Unity, Reconciliation, and Truth: Leadership imperatives for a divided nation

Minister of Finance Nigel Clarke has taken (what I regard as) an untimely and unwise decision to place the images of former Prime Ministers Michael Manley and Edward Seaga on a new $2,000 banknote.  At present, the image of Michael Manley appears on the $1,000 note and Seaga appears on none. The entire process involves cancelling all existing banknotes and issuing new ones in their place (using material that is less susceptible to forgery).  In the process all deceased Prime Ministers and National Heroes will be featured.  

Minister of Finance and the Public Service Dr. Nigel Clarke

One of the rationales advanced by the government for twinning images is that there would not be enough denominations to accommodate one image on each note.  Another rationale is that co-locating leaders from the same era is consistent with supporting the narrative of the Jamaican as a united nation at age 60.

Reactions to the decision to co-locate Manley and Seaga have been predictably strong, with a seeming majority of those commenting, opposing the idea. Many opponents also appear to be members of the Opposition PNP as well as some family members of Manley.

The government has sought to present the decision as a lofty move, arguing among other things that it is a way of seeking to heal and unify the country, given the deep-seated and long-standing divisions through which the country lived in the contentious years of the Manley-Seaga era of 1972 to 1989.

Unity is desirable but not so!

The goal of unity is, at face value, desirable and helpful when it bespeaks the absence of strife and the diversion of scarce resources to quell violence and hostility among communities as well putting an end to the undoing of national programmes and policies which serve the national interest.  But unity is not possible without truthfulness, transparency, accountability, and justice.  Declaring unity in the absence of these virtues makes a mockery of the notion.

The government’s claim is that given the hostility which characterized the 1970’s especially, and to a lesser extent the 1980’s, a sign that we have moved past that, as we celebrate sixty years as an independent nation would be the Manley-Seaga $2,000.00 note.  The thinking behind this reasoning is, in my view, juvenile, insincere, irrational, dishonest, and above all counterproductive.

… if unity were the objective of the action, the fact that it is causing division is a solid reason to change course.  Unity cannot be forced, decreed, ordered, imposed, or created on a whim.

Let us examine the issue of counterproductivity.  Minister of Finance, Nigel Clarke simply needs to ask himself whether the response to the proposal / decision suggests that it is serving to bring people together.  The evidence is overwhelmingly the opposite. Thus, if unity were the objective of the action, the fact that it is causing division is a solid reason to change course.  Unity cannot be forced, decreed, ordered, imposed, or created on a whim.

Unity requires truth-telling

The 1970’s were as violent as they were in large part because of major ideological differences and the thirst for power.  The activities of the CIA in Jamaica in the 1970’s, and specifically its efforts at toppling the Manley administration, were not because of a fear of communism as was claimed then. Rather, the activities were about keeping the assertive Jamaican citizen in check, as recently released congressional papers of the USA have shown.  The actions were partly racial and partly political.  Manley was believed to be creating a conscious Jamaican and the thinking was that if he were successful, then the USA would have greater difficulty effecting control of Jamaicans.  But presenting the issue as such would be politically incorrect, so the communist “threat” was created.

To successfully combat Manley’s attempt at education and raising consciousness, an internal foe was needed, and the CIA found should a person in Seaga.  All the elements of the CIA’s playbook were in evidence, particularly in the period 1976 to 1980:

  • Fomenting internal strife
  • Food and fuel shortages
  • Arming / funding the Opposition
  • Freezing diplomatic relations
  • Using the media
  • Cutting off access to credit
  • Weakening of the local currency
Frankly, in my view, the simpler option is to allow time to heal, and we move on.  The pretense at unity with the banknotes will simply irritate wounds which have been healing.

Seaga was front and centre of these tactics and we have not had a serious and honest dialogue on what he, along with foreign interests did to our country.  Rather there has been a grand effort to sanitize his legacy and to project him as a great hero, while there have been deliberate mischaracterizations, of Manley’s contribution such as when Prime Minister Holness dismissed the efforts of the 1970’s a “misadventure”.  We are yet to have a reckoning with the truth, and unless and until that is done, the idea of a banknote with the images of the leading political foes of the time is simply ridiculous.  We cannot wish the ugliness away.

I readily acknowledge that despite the collusion with the CIA in which Seaga was involved he did make some meaningful contributions to Jamaica’s development, but the latter cannot be made to overshadow the other. For those acts, many of which Manley documents in his book Jamaica: Struggle in the Periphery, there ought to have been a conscious set of conversations towards healing before attempting to paper over the past with a banknote.

If Minister Nigel Clarke desires real healing, he needs to face the fact of the mess. Frankly, in my view, the simpler option is to allow time to heal, and we move on.  The pretense at unity with the banknote will simply irritate wounds which have been healing.

Government’s several process blunders

The decision to place images of Manley and Seaga on the same note was apparently discussed with (some) members of the families.  Manley had five wives and several children.  From media reports, it is safe to infer that his fifth wife was consulted.  The leadership of the PNP was consulted, the very party Manley led for twenty years.  (He was longer wedded to the PNP than he was to any of his wives!) At least two of Manley’s children, from separate marriages, and his fourth wife have come out strongly against the decision, and those who know Manley well know he would have been livid at this decision. 

New Proposed $2000

So, I ask Minister Clarke three simple questions:

  • Do you think there is a place for respecting the wishes of those other family members of Manley?
  • Given that building unity is your stated goal, should not the views of the PNP be taken on board?
  • Do you not risk creating greater disunity within the country and even among the family members by this decision?

Twin with Hugh Shearer

Shearer’s strength was not so much his ability to solve problems but his adeptness in preventing them

If the government is persuaded that placing two images on each note is either necessary or inevitable, I ask: Why not twin Manley with Shearer, both of whom were real friends?

One of the lessons I learnt from the life and leadership of Shearer, a lesson which was mediated to me via a political mentor, is that Shearer’s strength was not so much his ability to solve problems but his adeptness in preventing them.

It is said that after 1983, the year Seaga called a snap election, using a voters’ list he had promised Manley and the country he would not use, Manley never spoke with Seaga directly again, but spoke with him through Shearer.  At Manley’s funeral, Shearer shared a quote from his last conversation with Manley who was at the time a few days from death.  The quote was about Manley asking Shearer to take care of something for him ( I do not recall the details).  In those final days of Manley’s life, visitors were restricted but apparently his close friend Shearer was among the selected few allowed to visit with him. Twinning with Manley with Shearer is, in my view, a wiser idea.

Lessons for leaders

There are times when leaders must push people they lead, beyond where they are.  But there is a place for leaders to listen to the people and take the people’s collective wisdom into account.  In the end the question the government must ask is: What is the win it seeks, and what does that win look like?

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