Edward Seaga — the man who could have been great

Edward Seaga — the man who could have been great

Ewin James is a freelance writer living in Florida, USA. Send comments to the Observer or eroyjames@aol.com.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

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I had often thought and said that if you woke up Edward Seaga at any hour of the night he would have at least 10 solid plans to improve Jamaica. That's how loyal to the country and so cognisant of its needs was he.

It may be that Jamaica has never had a leader as prescient and competent as Edward Seaga. And he put those qualities to good use — for his accomplishments for this country are nothing short of monumental. Time and space and knowledge won't allow me to list them all. I can only mention a few:

His research into music and his discovery of many people who later became noted musicians, and his recording of many popular Jamaican songs; his founding of a record label, West Indies Recording Limited (WIRL); his research into folk culture of the rural people in Jamaica, when he lived among them; and his virtual 'fathering' of people like Olivia “Babsy” Grange and Desmond McKenzie to become servants of Jamaica.

But it was in the areas of politics and economic affairs that Seaga gave unmatched service to this country, pioneering many programmes and institutions and assisting in the development of others. Among them the Urban Development Corporation (UDC); Jamaica Citizens' Bank; Jamaica Stock Exchange; the decimalisation of the Jamaican currency; the Jamaica Unit Trust; the Jamaica Mortgage Bank; National Development Bank; Agricultural Credit Bank; Agro 21; HEART Trust/National Training Agency; the development of Back O' Wall into Tivoli Gardens; Jamaica Conference Centre; the one-million trees programmes.

These accomplishments, occurring while being the longest-serving Member of Parliament in Jamaica and the Caribbean — 43 consecutive years, eight of them as prime minister — have made Seaga a man to be lauded after almost 90 years on Earth. These gifts have come from a man who deeply loved his country and was convinced that he had a rendezvous with destiny to do all he could to improve it. I hope history will be kind to him.

But, for all these, I do not think, as many people do, that he was a great man. I will tell you why.

From what I have heard and read about him there was a dark side to him. He was, at times, prepared to stop at very little to further his and his party's success. And he is alleged to have allowed others to use the gun to entrench him and his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) in power.

Before I go to that I will remind us of two of his most despicable and provocative utterances and threats: “Blood for blood and fire for fire”, and “I will mark my 'X' in PNP [People's National Party] blood.” Whether these were threats to be carried out or just bombast from a political platform, they revealed a mind prepared to employ brutality to achieve its ends. No wonder the great statesman of unimpeachable morals, Norman Manley, is reported to have said of young Seaga, “Something evil has entered politics in Jamaica.”

To his everlasting credit, Seaga created Tivoli Gardens out of the slum called Back O' Wall in west Kingston, but to his discredit he made it the prototypical garrison in Jamaica to assure JLP power and to terrorise surrounding communities, especially those of the JLP which showed any uncomfortableness in remaining in the fold. For most of the 40 years that Seaga ruled Tivoli it had a cohort of gunmen who seemed untouchable to the security forces, which necessitated overwhelming force whenever the police or the army attempted to rein them in. Such force occurred under Reneto Adams and later in the attempt to capture Tivoli strongman Christopher “Dudus” Coke.

In the 1980s, a policeman who worked at Denham Town Police Station told me that as long as Seaga ruled Tivoli the gunmen in there would be safe. For whenever any superintendent or police officer came to Denham Town and showed any determination to straighten out Tivoli he would be summarily transferred, sometimes far away to rural Jamaica. He told me that the boys from Tivoli would walk past the station and taunt the head of it saying, “Wi soon transfer yuh, bwoy.” So said, so done. He even told me that the then superintendent there was worried; for though he had recently come, he had been told he would be transferred to Westmoreland. Paul Buchanan, in an article titled 'Seaga, the misunderstood architect', said of Seaga that, in response to the PNP communities around him, “Seaga created a fortress-like organisation with an aggressive cohort, ready to pounce at the slightest attempt at any incursion on his territory.”

Reneto Adams said that in the war in Tivoli, in July 2001, as he and his men fought the criminals who pinned them down with superior weapons, one day the firing suddenly stopped and a vehicle arrived. Out came Seaga. He offered Adams and the officers with him safe passage if they called off the operation. Rightly, Adams refused, whereupon Seaga re-entered the vehicle and it drove away; the battle resumed in earnest. Think of that: A government representative offering the lawful security forces safe passage if they would leave criminals alone. What power and acquaintance did Seaga have with these gunmen that they would stop firing as he approached and resume after he left, and would have stopped altogether had he called them off?

Seaga was also thought in some quarters to be a mightily vindictive and insecure man. He drove out of the JLP men of any strength and emasculated others. Wilton Hill, Robert Lightbourne, Ronald Irvine, and Ian Ramsay were a few. Bruce Golding didn't wait to be run out. He left on his own. Heather Robinson of the PNP alleged that on Seaga's orders she was prevented from working in her government job for two years.

And Seaga was said to have been determined to silence the late John Maxwell for criticising him and contesting the Kingston Western seat. Maxwell wrote in an article in the Jamaica Observer in 2005 that, “I have never been forgiven for that (a criticism of something Seaga had written). Seaga values his enemies, and I am for him... for him perhaps the oldest and most pestilential.” He said in the article that Seaga, in 1962, demanded that the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation ( JBC) fire him, and intimidated the chairman of JBC, who agreed that Maxwell should be dismissed. The board caved and dismissed him. It is said that thereafter Maxwell couldn't find a job in his field in Jamaica and had to go to England for five years to find work so he could eat bread.

So, as we mourn Seaga's passing and consider and commend his achievements, let's not make his death, and the urge it brings to be kind to the memory of the departed, lead to a gush of sentiment and platitude that covers all truth. Let us remember them as we remember the good. And, further, let us learn from them that all men are fallen.

I believe that some of the good and evil that Edward Seaga did are not known to the mass of the Jamaican people. Only time, should it oblige, will reveal them. But time may not, as is the case of many Jamaican politicians who have preceded him in death. Many of Seaga's misdeeds will be interred with his remains. On this score, for me, he wasn't a great man. Shall I be forgiven though for saying this?

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