|Dr. Walter Rodney|
GUYANESE AND people everywhere familiar with the old adage, “Better late than never”, may have welcomed the news out of Georgetown last week that, finally, there is to be a high-level independent probe into the circumstances surrounding the death of the internationally renowned historian and political activist Dr Walter Rodney.
Official announcement of a high-level independent Commission of Enquiry into Rodney’s death came last Thursday from the Guyana government, via Cabinet Secretary Dr Roger Luncheon, himself a veteran politician and medical doctor.
That announcement coincided with the 33rd anniversary of the death from a bomb blast in Rodney’s car on the night of June 13, 1980 in Georgetown.
It took the life of the best known, worldwide, Guyanese victim of state terrorism under the then dictatorial regime of President Forbes Burnham, who died in office six years later – at age 62 – from natural causes.
Author of the seminal work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Rodney was just 38 years of age when he fell victim to an assassin’s bomb.
In announcing establishment of the probe at a media briefing, Dr Luncheon conceded that “it will be an uphill struggle” for the Commission to come to a conclusion since “several suspected key players are no longer around…”
Those suspected “key players” as readers may be aware, are long dead.
Foremost among them would be the sergeant of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF), Gregory Smith (also known as Cyril Johnson). He was directly linked with the exploded bomb that was concealed in a walkie-talkie device.
Smith died years later from natural causes in neighbouring French Guiana a move which was facilitated by the Burnham regime less than 24 hours after Rodney was killed in the bomb explosion.
Largely through an original initiative of the well known Guyanese political/cultural activist and pan-Africanist, Eusi Kwayana, then also a leading figure of the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), a Coroner’s inquest was reluctantly established some eight years later under the presidency of Burnham’s successor, Desmond Hoyte in 1988. Like Burnham, Hoyte subsequently passed away.
In the absence of any serious effort to summon key witnesses and ensure availability of scientific evidence, the Coroner’s inquest had concluded Rodney’s death to have resulted “by accident, or misadventure”.
That verdict was greeted with cynicism and disbelief across Guyana but clearly satisfactory for the then ruling PNC’s political directorate.
Many years later, and despite efforts by the family of the slain Rodney, official initiatives for the extradition of Gregory Smith from French Guiana proved futile.
The administration of the now late president Jagan had posthumously awarded Rodney with Guyana’s highest national honour—Order of Excellence, but proved rather inactive in required vigorous pursuit of the circumstances of the historian’s death.
Amusing political voices
Nevertheless, whatever the eventual outcome of the now promised high-level Commission of Enquiry, it was quite amusing to learn of the haste with which voices within both the WPA—the party of which Rodney was the pivotal leadership figure... and APNU (the PNC in new clothing)—were anxious to embrace this development as announced by the government.
The voices were those of WPA’s Rupert Roop-narine, now deputy chairman of APNU, and David Granger, chairman of APNU. Their anxiety to welcome the coming probe sharply contrasts with the deafening silence of both political figures to the initial announcement back in mid April by the South Africa Government to posthumously honour Forbes Burnham with the prestigious “Oliver Tambo” award.
Public silence was the norm for what still functions as the PNC, as well as for its official replacement in parliament—APNU... and more surprisingly so for the WPA since the “news” broke in Guyana in mid April, and earlier abroad, that the government in Pretoria had decided to posthumously confer Burnham with the Oliver Tambo award.
The prestigious award is normally granted to foreign citizens who have distinguished themselves in expressing solidarity in its struggles against apartheid. Previous recipients from the Caribbean Community were the now late prime minister Michael Manley of Jamaica and president Cheddi Jagan.
A quiet postponement
However, in the face of persistent robust criticisms, via the international and regional media, some bitterly questioning whether the South Africa government was unaware of the circumstances of Rodney’s death under the then Burnham regime, was to result in a quiet postponement of the Tambo award ceremony that eventually occurred in Pretoria last April 27.
Throughout the raging debate, both the WPA’s Roopnarine and the APNU’s Granger—now political bedfellows... retained their conspicuous silence.
The dilemma would have been challenging for the normally eloquent Roopnarine, as he had shared the top leadership with Rodney at the height of a much sustained, vigorous popular national campaign against what was widely denounced as the “Burnham dictatorship”.
Along the way, however, with Burnham dead, and also his successor, Desmond Hoyte, a downsized WPA, functioning as a small component of a then dominant PNC parliamentary opposition, felt compelled to go along with PNC parliamentarians for approval of a motion to probe the circumstances of Rodney’s death.
That was only after a significant change in the text that made NO reference to his “assassination”...(hitherto the central theme of the WPA)...on that night of June 13, 1980 when he was blown apart by a bomb in his car.
The explosion was traced to an electronic device that had originated with someone who became known as a Sergeant of the Guyana Defence Force, Gregory Smith.
That was long before the current political dispensation with the WPA and APNU sleeping in the same bed. Now, the normally eloquent Dr Roopnarine, in welcoming the government’s decision to establish a commission of enquiry into Rodney’s death, has acknowledged that “it would not be an easy task…”
Hands ‘glinting with blood’
But back in June 1980, addressing a mass rally at Merriman’s Mall in central Georgetown, he had urged thousands of Guyanese mourning the death of Rodney “not to mourn but organise...”
Reminding them of the earlier knifing to death in broad daylight of the Roman Catholic priest and photographer, Fr Bernard Darke (victim of the House of Israel, a then major terrorist squad of the PNC), “brother”, Roopnarine had painfully observed:
“And today, over the dead body of our beloved brother, we say to the international community that the officials of this (Burnham’s) regime who come to you negotiating this or that; sponsoring this or that progressive notion, they come to you with hands glinting with the blood of Walter Rodney.”
Well, when South Africa announced the Oliver Tambo Award for Burnham, “brother” Roopnarine apparently lost his voice, while his APNU “comrade”, Granger, was understandably anxious to remain publicly detached from any response.
Now, they both applaud a very long overdue probe into the killing of Walter Rodney by a bomb planted in a walkie-talkie and involving then GDF’s Gregory Smith, a suspected agent of the PNC regime.
For now the Guyanese people and all who cherish the memory of the great patriot, renown historian, vigorous crusader for justice and freedom of oppressed people everywhere – Dr Walter Rodney – await establishment of the announced Commission of Enquiry.
But practical realism makes it necessary to advise, even “true believers”, to keep expectations for the truth to the very minimum .
After all, so much relevant evidence would have disappeared even before the subsequent deaths of very key political collaborators in the killing of Walter Rodney on the night of June 13, 1980.
(For an insightful read of the historian/political activist and his admirable contributions to Caribbean and African political and cultural developments, readers would find most useful Dr Rupert Lewis’ Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought, a publication of The University of the West Indies Press and Wayne State University Press, Michigan).