DEATH POSTPONED: Seaga’s brush with bullets
‘Shooting deaths of 27 Tivoli residents the worst moment of my life’
This is the 22nd in a series on close encounters with death by Jamaicans, some of them in prominent positions of the society.
HE has been described by his supporters as fearless, brazen, the bravest prime minister that Jamaica has seen, and some scenarios in which veteran politician-turned-academic Edward Phillip George Seaga, 82, has found himself would, perhaps, add credence to that view.
But of the handful of violent incidents that have made the man who ran the nation's political affairs between 1980 and 1989 sweat profusely, the bloody showdown in Tivoli Gardens between police personnel and gunmen in June 2001 is the one that stands out for him.
Security forces had claimed that they had gone into Tivoli Gardens — the unofficial capital of the constituency of West Kingston — in search of drugs and guns, when they came under fire from gunmen in the area.
The police party, led by then Superintendent of Police Reneto Adams, was engaged in consistent gunfire with community enforcers and at the end of the confrontation 27 civilians were dead.
At the peak of the blazing gun-battle, Seaga put his life in danger as he entered the constituency that he had represented for over 40 years up to that time, in a bid to get a clearer understanding of what was happening and, he hoped, defuse tensions.
At one point, the outspoken Seaga said he felt that he would have been killed in the community that he had built virtually from scratch.
"I was exposed to some severe gunfire by security forces in Tivoli Gardens when I was touring along with Tony (Anthony) Abrahams (the now deceased former JLP government minister and talk-how host).
"Fortunately, none of the bullets found their mark. They hit the wall behind us, but it was a bit scary, because you didn't know who had the guns and what kind of persons were holding them," Seaga said.
In what was a highly publicised incident, Adams later told a commission of enquiry under cross-examination by defence attorney Ian Ramsay (now deceased) that Seaga had entered Tivoli Gardens during the shooting and offered him safe passage out of the area. Adams said he had refused, and told the former prime minister that he was doing the state's work and would not leave until his mission was accomplished.
Adams also said that the shooting was quelled while Seaga was in the area, but resumed apace after the then member of parliament left the community.
As subsequent reports showed, Seaga deeply mourned the deaths of his constituents, shedding tears as he expressed his outrage to reporters. To this day the memory of the actions of the security forces still lingers and to he has found it hard to let go of some deep-seated resentment.
"I have not forgiven the security forces. No, I can't. I can try to forget it, but 27 people? No sir," Seaga told the Jamaica Observer.
So deep are the wounds that the Distinguished Fellow at the University of the West Indies, and Chancellor of the University of Technology insists that the incident will go down in history as the worst thing that has happened to him and the people whom he represented.
"It was the worst moment of my life," Seaga said of the 2001 incident. "I have had no other experiences that have been so life-threatening," the sociologist added.
This comes despite a similar incident two years ago following a shoot-out involving men allied to former area leader and convicted drug and gun trafficker Christopher 'Dudus" Coke and the security forces — which resulted in the deaths of 76 people in the same community. The second incident, years after he had stepped down as parliamentarian.
Seaga said he had felt so protected in his own constituency that he never felt the need to bolster security around him whenever he went into the area.
"My relationship was so tight with the people, with everybody looking to you. You are really surrounded with people who have your interest at heart and nobody would dare to harm me within the community because they would draw so much rejection, because the kind of relationship that I had with my people was that they were like part of the family. I always called them extended family," he said.
That level of protection was not initially in place when Seaga first decided to challenge for the seat that would become his from 1962 to 2005, a period of 43 unbroken years when he was always on his feet, not even spending a day in hospital, in a show of energy that political analysts argue may never be demonstrated again by any other Jamaican politician.
The area that is now called Tivoli Gardens once held the name Back-a-Wall and was a scattering of slum dwellings. But the former Wolmer's Boys School student and Harvard University graduate transformed it within years of his elevation to the Jamaican Parliament.
But not everyone was in agreement with the planned physical changes and one man made it known to Seaga.
"Leading up to the 1962 general election, a man came up behind me and attacked me," Seaga recalled.
"I had been to the stations that served the Back-a-Wall areas and I was walking out in the company of a police inspector when the man came up behind me and punched me on the ear, which cut the ear.
"It wasn't serious in any respect, other than the cut, but it was an indication of what could happen, and I think it was intended to frighten me from being a candidate in 1962," he stated.
