When Wavel Ramkalawan was elected president of the Republic of Seychelles on Sunday, October 25, the priest-politician became the first opposition candidate in 43 years to lead the East African island nation. 59-year-old Ramkalawan has been the leader of the country’s Seychelles National Party since 1994 when it was founded and the party’s candidate in the last six presidential elections.
He is now the fifth president of the island after defeating incumbent Danny Faure of the United Seychelles party by 54.9% to 43.5%. This is Faure’s party’s first defeat at the presidency since 1977 when it came to power through a coup d’etat.
On June 5 in 1977, the founding president of Seychelles, James R. Mancham, was in London for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and Commonwealth Summit when a plan back home to oust him materialized. Mancham was overthrown in absentia in a bloodless coup by prime minister France-Albert Rene. The coup was carried out by the members of Seychelles People’s United Party (SPUP) which later became known as Seychelles People’s Progressive Front (SPPF).
Rene, assuming power, created a single-party socialist state and though sources say he had a strong vision for Seychelles that included free education and healthcare, he was also accused of leading a regime characterized by abuse, unsolved deaths and harassment of citizens.
In fact, during this period, the only institutions that could speak out against the abuses were the Catholic and Anglican churches as the media was censored. It was during this same time that Ramkalawan returned from studies at Birmingham University in the U.K. to serve in an Anglican parish near the largest city, Victoria, after being ordained in 1985.
It was while serving in the Anglican parish that Ramkalawan decided to enter into politics. He explained in an interview that while at the parish, he came into contact with people who were suffering under Rene’s regime, and realized he had to help.
“Being a politician was not a job I wanted to do, but seeing so many abuses while being a priest, I had to do something to change the abuses happening in Seychelles,” he said in the interview.
The youngest of three children, Ramkalawan was born in Mahé, the principal island of Seychelles. He grew up in an Anglican family with his grandfather being an immigrant from Bihar, India.
Pursuing his primary and secondary education at Seychelles College, Ramkalawan then headed to St Paul’s Theological College in Mauritius for his theological studies. Five years after being ordained as a priest, Ramkalawan would gain fame for his powerful 1990 sermon on the national radio station criticizing Rene’s regime.
Historians say that sermon, which demanded equal opportunities for citizens and respect for human rights, piled pressure on the regime to return the country to multi-party democracy. By late 1991, Seychelles had returned to multi-party rule.
Ramkalawan at the time had joined other activists in forming the Parti Seselwa, the republic’s first registered alternative party which would later merge with scores of other opposition parties to form the Seychelles National Party in 1994.
Ramkalawan was elected to the National Assembly in 1998, representing his local constituency, St. Louis, in the legislative body until his recent election as president. October’s election was his sixth attempt at the presidency, after having come close to victory so many times. Indeed, Ramkalawan contested against candidates of Rene’s Seychelles People’s Progressive Front in each presidential election since 1998, and even lost by only 182 votes to the SPPF candidate in 2015.
“A winner is a dreamer who never gives up,” he recently said of his previous defeats, quoting Nelson Mandela. Affectionately called “Father” by his supporters, Ramkalawan, who took a sabbatical from clerical duties in 2005 but still a priest in good standing, called for national unity this week during his inaugural speech.
“Let’s do away with vengeance, hatred, and anger and remember that we are one nation, one where there is no discrimination regardless of the colour of your skin, race, religious beliefs. We are all Seychellois and we all have a place in our country which is Seychelles, where we can all make a valuable contribution,” he said.
Located northeast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, Seychelles is an African island nation with some of the world’s most spectacular beaches. The country consists of 115 islands, all of which are surrounded by magnificent beaches that serve as a major tourist attraction.
Ramkalawan is expected to initiate measures to boost the country’s tourism and provide the foreign currency needed to revive the economy that was hit hard recently by the pandemic. Ramkalawan, who has promised to raise the minimum wage, said his government will spearhead a strong anti-drug campaign to eliminate drugs in the country.
“I appeal to all drug traffickers to stop destroying our country and our youths,” said Ramkalawan. The new president is however against the “Assumption” deal made by former President Faure to hand over a remote island to the Indian Navy as a base.
The Assumption Island is close to a UNESCO world heritage site that is home to the world’s largest population of giant tortoises, according to Seychelles media. Analysts are optimistic that there will be fresh talks between Ramkalawan and India over the island, considering his grandfather came from Bihar, India.