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He did not fit into racial/ethnic politics of his day

The renowned radical scholar-activist was murdered 36 years ago because he did not fit into the old political mold, where leaders accepted the colonial structure and wallowed in its fineries, especially the misuse of the machineries of state to silence dissent. His death reminds all progressive people of their responsibility to organize and resist the abuse of state power.

[These remarks were delivered at a forum on June 15, 2016 specially organized by the University of the West Indies to examine the theme, “The Assassination of Walter Rodney in Guyana: Reflections on the Commission of Inquiry Report.”]

This is an important week in the calendar of all freedom loving peoples. This week we commemorated 36 years since Walter Rodney was assassinated by the Guyanese State. Let me open my presentation today with a quote from the final paragraph of the report of the Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry (WRCOI): “the ethnic divide in Guyanese society constitutes a fragile fault line…many of the recommendations contained herein assume the existence and maintenance of a sense of ethnic harmony” (WRCOI Report: 155).

When Walter Rodney entered the political and national arena in Guyana, he was conscious about this fault line, and vowed to spend his energies, both activist and academic, to bridge this divide – he saw this as an important means of bringing about national healing in order for transformation to begin towards bridging the widening gap that continued to pauperize the working people. His work in defense of the working people was not limited to Guyana. In Jamaica he grounded with the working people and this led to his banishment in 1968.[1] In Africa, he was active on the side of the liberation forces fighting against racism and the structures of colonial domination. Further afield he became engaged with ethnic minorities and with migrant communities in Europe and North America who were fighting for the rights to equal dignity.

He was assassinated because he did not fit into the old political mold, wherein leaders accepted the colonial structures and wallowed in its fineries, especially the culture of misuse of the machineries of state as a means to suppress adversaries. As brother Eusi Kwayana in a recent interview with the Stabroek News (June 5, 2016) remarked, Rodney “contended in power and delighted in it, but he was not a contender for power.” This is what made him special: he did not seek legitimacy through competition and contention for power with the post-colonial leaders. None of them, those in power and those in opposition, were happy that he was not willing to play footsie with them on their turf and in their court. He believed that we needed a new politics wherein the people could contend and compete in order to transform class politics as a means of whittling away at the embedded structures of inequality that permeate post-colonial societies in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia; and in the racial/ethnic post-colonial enclaves of North America and Europe. He was convinced that these deep-seated divisions, which he coined underdevelopment, could only be addressed through a new consciousness, through conscious discourses or groundings, and the rising of the working peoples to bring about people’s power. He was assassinated because he did not fit into the acceptable court of everyday politics.

According to the findings of the Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry, Walter Rodney was assassinated by the Guyanese State on June 13, 1980. The conclusions reached by the three-person panel of eminent Caribbean Jurists were handed over in the final report into his murder to the Presidency of Guyana on February 9, 2016. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry which was announced on June 13, 2013 arose in the context and background of the unanimous resolution passed by the Guyanese parliament on June 29, 2005. Prior to 2005, two succeeding governments did nothing to investigate or appoint a commission of inquiry.

The final decision to appoint or move to appoint the commission of inquiry resulted from the pressure from forces inside and outside of Guyana. An important point to note is the fact that the parliamentary resolution arose in the backdrop of the mobilization in and out of Guyana of events to commemorate 25 years of the assassination on June 13, 2005. It is necessary that we underscore the importance of sustained public and international pressure which helped to produce the decision to mount the inquiry.

From the outset of the campaign in June 1980 for an impartial international inquiry into his assassination, our intention was to uncover the political, economic, social, and cultural context that framed the final act. In clamoring for an inquiry over the last 36 years, we never wavered in our intention as to the reason for the investigation. It was with this background in mind that the Justice for Walter Rodney Committee was established in April 2014 after the government announced the formation of the Commission. The justice committee brought together the core grouping of activists from Guyana with activist and interested Caribbean and global individuals, institutions and groups. We could not have reached this juncture without the active participation and involvement of people paying close attention. The justice committee served the purpose for which it was established. We helped to popularize the inquiry in and out of Guyana. As a pressure group operating on the ground in Guyana and across the globe, we helped to keep the commission on task through direct and timely communication, all of which were publicized. Our task and role was sharing timely information that was publicized in the press in Guyana, the Caribbean and across the world. Further to that, several of our members gave material and direct evidence in their appearance before the commission, which proved invaluable to the work.