Since that incident few individuals were allowed to get that physically close to the veteran politician.
However, he was detained by People's National Party supporters in a polling cluster at Maverley, North West St Andrew, during the 1993 general election.
There had been reports of irregularities in the polling division, as the people decided between the incumbent JLP candidate Derrick Smith and the PNP's candidate Dr Jepthah Ford.
Seaga was detained for more than two hours at the Maverley School after it was alleged that persons travelling in his convoy attempted to remove five ballot boxes from the voting centre there. Reports at the time were that a large group of voters confronted Seaga and his heavily-armed bodyguards and denied them exit from the compound.
Tempers flared and police personnel braced for an escalation of the tension. The crowd grew boisterous and demanded that the JLP vehicles be searched for the ballot boxes. Soldiers on the scene closed the gates and surrounded the compound with Seaga still inside. Jamaica Defence Force helicopters hovered overhead with military reinforcement while a deployment of police arrived from the Mobile Reserve unit. PNP President Portia Simpson arrived on the scene and defused tensions in the end. Seaga was released upon the intervention of a team of policemen, which included the legendary Cornwall "Bigga" Ford.
The director of elections did not count the disputed votes in the particular polling division, resulting in a 29 per cent voter turnout, the lowest in the history of the constituency, with Smith (2311) prevailing by 81 votes over Dr Ford (2230). There were 15,492 persons registered to vote.
Seaga's bravery — although some political critics called it stupidity at the time — was again demonstrated at a nomination centre at Kingston College's 2a North Street campus at the height of the 1989 general election campaign, his last year as prime minister.
He headed a team of JLP supporters that turned up to nominate candidate Olivia "Babsy" Grange, his protégé, around 11 o'clock, when a group of PNP supporters also came on the scene in support of their candidate, former Kingston Mayor Ralph Brown.
Within seconds, both sides got into a fracas and the limited police and army personnel at the scene grappled with bringing things under control.
In a last-ditch effort to bring stability to the process, the security forces started firing a barrage of shots that lasted around 30 seconds, and as supporters of both sides, journalists and election officials scattered and took cover, Seaga boldly kept walking around the school, oblivious of the danger unfolding so close to him.
The man who was born at the Evangeline Boothe Memorial Salvation Army Hospital in Boston, USA, who came to Jamaica at three months old, still jokes about that incident today.
"I always say if you can hear the gunshots you are OK; it's when you can't hear them that you are in trouble," he remarked.
In the end, Brown won the election with 7,627 votes to Grange's 5,758 votes.
Seaga, though concerned that crime in the western end of the capital city has the potential to get out of control again, does not believe that it will reach previous levels.
"There are some signs that it is beginning to happen, that crime will run away again, but I would think that it wouldn't reach the stage that it was before. With a lot of the leaders of gangs out of the picture, most of them are leaderless, or have leaders at a smaller level, so you are not going to get too much planned activity of that sort.
"When I was there I was able to manage the situation by virtue of just having a status that was very well respected. People wouldn't do what they knew I didn't want them to do and if they did they knew that I would bring in the police. I invited the police to come in, but they never did. I don't think that there is any fear of things going back to where they were in that area," Seaga predicted.
These days, the most revered political leader of West Kingston, who started West India Records — later renamed Dynamic Sounds after he sold it to Byron Lee — does not get too involved in the political affairs of the constituency, as he readily admits that there is a new Member of Parliament (Desmond McKenzie), whom he described as one of the youngsters who came up under his tutelage and has since honed his skills.
Aside from being head of the broader Premier League Clubs Association, Seaga remains president of the Tivoli Gardens Football Club, as well as head of the basketball and netball clubs in the division, continuing a legacy in sport from the days when he represented Wolmer's in seven sports, and played five while he studied at Harvard later.
How would he like to be remembered in West Kingston?
"The people always ask me this question and every time I have to think about it, because I was in the area as someone who was there to uplift the people. That was my first goal, and in doing so, the standard of living has improved.
"When you look at Tivoli Gardens, it's a model exercise of urban renewal and if the bad elements hadn't eventually carried on their criminal activity over there, it would be a model that people would come here to see, because it had every facility you can think of and those facilities are what the people needed.
"So I was to a certain extent a caregiver and to another extent a planner for their future and their children's future and I certainly was a developer, because I developed the whole of Tivoli Gardens and that part of Denham Town which we were able to remodel into a modern type of facility," Seaga stated.