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Edward Seaga: Jamaica's architect

UNITY: Bob Marley joining hands of political rivals Michael Manley and Edward Seaga during the political war in Jamaica 1978

FORMER JAMAICAN Prime Minister Edward Seaga, who died on May 28 – his 89th birthday – shaped the progress of his country as pioneering music producer and then as political leader.

Caribbean Community SecretaryGeneral Ambassador Irwin LaRocque described him as a “towering figure” for Jamaica and the wider Caribbean, while current Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness called him ‘Pappa Eddie’ and had flown to his Miami bedside a week before his death.

As Jamaica’s fifth prime minister and subsequently as an elder statesman, Seaga was respected across Jamaica’s political divide. But he is probably best known to the wider world for the iconic 1978 photograph in which he is holding hands with his political rival Michael Manley (prime minister from 1972 to 1980 and 1989 to 1992) with Bob Marley in the middle.

Neither man looks happy in the famous photo, both weighed down by the tribal politics and violence in Jamaica at the time. Two years earlier, the war on the streets between rival political factions had led to an assassination attempt on Marley, who had been calling for peace.

An injured Marley held his Smile Jamaica free concert anyway and then spent two years in self-imposed exile in Britain before returning to hold the One Love Peace concert, where he invited Seaga and Manley on to the stage.

Later, in his 1981 funeral eulogy to Marley, Seaga described the singer as being “part of the collective consciousness of the nation”.

The turbulence of 1970s Jamaica is woven into Marlon James’ 2015 Booker Prize-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Edward Philip George Seaga was born on May 28, 1930 in Massachusetts, United States. His father was of Lebanese-Jamaican descent and his mother had Jamaican, Scottish and Indian heritage. His parents returned to Jamaica with the three-month-old Edward. His education included Jamaica’s prestigious Wolmer’s Boys’ School, Harvard and then research work at the University of the West Indies (UWI), which triggered his interest in music. Before being lured into politics by the founder of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP), Alexander Bustamante, the young Edward Seaga was a music producer. He set up West India Records Limited (WIRL) in the late 1950s.

STATESMAN: Edward Seaga

From this stable, talents including Byron Lee & the Dragonaires and Higgs & Wilson made their early recordings. But Seaga sold WIRL to Byron Lee when he entered politics.

On entering the political arena, he helped draft Jamaica’s constitution in 1961. In 1962, he was elected as the MP for the West Kingston constituency – a seat he held for 10 consecutive terms.

As minister for development and welfare, he oversaw many important projects, including the clearing of the notorious ‘Back-O-Wall’ settlement, once described as “the worst slum in the Caribbean”, and its replacement by Tivoli Gardens.

He also earned the gratitude of the Rastafarian community by having the body of ‘Backto-Africa’ political activist Marcus Garvey repatriated to Jamaica from the UK and reburied at a shrine in Kingston.

In 1974, he became JLP leader.

His elevation came during a turbulent period, as supporters of the JLP and Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP) literally battled for control from the mid-1970s to 1980.

Seaga’s election win to become prime minister in 1980 saw Jamaica move from a socialist path to a more conservative one, which won the approval and financial backing of US and UK.

He was one of the Caribbean leaders standing next to US president Ronald Reagan when he announced the American invasion of Grenada in 1983, following the murder of the island’s socialist prime minister Maurice Bishop.

By the time Seaga lost power in 1989, both the PNP and the JLP had moved to the centre ground, which governs Jamaica’s more peaceful and consensual political scene up to today.

After politics, he produced two volumes of political memoirs and researched Jamaican folklore, serving in an honorary research role with the UWI.

In 2015, he handed over nearly five decades of artefacts, correspondence, scrapbooks and clippings which have been dubbed The Edward Seaga Collection.

The current UWI Vice-Chancellor, Sir Hilary Beckles, described Seaga as “one of the principal architects” of Jamaica as a “dignified nation”.

For Jamaica’s 50th independence anniversary in 2012, Seaga worked on a compilation disc set with VP Records to mark 50 years of Jamaican music.

He said at the time that “politics took me away” from music.

Residents of Tivoli Gardens, part of his former constituency, had been preparing for a celebration of his 89th birthday when tragic news broke of his death at the end of last month.

Prime Minister Holness described Seaga as the leader who “presided over a period of outstanding national growth and development” for Jamaica.

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