Now that the report is public, our work does not end. We are now entering the second phase of the work. Before I engage the task ahead it is necessary to share some insight into the local political context within which the inquiry itself was enmeshed. Remember all politics is local. I will only briefly address a couple issues of note – these will be fully fleshed out in an upcoming statement that would detail the Justice for Walter Rodney Committee’s assessment and analysis of the commission’s report.

The inquiry itself was held in a political atmosphere where the major political parties in the opposition felt that the terms of reference were designed by the government to afford it political advantage. In spite of their opposition, the two major contending political parties, the Working Peoples Alliance, and the Peoples National Congress, appointed lawyers who participated in the process. A second point of note is the deepened political atmosphere of mistrust between a combined opposition and the government that foreshadowed the proceedings of the inquiry. A third point of note is the deteriorating situation in the country marked by wanton misuse of the state and the facilitation of new privileged groups, the growth of illegality and corruption, the increasing tendency to use state agencies and resources in the explosion of unrestrained extra-judicial killings. In many of the post-colonies extra-judicial killings have become the norm. In Guyana for instance, a country with less than one million people, between 2002 and 2006 one para-military group “the phantom squad,” was responsible for upwards of 200 extra-judicial killings. [2] In looking at the report we have to think about context and the culture that arises and which over-time becomes normalized. This takes me to what we have learnt from the commission of inquiry report, and the task ahead.

The task ahead: The role of the university

The Vice Chancellor, professors and departments at the University of the West Indies must be commended for taking this bold first step in the process of discovery and education of the public of the circumstances that led to the killing of Walter Rodney. There are many lessons to be drawn from the report, but I intend to concentrate on the section that addresses the wanton misuse of state resources and state agencies by politicians and political parties to silence thought and action. Before touching on the section of the report that addresses this sickness as it played out in the killing of Walter Rodney, I cannot help but bring attention to the continued misuse of powers by politicians today right here is Jamaica, in South Africa, in Kenya, and in Honduras to name a few places. Recent killings of environmental activist Berta Caceres in Honduras, and political activist Courtney Crum Ewing in Guyana bring home the gravity of the depraved old political culture Walter Rodney eloquently discussed, addressed, and for which he was killed. [3]

Time nor space does not permit for me to completely address fully the role of state in repression. Hence, I would stick to the report itself. The report gives us a lot of food for thought. It discusses the fusion of the ruling party with the state, that is the imposition of the ruling political party and the culture of paramountcy of the party over the state and all aspects of life after 1975 – which ultimately led to the demand or the requirement for the pledge of loyalty of trade unions, religious organizations, civic institutions, state security agencies (the police, the army, paramilitary forces), and the judiciary to the party. This ultimately led to open rebellion, what WPA (Working Peoples Alliance) called the civil rebellion. This was accompanied by the suppression of workers’ rights, the suspension of collective bargaining, and the suppression of people’s right to access to food, subversion of the rule of law, suppression of rights to free speech, curtailment of freedom of the press, and to assembly. To police its ability to manage the ensuing rebellion of the populace, and in the background of Venezuela’s threat to 2/3 of Guyana and the bombing of the Cubana airlines off Barbados in 1976 which killed 11 Guyanese, Guyana was militarized. In a small country of less than one million people there was a six-fold increase in military expenditure between 1973 and 1976.

This was the climate within which Walter Rodney was murdered. He was an actor in a political atmosphere, where the rule of law was systematically subverted by the ruling party. He was actively engaged and involved in political discourses and groundings regarding restoration and enlargement of the rights of the people which had been usurped by the ruling party. The killing of Walter Rodney was the culmination in that period of extra-judicial killings by the police of two of his close political associates, Ohene Koama and Edward Dublin. On this score the commission pointed out that extra judicial killings were “of large significance” (WRCOI Report: 56). And further on these and other incidents, the report recorded that “there is no evidence that any suspects were held in relation to any of these deaths or any serious investigation made” (WRCOI Report: 59). The report is clear on lack thereof or incompleteness of police investigation and failure to follow-up leads.

