Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem reports on a week-long commemoration of the life of Walter Rodney, held in Guyana. Rodney was assassinated on June 13, 1980, but continues to be remembered for his principled politics, philosophy of human and self-emancipation, leadership by example and commitment to the masses.
On June 13 it was exactly 25 years since the assassination of the Guyanese scholar-activist, Walter Rodney. To commemorate his life the Walter Rodney International Commemoration Committee headed by Professor Horace Campbell and their local counter parts in Guyana organised a week long series of groundings across the country that culminated in the unveiling of a memorial plaque and opening of a public park around the spot where Rodney was assassinated on June 13 1980, by a remote controlled bomb.
The government of Burnham Forbes claimed that a bombing device he was carrying, allegedly to attack the central prison where some of the activists of his party, Working Peoples Alliance of Guyana (WPA) were being held, killed Rodney. This official lie could have turned his assassination into a perfect murder but for the fact that his brother, Donald, was with him in the fateful car and survived the explosion. A state security operative, Smith, was fingered as the perpetrator of the dastardly act. He was quickly spirited out of the country to French Guyana where he died a few years ago. The murder trail did not begin or end with Smith. Burnham Forbes regime and his party, the PNC, bears responsibility for the assassination and the cover up since then. It is sad that 25 years after the assassination and thirteen years since the PNC was replaced as governing party by the PPP no closure has been brought to the Rodney assassination.
The commemoration was not about Rodney's death but a celebration of his principled politics, philosophy of human and self-emancipation, leadership by example and consistent practice. It was also about Rodney's life-long commitment to the masses. Participants came from several countries and continents including the Caribbean, Europe, North America and Africa. Many of them were people who knew and worked with Rodney and others were those who were influenced by his writing.
Prof. Ali Mazrui was there as was Prof. Loxley. Both of them were at Makerere University when Rodney was at the University of Dar Es Salaam. In a very generous appreciation -despite ideological and political differences with Rodney - Prof. Mazrui paid tribute to Rodney and recounted with great humour and truthfulness the famous Mazrui-Rodney debate at the Great Hall of Makerere University, where for many years Mazrui was the leading academic.
Rodney's widow, Patricia, and their three children: Shaka, Kanini and Asha (the last two were born in Dar es Salaam) were there. Pat and her two daughters (one a medical Doctor and the other a human rights lawyer) were in Guyana for the first time since Rodney's assassination. Shaka (who is in business in Barbados) had been home before in the early years of the PPP government when he staged a hunger strike to force an inquiry into his father's assassination. The government did set up some commission, which soon fizzled out.
At the official opening, Dr Patricia Rodney gave a comprehensive appreciation of her late husband as a human being, imperfect but an ordinary man who did extra ordinary things. It was highly emotional to hear Pat sweeping through their trials and tribulations from Guyana to the UK to Jamaica to Tanzania back to Guyana in 1974 and leading to Walter's assassination 6 years later. The meeting recognised, applauded and saluted Pat's courage, determination and comradeship with Rodney. Often we treat our 'heroes' in isolation of their private lives and forget about their family lives and loves. Sometimes it is as if they died with the hero. Patricia was not just a wife to Rodney but a partner and comrade in arms. The way she has raised their children after his tragic death at a very young age of only 38 is a testimony to her fully shared commitment with Walter that a different world is possible.
For many Africans Walter's legacy remains his influential and seminal book: ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’. A book that was published when Walter was only 29 years old having secured his PHD at the age of 24! By whatever standard -whether professionally or politically - Rodney was an exceptional person whose influence will continue among all struggling peoples desiring a different world and working to make it possible.
In ‘How Europe Undeveloped Africa’ Rodney laid bare the historical process through which Africa became the mess that we see all around us. He established that there was nothing natural or God ordained about the processes. They were man made and therefore changeable by act of human will and determination. He showed how Africa developed before contact with Europeans through slavery (400 years) and colonialism (100 years); what happened under slavery and colonialism and how both led to Africa contributing to the development of Europe while Europe was under developing Africa in the same process.
Rodney was not just a brilliant academic but also a committed political activist who put his knowledge at the service of the masses wherever he was. He was a scholar who proved through his life that the true test of knowledge was a proven capacity for action. Whether in Jamaica where he began his academic career or Tanzania where he became internationally prominent or in Guyana where he returned (initially to teach but the government withdrew the appointment when he arrived) Rodney was part of all the struggles around him.
In Dar, which was then a centre of progressive ideas, Rodney was part of the ferment, supporting the struggles and at times offering critical inputs. He made friends and comrades of many leading radical intellectuals and liberation fighters of the time and influenced generations of students. I wonder though what Rodney would have said to some of his comrades like President Museveni, who have captured state power and instead of building socialism and a new society have made their peace with imperialism and free market.
Sadder still, what would Rodney have made of Tanzania of today where the term Ndugu is more out of jest than the camaraderie of the past, a place where Uhuru "now has a new name …..mobitel" as caricatured in a an advert for mobile phones I saw a few years ago on the streets of Dar.
When he returned to Guyana and he was denied his professorial post at the University he turned to independent research, publishing the first volume of his definite ‘History of the Guyanese Working Class’. He showed how whether Indian or African, the Guyanese workers were exploited first by colonialists and later successive ruling elites - be they African or Indian. From that analysis he sought a solution in building an alliance of workers across the race and ethnic divide. That was how he and other progressive elements formed the Working Peoples Alliance whose aim was social transformation of Guyana. That political stance and his popularity across the divides made him a number one enemy.
But the remembrance has shown that though Rodney is dead his ideas and example continues to live on. It was very symbolic that one of the highlights of the activities was an all-night cultural extravaganza, ‘Rhythm for Rodney’ which was held in Burnham's former house where he and his henchmen were waiting for the news of Walter's assassination on that fateful evening on June 13 1980.
The theme of the groundings was ‘A different world is necessary' but it is not only necessary it is possible. The people of Guyana and other Caribbean states simmering under not so hidden racial bigotry and sectarian politics need Rodney's non racialist pro-people politics; Africa needs his non mercenary scholarship and political commitment to the cause of the masses while the world need his message of love for all humanity and optimism about the capacity of ordinary folks supported by organic intellectuals and other progressives to change their conditions for the better.
In addition to many practical resolutions and action points agreed on the final day of the groundings, we adopted two important resolutions. Both of them were directed at the Guyanese people and government but those outside can lend their support through active solidarity. The first resolution asks that Rodney's contribution to Guyana be recognised statutorily by him being declared a national hero.
The second resolution supported the call by Patricia Rodney and their family for a closure to be brought to the assassination through an International Commission of Enquiry. Without truth there cannot be any hope of reconciliation. You can support these calls by writing letters to the President of Guyana or any Guyanese High Commission, Consulate or other diplomatic mission near you. You can urge your foreign minister or Heads of State/ Government to raise these issues with their Guyanese counterparts at various multilateral diplomatic forums where they meet. As another Caribbean radical intellectual activist, CLR James used to say: " There is always something that can be done". Keep Rodney alive by doing something today.
* Visit the Website of the Walter Rodney Commemoration Committee for full reports of the Groundings and also other groundings across the world and related activities:
* Please send comments to [email protected]