“The Filipino is worth dying for.” Those were among the final words spoken by “the greatest president the Philippines never had,” Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., including the night before he was assassinated on August 21, 1983.
There is no greater leadership impact than sacrificing for others. So far in this Leadership Profile series, we’ve looked at several thought leaders, a business leader and a football coach. They taught us how to think and to believe in ourselves. Today we’ll focus on a man who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of an entire nation.
Who was Ninoy Aquino?
Ninoy Aquino was born in 1932 to a politically astute Filipino family. He quickly followed suit and was elected as a mayor at age 22, governor at age 29, and senator at age 34, the youngest in the country’s history. In his first year as a senator, Aquino wasted little time in becoming one of the current president Ferdinand Marcos’ most vocal opponents, declaring that Marcos was preparing to establish “a garrison state.” Following a controversial bombing, Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and Aquino was one of the first political opponents to be arrested on trumped-up charges of murder, illegal possession of firearms and subversion. Aquino spent the next 7 years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. Not even a 40 day hunger strike and mounting international pressure could overturn his sentence to death by execution. Before the sentence could be carried out, however, Aquino suffered two separate heart attacks and was eventually exiled in 1980 and traveled to the U.S. for treatment.
The Plan to Return
Aquino and his family always knew his time in the U.S. would be temporary. As a charismatic leader an proponent of democracy, he felt responsible to work against Marcos’ dictatorship. Without him, the Filipino citizens might become resigned to their fate. Aquino also warned that if democracy was not returned to the people, Marcos’ regime would eventually be overthrown by extremists, making the return impossible. Thus he spent much of his time in the U.S. on tour speaking out against the regime and challenging Marcos to consider his rationale without violent confrontation. In 1983, Marcos’ own waning health made it imperative for a solution to be reached and Aquino decided it was time to return. Marcos warned Aquino to stay out of politics and even U.S. supporters maintained that he could do more good in exile. But Aquino replied that “the Filipino is worth dying for” and that he would be willing to suffer any consequences upon returning.
In an internationally publicized chain of events, Aquino boarded a one-way flight to Manila on August 21, 1983. He had warned reporters in the days leading up to and even on his flight that it was highly probable he would be assassinated upon entering the country. Even though he wore a bullet proof vest, he assessed his chances of surviving were 10%.
True to his assessment, Aquino was escorted from the grounded plan by Marcos’ armed guards via a back exit and shot in the back of the head by an alleged assassin by the time he reached the bottom of the stairs. His body was immediately thrown into a van which fled the scene. Aquino was pronounced dead within minutes and just four hours later, President Marcos determined that an independent communist had assassinated Aquino and declared the case closed.
As you might imagine, no one in the Philippines believed the Marcos administration was innocent of Aquino’s death. The event added instant energy to the opposition. Aquino’s family returned to the Philippines soon after and his widow Maria Corazon became the new face of the movement. Facing attempted impeachment, Marcos called for a snap election in 1985 and Corazon was eventually declared the winner of the fiercely disputed election to became the first woman president in all of Asia. Corazon moved quickly to oversee the creation of a new constitution that limited the powers of the presidential office. She also championed civil rights and economic development. Corazon served until 1992. Aquino’s son Benigno Aquino, III is the current president of the Philippines.
Aquino has been referred to as the “greatest president the Philippines never had.” If not for his sacrificial return to his beleaguered homeland, things almost assuredly would have turned out much differently. In fact, if you fly into Manila today, you will land at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
In contrast to Aquino, Ferdinand Marcos’ legacy is marred by massive corruption, political repression and human rights violations. It was later discovered that in his two decades in office, Marcos moved billions of dollars of embezzled funds offshore – debts the current administration is still paying interest on today.
Ninoy Aquino’s story is an incredible reminder that you cannot lead a cause independent of people.
What cause do you live for? Who do you consider worth dying for?
Nathan Magnuson is a leadership consultant, coach, trainer and thought leader. Receive his new ebook Trusted Leadership Advisor by subscribing to his website or follow him on Twitter.