the rise of Aguinaldo, less than a year after the start of the revolution. One of those events is the controversy-marred Tejeros Convention held on March 22, 1897, in Cavite. The early accounts of what happened in that meeting were understandably written from a partisan perspective. But, though historians differ in their interpretations, the basic facts can be gleaned from the existing narratives.

Much of the province of Cavite appears to have become a liberated zone during that period. The gathering was held in “Casa Hacienda” in Tejeros, today part of the town known as General Trias. This was territory under the control of the Katipunan’s Magdiwang Council, which played host to the visiting supremo months prior to the meeting. The other Cavite-based rebel group was, of course, the Magdalo Council, which was based initially in Kawit, and later in Imus.

It was the second time the Magdiwang and the Magdalo were meeting formally. Three months earlier, they met in Imus, where, as in Tejeros, it fell on Bonifacio to preside. In both meetings, the ostensible agenda was the same: how to achieve close coordination among the various rebel groups. For some, this was mainly a matter of strategy; for others, it was a call to transform the revolutionary movement into a revolutionary government, entailing the formal election of leaders.

The Magdalo rebels were particularly vocal about the need to establish a revolutionary government. That early, Bonifacio might have already sensed that some Cavite leaders were scheming to wrest control of the direction of the revolution. Whatever apprehension he might have entertained, however, would have been allayed by the thought that the convention was being organized by his hosts, the Magdiwang, and was being held in their home ground.

The reality, however, proved to be more complex. The division of the Cavite rebels into Magdiwang and Magdalo concealed class and ethnic affinities that, under the circumstances, would have been at work. Bonifacio was not a Caviteño; he was from Tondo. His own people who belonged to the Katagalugan Council of the Katipunan were based in Manila, Caloocan and Novaliches. Unlike most of the leaders of Magdiwang and Magdalo, he was by no means a member of the local elite.

As it turned out, the election was the main event at the Tejeros meeting. The fact that Bonifacio opened the convention as its presiding officer did not prevent the election from unfolding into a ritual of degradation for the supremo. Nominated for president, he lost to Emilio Aguinaldo, who was not even present. Nominated for vice president, he lost to Mariano Trias. When finally he was elected director of the interior, his fitness for the position was openly challenged by Daniel Tirona, a stalwart of the Magdalo group. Smarting from the insult, the incensed supremo drew his gun and meant to fire at Tirona, who promptly disappeared into the crowd.

The following day, March 23, Bonifacio and the Magdiwang leaders issued the famous “Acta de Tejeros.” Claiming manipulation of the ballots and the padding of the list of delegates, they repudiated the results of the election. Undeterred, Aguinaldo and the rest of the elected officials of the revolutionary government proceeded to take their oath the same day.

In retrospect, the “Acta” seemed nothing more than a channel to allow Bonifacio to release his resentment. It obviously did not cause his Magdiwang allies to break with Aguinaldo or the Magdalo. It makes one wonder how the Magdiwang leaders could have rationalized their acquiescence in the subsequent arrest, trial and execution of Bonifacio for treason. This was, after all, the man who recruited most of them into the revolution. If they were angry, they did not show it. They evidently had no problem accepting the leadership of Aguinaldo, who must have had his fair share of admirable traits worthy of a leader.

In those days of revolutionary flux, political integration was possible only at the level of the leader. That role had clearly passed on from Bonifacio to Aguinaldo even before the Tejeros election. The “Acta” that Bonifacio and the other leaders issued in the name of “Ang Haring Bayan” (the sovereign people) was thus nothing more than an abstraction that carried no weight. The nation was not yet a concrete reality.

Indeed, it was Aguinaldo, guided by the genius of Apolinario Mabini, who later took the necessary steps to integrate the revolution at the level of the nation-state. For that, he fully deserves to be recognized as the first president of the Philippines.

As the man who started the war of emancipation that led to the formation of the Filipino nation-state, Bonifacio has a revered place in our hearts as the leader of the Philippine revolution. Jose Rizal, who inspired the revolution though he disagreed with its timing, will always remain in our collective memory as the nation’s founding father.

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