Former President James Michel testifies before TRNUC | 06 November 2019
Former President James Michel was among those who were heard by the Truth, Reconciliation and National Unity Commission (TRNUC) yesterday.
Speaking via video link to tell the commission what he knew about events surrounding the coup d’etat, Mr Michel who is in Abu Dhabi due to personal commitments, said: “The coup was necessary to bring about fundamental changes in the country at a time when there was no social justice, where the majority of land was owned by some 50 privileged land owners while the majority of the population was living in abject poverty, the class system was still evident because the coalition government was not bringing the necessary changes. I am proud of my involvement in the process.”
Mr Michel told the commission that his testimony was of his own free will and volition, with no hidden agenda and no coercion and to clear his name.
“I am not afraid of the truth. I have nothing to hide – despite widespread lies and rumours being spread on social media,” he told the commissioners in his opening remarks.
Mr Michel said it was not his intention to make any statement as everything he knew he has stated in a book he has written entitled ‘Distant Horizons’ which is in the public domain and readily available to the public.
He clarified that contrary to what is being said that he had been summoned on three occasions through letters sent to him by the Commission, he affirmed receiving only one letter on August 25 to which he replied before leaving the country. The Commission’s chairperson, Gabrielle McIntyre, confirmed that the letters were dispatched to his office even though he did not receive all of them. She also clarified that the letters were to ask him to participate in the hearing process and not in any way summoning him to do so.
Asked to clarify some issues related to the coup, Mr Michel said on that night he was accompanied by a driver and he had parked at the then The People’s printing house situated next to the cemetery at Mont Fleuri, waiting to be called to the Police Mobile Unit (PMU) which was situated a short distance away (at the former Police Forensic building).
“But before being called, we heard gun shots at the PMU and decided to go and see what was happening. I was instructed to take cover under the apple tree which is still standing today. There were shots being fired and a tracer bullet came flying a few centimetres from my right ear and landed into the apple tree.
I had a Walkie Talkie with me and my role was to report my observations directly to the leadership, namely former President France Albert Rene and Dr Maxime Ferrari, both of whom were at the latter’s residence at Val Riche.
“At no point did I have a gun on that night. Pictures showing me with a gun were taken later as I explain in my book ‘Distant Horizons’ which was published in 2010 and is in public domain. In fact I explain in great length everything I know and my involvement in the coup,” Mr Michel said.
Answering questions on his knowledge in the death of Davidson Chang Him, Mr Michel explained that he was not present at the incident and was not privy to the circumstances surrounding his demise. He said he was not aware of any search for him earlier during the day but he was subsequently informed when he returned to the headquarters at the Central Police Station that Mr Chang Him, whom he knew affectionately as ‘Son’, had been killed at the Central Police Station.
Mr Michel said the death of Davidson Chang Him, Berard Jeannie as well as all the other lives lost were unfortunate and regrettable and they should not have happened and that he was deeply saddened by all the deaths.
With regard to alleged disappearances of persons, Mr Michel told the commission that he has never participated in any such act and it was never discussed with him.
Asked if he was ready to ask the people of Seychelles for forgiveness of the events that happened, Mr Michel said he has no excuse to make to the people of Seychelles because the changes that happened were necessary but he regretted those events that have hurt and aggrieved some people.
Mr Michel has said he is ready to come before the commission again if necessary.
Meanwhile both Ms McIntyre and the vice-chairperson of the commission, Michael Green, have said that Mr Michel was genuine in his testimony.
Ms McIntyre said with regard to events surrounding the coup he may have not been aware of all of them as he was young and probably he was made aware of only what he needed to know.
Mr Green for his part stated that the important thing is that there has been a start and there are things which are still a bit vague but it is important and essential that this interaction continues.
He said the commission is happy that Mr Michel has agreed to testify again in the future.
Cases of land acquisition
Meanwhile Patrick Lablache, a former key official in the ministry of lands during 1977, also appeared before the Commission yesterday morning.
He had been called back to clarify two cases of land acquisition by the State. One was in relation to Parcel J881 situated at Bel Ombre. Keneth Sherwin alleges that the plot belonging to his father was unlawfully acquired by government on August 11, 1988 and the compensation paid was inadequate.
As for the Parcel 0705 situated at Anse à la Mouche, Julien D’Offay alleges unjustified compulsory acquisition of the plot on February 2, 1977.
Soona Oliaji and son Darius share their experiences
Soona Oliaji and her son, Darius, were the first to appear before the Commision in its afternoon session. She recounted how she came to Seychelles from Bombay after marrying her husband who was a shareholder in the Temooljee company and came to Seychelles in 1957.
