Celebrating Seaga at 85
The high-flying Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) official and renowned lawyer, Ian Ramsey, once famously said of Edward Seaga that "only his mother could love him". But he was wrong. I love Eddie Seaga.
I didn't always. In fact, I bitterly opposed him and his politics in the 1970s when he was adversary to my political hero, Michael Manley. I despised his reactionary role and what I considered his unpatriotism and vulgar pro-imperialism. He was an elitist who stood against the interests of the masses. I was young and misguided.
When I got to know him closely in the 1990s, I found that he was mischaracterised, at best, and demonised, at worse. It became clearer and clearer as I spent time with him and began to study his speeches from the days of the Legislative Council that we, as progressives, had done a gross disservice to scholarship and history by how we misrepresented him. Seaga was no elitist who was working against the interests of the black masses, but an unrivalled nationalist passionately and incalculably committed to the uplift of the black masses.
I was privileged to be part of a small group of friends and well-wishers who shared his 85th birthday dinner at The Jamaica Pegasus hotel two Saturdays ago. His physical movement has slowed, but his intellectual agility and wit have not. He told us Saturday night he was glad to be "85 and alive" (and so say all of us!), and that he was looking forward to being "89 and fine". He announced that he was moving into his third career, having reached the top in both politics (as prime minister) and the academy (as chancellor). He was now bored and seeking a new mountain to climb. And he was not joking: His energy is inexhaustible, his spirit indefatigable.
unmatched track record
In 1992, the esteemed Professor Carl Stone wrote of him: "I don't think there is any other national leader in the post-war Caribbean who has built and left as monuments for posterity so many institutions and so many new beginnings and so many new ideas in the sphere of public management. The list is awesome and formidable." The respected political scientist went on to say: "No other politician in this region can match that track record of institution-building and policy achievements ... . It is simply amazing how he found the time to get so much done."
The man who had put him in the political wilderness for such an agonisingly long period, P.J. Patterson, was on hand to pay tribute to his former political rival. And a fine tribute it was. P.J. said Seaga's contributions were undisputed and unquestioned, ending his tribute with, "Hail
the man!" as we all raised our glasses. It was a memorable night of tributes, including a touching one from Karl Samuda, who fell out with him noisily. Contrary to the propaganda of Seaga's being unrelentingly vindictive and unforgiving, Samuda said after not seeing each other for years because of the bitter fallout, when he was taken to Eddie's house, he was warmly greeted with, "How are you, Karl? What has been happening?" As though no time or friendship had been passed.
I remember having one of our many deep conversations many years ago and pressing him about why he was so untrusting and cynical about people, and so hard to get along with. He gave his usual slight, almost grudging smile, making a statement I will never forget: "It is not that I don't trust people. The truth is that I trust too much and too easily. The problem is when I give people my trust and they betray it, that hurts me deeply."
Seaga is also not as thin-skinned as many believe he is. Yes, he is irascible and cantankerous, but the view that he can't take any criticism is absolutely untrue. I have written very unfavourable things about him and especially his beloved Tivoli, and Seaga has never protested or even brought it up. Sometimes aides will try to incite him by saying, "Leader, you see what Ian wrote?" Seaga would simply brush it aside.
In Volume 2 of his autobiography, Edward Seaga: My Life and Leadership, Seaga published an entire column of mine, not excising the unfavourable parts. It is in his chapter quoting the speeches made in Parliament in 2002 when he retired from active politics after 40 years. I was flattered when he wrote this: "I will add to these only one other tribute because it was the most comprehensive of all the presentations and comments from anyone. This was from Ian Boyne, one of the more balanced columnists who built a reputation of high regard for the freshness of his thinking and the extent of his probes for revealed truth." That was good for my ego, but it says a lot about Mr Seaga, who said of my column that it "painted the most insightful picture of me, warts and all".
Let me give you an example of some of those warts: "Make no mistake about it, Eddie Seaga has enormous personal weaknesses. He has a messianic complex ... . His irascibility, tendency to abuse public officials and threaten people whom he disapproves of is unbecoming of a person of his stature. When P.J. Patterson said recently that 'Nobody has to be afraid of P.J. Patterson', those who have ears to hear know that those words could well have been thrown at Edward Seaga, for Seaga drives fear into people. Besides, Seaga has not done enough to rein in the criminals of Tivoli Gardens. This is one of his greatest failures of his 40 years.
"Even JLP people who are offended by this statement know there are some very dangerous criminals and terrorists in Tivoli Gardens and Mr Seaga, in my view, has not done enough to help the police to put them away. Instead, he has attacked the security forces unjustifiably and crudely and has used language unbecoming of a national leader in castigating the lawful forces of this country. There are times when he has put constituency interests first, and that is unforgivable."
Every time I have written about Seaga, I have deplored his role in the creation and sustenance of that mother of garrisons, Tivoli Gardens, and his own role in garrison politics in Jamaica. Nobody needs to lecture me about the failings of Edward Seaga. His sins are well known and well documented. It is his achievements that have not been lauded enough, though he himself is never shy to talk about them. I am not put off at all, for he exaggerates not.
Seaga was always way ahead of his time. As I read voluminously today about inequality and see how that issue dominates economic discourse globally, I recall Seaga's legendary 'haves and have-nots' speech of 1961. He was drawing attention to issues of inequality and marginalisation when it was not popular to do so. He was pushing black people's interests and black people's culture when those interests and culture were despised.
There is no Jamaican who has contributed more to this country in terms of institution-building and cultural and economic development than Edward Philip George Seaga. We can't praise him too much. We can't honour him too much. God has blessed him with long life so that he could document his own contributions for posterity and that he could make his life work available to us. As the great poet, W.H. Auden, wrote in his poem 'September 1, 1939':
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies
Yet dotted everywhere
Ironic points of light.
Edward Seaga has been one such point of light, shining magnificently in our lives; a remarkable human beam.
God has preserved his beautiful, brilliant mind and has softened his heart. He has been a priceless Jamaican treasure, a rebel with multiple just causes, a giant among mortals. Maas Eddie, fi wi love fi yu will never die. For you have lived for us, sacrificed for us, given up your American citizenship (paradise, for many) for us. My prayer is that you will, indeed, be fine at 89!