THE power struggle in the Benguet Electric Cooperative (BENECO) spanning three years has ended with the return of former General Manager (GM) Melchor Licoben to the GM seat after a long string of management changes in the cooperative.
Licoben was reappointed to the GM slot by the interim Board of Directors (BOD) at the recommendation of the National Electrification Administration (NEA), according to Steve Cating, interim BOD director, who had been put in place by the NEA following the fallout of the power struggle earlier in the year.
Licoben was the assistant general manager (GM) when long-time BENECO GM Gerardo Versoza Jr. died in 2020. Expected to take up the mantle, Licoben became GM; but then-Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Assistant Secretary Ana Maria Rafael attempted to take the seat. In July 2021, the NEA BOD approved her appointment as BENECO GM at the behest of the Office of the Government Corporate Counsel (OGCC).
This move proved incredibly unpopular, with the BOD at the time opposing Rafael’s takeover on every front alongside a large population of member-consumer-owners (MCOs) of the cooperative, with a highly controversial forced takeover of the BENECO headquarters at the crack of dawn by Rafael’s camp which was met with mass protests and nationwide scrutiny in October of 2021.
The power struggle would continue for the rest of 2021 and 2022, with Rafael’s presence forcing the cooperative into a standstill as BENECO eventually lost access to much of its funding, with some banks refusing to acknowledge Licoben and the BOD’s authority and blocking access to the cooperative’s coffers, until in January 2023 Rafael was finally removed by the NEA. But NEA also temporarily suspended Licoben and demoted him as assistant general manager and also ousted the entire BOD, replacing it with an interim BOD of NEA-appointed individuals.
“We are very proud to appoint him, and there is no question of his competence as a manager and as a resource person for BENECO going forward. We look forward to growing BENECO for the next 50 years as we renew our franchise,” said Cating.
Licoben’s return to the seat of GM was met with public support from the local government units of Baguio and Benguet, as well as MCOs of the province, many of whom rallied around Licoben during the power struggle.
Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong welcomed the appointment of Licoben as he urged everyone to “rally behind the legitimate BENECO leadership and allow the wounds of the past to naturally heal.”
“The appointment of GM Licoben puts an end to the leadership impasse that challenged BENECO these past years. It is our verdant desire that BENECO bounces back fully from temporary setbacks wrought by the crisis and retains its status as a power firm extraordinaire,” Magalong said.
Jefferd Monang, BENECO’s labor union president, also celebrated the return in a statement, citing the struggle that the union and the cooperative faced in the wake of the Rafael power struggle.
“The struggle was all worth it. We learned important lessons, and all the hardships we have gone through have further strengthened the bond and unity of all BENECO employees,” Monang said.