She recounted her family’s role in the copra business at that time and the setting up of the copra stabilization fund which amounted to between R1m to R2m to subsidise copra producers when prices of copra went down below the economic rate. She said at the time of her husband’s death she was a member of the copra board and Suleman Adam was the chairman and there were also producers and exporters on the board. The fund was paid for by the levies on copra exported for the benefit of producers. She says she would like to know what had happened to the fund, she talked about the children’s society of which she was the chairperson, the setting up of the first creche something she continued to run together with the family business as well as raising her three children after her husband’s death in 1968. She also talked about her family’s friendship with Albert Rene and Richard Mancham families stating that there was nothing political in their friendship and the country was calm and life was normal. She recounted the independence celebrations on June 29, 1976 when the British flag came down and how life went on as normal after independence.
Her husband died in 1968 and Mr Rene was her legal representative, advisor and friend while his wife, Geva, was her friend as well as she was the head teacher of Seychelles Teacher Training college, patron of children society and they would meet for tea and discuss various issues related to children. Mancham and Companies were the competitors in trade with Temooljee but they were all friends.
She recounted that the night before the coup, June 4, when a delegation of Air India including its manager was in the country and she was invited to dinner by Mr Rene who was PM but his wife Geva was not there and she found out that she had gone to Paris with Mrs Ferrari and then came Jacques Hodoul without his wife whom he said had gone to Silhouette. I found that really strange that all the three wives were absent and here I was with the three men discussing among themselves how things were being done badly in the country. The following day she said she was invited to a cocktail as well as a dinner. She left the cocktail early to attend the dinner and met Mr Rene who was also leaving the cocktail early. He told her he had an urgent work to do that night.
“I did not question his urgent work,” Mrs Oliaji said. She went to the dinner but went back home at Mont Fleuri opposite the hospital and it was well past 11pm. I was changing in my night clothes when I heard gun shots, something which I had never heard before. I put on my dress, got into my car and went to see what was happening I went to the Mont Fleuri Police Station, where I found half a dozen policemen sitting on the small wall outside, some in shorts and casually dressed and they told her that a white Vauxhall car with six men with guns had gone up to the armoury.
“You see gunmen going up the armoury why didn’t you inform the central police station? The telephone is not working they said and she offered to take them to to the Central Police Station in her car but they urged her to go home to her bed.
She left to go to the Central Police station and on the way down the road was clear and everything was calm.
At the police station she was about to step out when she saw a huge tall dark man in army camouflage uniform who pointed a gun straight at her. But from the back somebody’s hand whom she could not clearly see put the gun down.
“I got back into my car and left meeting some people on the streets acting as though nothing had happened and I started to doubt my own senses and very confused,” she recalled.
She talked to her neighbour, an Hodoul and she recounted what had happened and together they went to phone the police commissioner whose phone was dead. She phoned a security officer, Mr Stone, whose phone was also dead. “Another Mr Pragassen his phone rang but he did not pick up, I phoned Mr Rene his phone rang but he did not pick up. I phoned Cable & Wireless to report the happenings and gun shots.”
She said she was agitated after she had seen the man with the gun and she believed there was a foreign invasion so she phoned the airport and the girl who answered told her everything was quiet but while talking to her she said an army vehicle was coming with army personnel.
Dr Ferrari was the last person she phoned and he too advised her not to worry but to go to bed. It must have been around 2am. The following day she received a phone call from a friend who asked her to switch on her radio where she heard about the curfew which had been put in place but a friend told her that it was a coup. There was marshal music and messages asking people to stay calm and there was no other news about what was happening in the country.
It was only in evening that Albert Rene came on air to state that he did not know anything about the coup or what was happening but that he has been asked to take over.
“I was irritated because I knew he knew very well what was happening because he had left that cocktail early to do some urgent work.’’
Mrs Oliaji recounted how about 4 o’clock that day Claude Vidot, an army commander whose daughter was friend with her daughter, sent a message through her daughter asking her to stay indoors and to follow orders. He stated that everything was in the hands of our friends and she must be careful not to venture outside as there are people who don’t know her and might shoot her if she ventured out.
Two days later soldiers came to her house to ask her to open the shop to take some provisions especially oil and other food items. She said life went on after the coup as nobody could do anything and people had accepted the situation.
She recounted details of their property on Alphonse and how she went there via D’Arros to play host to the President when he visited with his family.
She said she had her first insight into how Mr Rene worked. Guy Morel was with him and they would often talked together.
“But most often he sat there gazing out, thinking, and I was always busy with the manager talking about work on the island. Mr Rene never went anywhere near where work was being carried out on the island he just walked around. His sons Glenny and David went fishing and tried to shoot wild goats. He talked to his wife and Mr Morel and I wondered what he was thinking, planning and I never thought he was plotting against me.”
