Sat | Jan 19, 2019

Martin Henry | Grading Edward Seaga fairly

Published:Sunday | March 4, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
Edward Seaga, former prime minister and one of Jamaica's most polarising politicians.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness (left) and Dr Andrew Energy Minister Dr Andrew Wheatley (right) join Edward Seaga after the Petrojam Ltd headquarters was renamed in Seaga's honour on February 22.

Edward Seaga, like his great political opponent Michael Manley, has always been a polarising political figure.

No sooner had his protege, Prime Minister Andrew Holness, announced that Mr Seaga was to get further special honours for his contributions to Jamaica than two letter writers appeared side by side in this newspaper, one to 'Praise Seaga for service to country', the other to argue, 'Seaga not deserving of any honour'.

Mr Holness was lauding Mr Seaga at a ceremony to name the Petrojam Corporate Office Building the Edward Seaga Building.

It was the Edward Seaga Government of the 1980s that bought the Esso Oil Refinery from its private-sector owners in 1982 when the Government rejected a requested price increase and the transnational company, wanting to pull out of the country, offered to sell. Mr Holness, in the heat of the moment at the Petrojam function and not a man generally detained by historical accuracy, described Mr Seaga as "the father of the Jamaican nation, in every sense".

Whether Edward Seaga is the cow that kicks over a rather large pail of milk is worthy of close and objective analysis side by side with that other 'milking cow', Michael Manley.

Mr Seaga has taken no chances with history, as most other national leaders have taken, and has written his own glowing two-volume autobiography for which a high-powered microscope is required to find any admission of fault or failure. The Seaga autobio must, of course, be read by any serious student of contemporary Jamaican history alongside other available records and in the light of lived experience.




Alexander Bustamante, much lampooned by his detractors as a simple-minded, unlettered buffoon, had an uncanny gift for spotting and picking top talent to complement his own limitations. Bustamante plucked a young Seaga, a Harvard graduate in the social sciences, out of the obscurity of folklore research and backroom campaigning for his Jamaica Labour Party for the lost 1959 general election and appointed him to the Legislative Council at age 29. The youngest appointee ever.

Seaga was appointed, from the Legislative Council, to the JLP team for the drafting of the Independence Constitution after Jamaica pulled out of the West Indies Federation through the 1961 Referendum. Mr Seaga is the only surviving member of that bipartisan, bicameral Constitution Committee.

Seaga contested the West Kingston seat for the JLP in the 1962 general election and beat 'Burning Spear', Dudley Thompson, QC, of the PNP, in a violence-marred election campaign for a constituency that included 'Dungle', an area Seaga has graphically described then as the 'rectum' of the city of Kingston. Bustamante had earlier fled Western Kingston for Southern Clarendon, and another of his sons, Hugh Shearer, had lost the seat. Mr Seaga held Kingston West for 45 years, having organised it never to lose it.The organising of most of Western Kingston as a JLP garrison is regarded as one of the biggest blots on Mr Seaga's political career.

Bustamante made the then 32-year-old Edward Seaga minister of development and welfare, one of the youngest ministers in Jamaican political history. With the passing of Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Donald Sangster in 1967 and the ascent of Hugh Shearer to the prime ministership, Seaga was made minister of finance and planning. From his sick bed, Sangster had commissioned Seaga to present the 1967 Budget while he went off to Canada for neurological treatment for the stroke that ended up killing him there.

Both ministries allowed the preferential channelling of state resources for the transformation of Dungle into Tivoli Gardens, which was to be a model community for 'development'. In his famous 'Better Must Come' first Budget speech after winning the 1972 general election, Michael Manley pencilled out the vast differences in expenditure on "vital services" like training and cultural programmes between Western Kingston and neighbouring constituencies: Central Kingston (PNP), $13,000; SW St Andrew (then JLP), $7,000; but Kingston West, $203,000 - $7 per capita in Mr Seaga's constituency versus 12 cents in next-door SW St Andrew, Mr Manley calculated!