Incomplete investigation and failure to follow-up

To fully understand the systematic subversion of the rule of law and the collusion of the state in the killing of Walter Rodney, and the subsequent attempt to cover-up the crime, attention must be placed on the evidence laid before the commission and the conclusions drawn by the commissioners from such evidence. A significant chunk of the report addresses directly the police investigation and their failure to follow-up. Contained within 3 out of the 10 files provided by the police to the commission (7 files were unaccounted for and presumably missing) on Walter Rodney is the report of Dr. Frank Skuse, a forensic scientist attached to the British Home Office who was brought to Guyana by the government to carry out forensic tests and assist the police in their investigation. In spite of Skuse’s findings that the device that exploded in Rodney’s lap “could have been detonated by ‘receiving an external radio signal at the appropriate frequency,’ (WRCOI Report: 73) there was no follow-up by the police. This is in spite of the fact that Skuse had identified the frequency as 151.025 megahertz. The report further pointed out in this regard that although Skuse had indicated willingness to follow through on his findings, no attempt was ever made between 1980 and the time of the inquiry to facilitate such follow-up.

The incompleteness of the police investigation was compounded by the failure to arrest and charge Gregory Smith, and the involvement of the state security agencies in his disappearance from the country. This was after Donald Rodney had identified Gregory Smith, a Guyana Defence Force Sergeant, as the person responsible for delivering the device which exploded killing Walter Rodney. Rather than arrest and charge Gregory Smith, facilities (aircraft) of the Guyana Defence Force were used to move him out of the country into Cayenne (French Guiana) where he subsequently died (WRCOI Report: 131-137). Further to that, the commission received evidence that the said Gregory entered Guyana legally “on more than one occasion” (WRCOI Report: 147) between 1980 and the time of his death, and the police made no attempt to arrest him. Further the commission received testimony that the police and passport office was acting on the direct instruction of the Commissioner of Police. Based on such evidence the report concluded that,

“In the end it is clear to us that the police were unprofessional, extremely inefficient in turning a blind eye to the obvious, or deliberately botched the investigation in Dr. Rodney’s killing or were complicit with others, including the GDF in hiding or shielding Gregory Smith from facing the brunt of the law for having murdered Dr. Walter Rodney” (WRCOI Report: 142).

Aftermath: Where do we go from here?

Now that we know the conclusion of the report that is,

“Given all the relevant facts, events and circumstances set out in the report, we unhesitatingly conclude that Gregory Smith was not acting alone but had the active and full support, participation and encouragement of, and/or was aided and abetted by the GPF, the GDF, agencies of the State, and the political directorate in the killing of Dr. Walter Rodney” (WRCOI Report: 142).

The question for us is what we do. Do we see this as a moment, or is it part of a culture, part of a pattern of increasing politicization and militarization of the state? This is not only about Guyana. State sponsored violence against dissent is growing in the post-colonies. From all the evidence available on the political deterioration and growing inequalities between the political ruling classes in the post-colonies, it is incumbent on us to use this report not as a moment, but as an example to shine light on the misuse of state power very close and very far from us.

Finally, in conclusion, let me say this report is now partially public and it should be scrutinized by everyone including keen judicial minds in Guyana, Caribbean, Africa and beyond. We look forward to healthy debate and engagement because from our view this is an indictment on the nature of the state and the way power is stingingly exercised by rulers in favor of those who support them in their short-term goals of survival.

* Dr. Wazir Mohamed is Associate Professor, Sociology Indiana University East. Dr. Mohamed coordinates the Justice for Walter Rodney Committee, a global watchdog group that educates and shares information on the Commission of Inquiry into the assassination of renowned historian and political activist, Walter Rodney. Prior to becoming an academic, Dr. Mohamed was one of the co-leaders of the Working Peoples Alliance, the political party of Walter Rodney. He was thus heavily involved and served as a social and political justice activist in Guyana in the formative years of his life.



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