She said Alphonse was beautiful, developed with cottages, a well kept island with its beautiful lagoon, coconut trees and well protected by cedar trees.
“I don’t know how they said we neglected the island so they took it over from us that I cannot say but this is how it was in 1977 when I last saw it. It was never mentioned that it was going to be acquired but I knew something was being planned.”
“In 1978 the first thing they did was stop private practice by doctors and private rooms at the hospital. Doctors packed their bags and left.
“In early 1979, my second daughter finished school and wanted to go for further studies. I took her to the US where I remained for two months. When I came back I learnt about the creation of the NYS (National Youth Service).”
From there her son Darius recounted how Mr Rene imparted to them his vision about the NYS and how he explained everything to his mother who told him that this was like a military camp where they will be brainwashed as it has happened in other places.
Mrs Oliaji went on to recount events at a meeting that Mr Rene held for parents to announce the creation of the NYS and how the parents questioned the idea, the concerns that they voiced especially for their children who will be away from home and without supervision. She also recounted how Mr Rene became so angry and red in the face before storming out of the meeting with his officials. The mother and son then recounted the events that followed and how the school children protested in a fun way from the Seychelles College down to State House asking that the idea for the NYS to be scrapped and how the children’s protest degenerated days later to become violent involving adults. A counter demonstration in support of the NYS idea was organised and Darius Oliaji explained how in the furore her mother was arrested and taken away as many people watched and people hit her with their banners and how she panicked thinking of what could happen to her.
She was taken to the Central Police Station where she was received by Commissioner James Pillay before eventually being released after Mr Pillay received a phone called and asked her to leave his office.
Mrs Oliaji went on to recount all the difficulties she went through afterwards including how she had to send her son to school abroad because she feared for his safety, how she could not take him to the airport because her friends had warned her she could be arrested. It was a friend who took her son to the airport.
She explained that she could not leave the country even though her children wanted her to because her family had so many interests which she started to sell. Parker & Oliaji was sold to Jean Dingwall and became P&J company, Coraline the touring company was sold to TSS before being later bought by the present Creole Holidays. There remains only Temooljee’s.
She wanted to move out of her house at Mont Fleuri because it was too big and insecure in view of the situation in the country so she agreed to sell the house and property for R1 million to the nuns of Regina Mundi who had been asked to move out of Regina Mundi Convent which the government had ordered the closure as well as the school for girls there. But the government said the property was not worth the money as the house it said was infested with termites so she lowered the price to R800,000.
The Oliajis moved to their smaller house at Beau Vallon.
She wanted to visit her children in England in 1981 and she went on to recount the difficulties she encountered with the authorities which slapped a bond on her stating she had not paid adequate estate duties following the death of her husband some 13 years before.
She was asked to pay something like R3 or R4 million so she could not leave the country because she could not pay the tax and she had no lawyer because her former lawyer had become the president of the country.
Her auditors took up the matter with the tax officers and they came to an agreement as to how she would pay the bond before she could leave for England.
While there she learnt that all her properties except for the Temooljee shop were taken and she was not paid a cent in compensation.
She was already back in 1993 when there were discussions surrounding the return of private properties and it took two years before her Beau Vallon property was returned to her and she had to pay for that. She went on to recount how she fought and is still fighting to get back the rest of her property.
Mrs Oliaji went on to recount all the difficulties and problems she encountered while doing business at that time, she talked about the bad business practices that were taking place in the country, the seizure and sale of the different Seychelles hotels among many other matters related to the business and financial environment, the 2008 devaluation of the rupee among many other related issues.
Sylvia Morgan talks about how she lost her husband, Gilbert Morgan
Meanwhile Sylvia Veronica Morgan, the wife of Gilbert Morgan and Derek Morgan his adopted son, recounted how she lost her husband after only a short time of married life and the son who was only five years of age recounted his loss and how he and his siblings missed their father and did not know and understand what was happening around them.
Mrs Morgan and her son talked to the Commission via video link from Canada.
Mrs Morgan recounted how her husband disappeared that ill-fated evening of February 1977 after he said he was going to have a drink with some friends at the Reef Hotel but he never came back.
Mrs Morgan said she met her husband while he was working as a contractor on the Reef Hotel and she was working as a trainee receptionist at the hotel.
She gave a tearful testimony of her ordeal and that of her young family after her husband disappeared and how her children suffered and how her family is still suffering.
The two welcomed the opportunity to talk openly about the sad event of their lives expressing the hope that those who know what happened to Mr Morgan that night will eventually come forward and tell the truth. They expressed their gratitude to the commission and everyone working to help them bring closure to this sad chapter of their lives so they can heal better.
The Commission resumes its hearing today.