Western Kingston had the first state of emergency in independent Jamaica as political violence there reached unprecedented levels for the times. The Seaga vision of a utopian 'Garden', culturally rich and economically productive, failed to materialise. Instead, a zone of political exclusion and criminality emerged that could mount the single most significant paramilitary challenge to the independent Jamaican State in 2010.

The letter writer who is dead set against any further honour for Mr Seaga, whom he describes as "one of the country's most destabilising persons", cites declassified CIA "details of their work with Seaga to oust and discredit the Manley government".

The 18-year overlap of Seaga's leadership of the JLP and Manley's leadership of the PNP (1974 when Seaga became JLP Leader, 1992 when Manley retired as PNP President) contains the most polarised, violent, and bloody period of Jamaica's modern political history from 1944. The 1980 general election when Manley and the PNP were ousted in one of the largest political routs since universal adult suffrage with the heaviest voter turnout and the largest margin of victory, was the one time that the electorate called upon Mr Seaga to lead the country. Subsequently, Edward Seaga became a stubborn handicap to his party's chances of victory at the polls.

So we have declassified CIA reports on engagement with Mr Seaga and the JLP. What we will not have any time soon, under present circumstances, is any counterbalancing declassified documents from the government of communist Cuba detailing Manley-PNP clandestine engagement with, support from, and tutelage under the Castro regime. Lived experience certainly recalls the Brigadista Programme, the presence of large numbers of Cubans in the country, off-the-record traffic between both countries, and the Manley pledge to walk hand in hand with Fidel to the mountaintop. The meeting and clashing of Cold War foes in the milieu of 1970s ideologically polarised and violent Jamaican politics is the real story to dig out.

Nobody, absolutely nobody, counting Norman Manley (pre-Independence), Bustamante (pre- and post-Independence), Michael Manley, and the longest-serving prime minister, P.J. Patterson, has a longer, more diverse, or more distinguished list of nation-building contributions than Edward Seaga.

Seaga is one of the makers of the Jamaican Constitution. As minister of development and welfare, he presided over the crafting of the Jamaica Independence Development Plan, 1963-1968; introduced Festival and later on National Heritage Week, supported Jamaican music, arts and crafts, and culture; repatriated the body of Marcus Garvey and made him the first appointed National Hero. He was the conceptualiser of the 100 Villages Programme for model rural development even while he was building urban Tivoli Gardens out of Dungle.

Seaga led currency decimalisation in 1969 as finance minister. Among his institution-building legacy are: JAMPRO, the Jamaica Stock Exchange, the Students' Loan Bureau, the National Development Bank, the Ex-Im Bank, the Self-Start Fund and Solidarity. Others are the Urban Development Corporation, Metropolitan Parks and Markets, Petrojam, Things Jamaican, and the Cultural Training Centre.

Edward Seaga created Jamaica Journal in the '60s, the HEART Trust/NTA in the '80s, established the Memory Bank, and built the beautiful Jamaica Conference Centre on the Kingston waterfront. He established JBC TV and then the Creative Production and Training Centre.

As leader of the Opposition, he was a linchpin, and very possibly, the initiator (by his own account) of the Electoral Advisory Committee, turned Electoral Commission of Jamaica, which has progressively converted the country's electoral system from fraud, violence, and corruption to a clean, fair, and peaceful one.

Less distinguished on the international stage than Michael Manley, Mr Seaga was a key architect of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, a Reagan-era trade pact with the United States in a counter-strategy of economic diplomacy. The hard data unequivocally show that the Jamaican economy has posted more growth at the times that Seaga served in government as minister or prime minister.

Mr Seaga substantially damaged local government in misguided efficiency reforms; and he did not do enough to rein in political violence, which has subsequently fed the general criminality that is consuming the country. Flawed leader, flawed human being from whom mea culpas are certainly due, but a monumental nation-builder. The fair-minded and fearless among us will have to continue doing the balancing act. And time will tell a fuller story.

NOTE: A JLP Government headed by Mr Seaga's political son has reappointed him, just two months shy of his 88th birthday, as chancellor of the University of Technology, Jamaica. The university is my substantive employer.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and