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Atlanta Black Star

Although the presidential commission of inquiry completed its task and published its report, the work of justice for Walter Rodney is not yet over. His family needs justice. The political context in which Rodney was murdered remains largely intact in Guyana. And the lessons of his killing should be the basis of international solidarity against the abuse of state power to silence dissent.

[This paper was delivered at the forum on October 12, 2016 specially organized by the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill Barbados under the theme: “Reflections on the Commission of Inquiry into the death of Walter Rodney: What next?”]

As I did when I spoke at Mona on June 16, I 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). This captures the context of everyday life in Guyanese society. This was true when Rodney entered the political scene as it is today. To capture or understand the essence of the murder of Walter Rodney, it is important for students, historians, the elites of all racial/political camps, and all others to recognize the fractured relations of suspicion and mistrust that characterize relations between East Indians and Africans in Guyanese society. The racial/ethnic political context is subsumed in the power structure and politics of Guyana. Any reflection on the Commission of Inquiry would be futile without reference to the fractured character of the exercise of state power.

It is an open secret that since 1960, state power in Guyana has always been under the control of one or the other major racial/ethnic based political parties in the country. Since the mid-1950s with the split of the promising national movement for independence of 1953, the population was schooled and hence socialized to accept the political status quo, wherein the two main parties’ base of mobilization became more and more racial/ethnic community based.

This division is referenced in the Commission of Inquiry Report as the ethnic fault line. Rodney entered the political arena in 1974 and joined with others operating outside the two ethnic based political parties - groups such as IPRA (Indian Political Revolutionary Associates), ASCRIA (African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa), MAO (Movement Against Oppression), WPVP (Working Peoples Vanguard Party, and Ratoon led by activists and leaders such as Moses Bhagwan, Eusi Kwayana, Brindley Benn, Clive Thomas and Josh Ramsammy, who had been challenging the structure of the racial/ethnic fault line through organized multi-racial public mobilization. These mobilizations included the establishment in 1973 of a joint commission to examine the race problem in the country.

Walter Rodney joined these struggles and spent his energies, both activist and academic, to help to bridge the racial/ethnic divide, which was important to national healing, and to development and transformation. The clarion call of the movement which he championed was “Peoples Power no Dictator,” and his work to help produce a multi-racial politics and political movement testifies to his long held philosophy that development and transformation of the society were only going to be possible when the people were united, and engaged in activities that helped to transform the political system.

His work against racism and in defense of the working people’s right to unite across racial/ethnic fault lines 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 equal dignity.

Walter Rodney was not only banned from Jamaica. His banning by the Jamaican government was followed up by the Guyana government who caused his appointment at the University of Guyana to be rescinded in 1974. Walter Rodney was not only an unwanted guest in Jamaica – his right to employment in his native Guyana was curtailed.

His right to equal humanity and full citizenship curtailed

A primary reason for his murder could have been the fact that he was an unwanted guest of a state whose basis over the people was challenged by his presence and by his message. This was confirmed in the report of the Commission of Inquiry. He was killed because he did not fit into the old political mold, wherein leaders accepted the colonial structures and wallowed in their power, 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 Guyana 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 permeated 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 called underdevelopment, could only be addressed through a new consciousness, through conscious discourses or groundings, and the rising of the working peoples to bring about peoples power.

The findings of the Commission of Inquiry

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. Time nor space does not permit me to completely address fully the role of state in repression. Time and space also do not allow me to address each finding. Hence, in order to give you context I stick to the following: the role and place of the imposition of party paramountcy, extra-judicial killings of political opponents, failure of the police to investigate and follow-up leads, and state collusion in the disappearance of Gregory Smith. These and other issues addressed by the WRCOI report give us a lot of food for thought.

Party paramountcy

The report discusses the role of the principle of paramountcy over the state – that is the fusion of the ruling party with the state, with the state subservient to the party. This was in force from 1976 and ultimately led to the requirement of a 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 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 the country, 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.

Extra-judicial Killings

The COI report concluded that the killing of Walter Rodney should also be understood in the context of other acts by the police against political opponents. For instance the extra-judicial killings by the police of two of Rodney’s 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 retorted 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. 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.

Incomplete investigation and failure to follow-up

  • 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 are 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 Defense Force Sergeant, as the person responsible for delivering the device which exploded killing Walter Rodney. Donald Rodney, the lone eyewitness to the crime, named the suspect Gregory Smith as the source of the explosive device which exploded and killed his brother Walter Rodney. In the face of what could have been investigated as a murder, and armed with a clear statement from Donald Rodney, the lone witness who in his statement described the threshold of the crime, rather than arrest and charge Gregory Smith, Donald Rodney was arrested and charged with the possession of an explosive device and persecuted for 36 years with a conviction for an offence of which he is patently innocent.

State collusion: Disappearance of Gregory Smith

  • Instead of arresting and charging the perpetrator Gregory Smith, agencies of the state facilitated his removal from the jurisdiction on the morning of June 14, 1980. Evidence to the effect was laid before the commission of inquiry, by the member of the Guyana Defense Force air wing who piloted the military aircraft that was used to move him into an interior location and subsequently out of the country into Cayenne (French Guiana) where he later died (WRCOI Report: 131-137).
  • State collusion is further corroborated by evidence laid before the commission from the immigration and passport control records which showed that the said Gregory Smith was issued with a passport in 1976, which was renewed on several occasions before a new passport was issued in 1999. It is important to note that the issuance of the travel document and its renewal occurred over the period 1980 and 1999, and spanned a period when the state apparatus was controlled by governments of both major political parties (PNC and the PPP) consecutively.
  • According to the documentary evidence laid before the commission of inquiry, not only was Gregory Smith issued with a valid passport. The said Gregory Smith entered Guyana legally “on more than one occasion” (Smith entered Guyana at Timehri International Airport on June 17, 1982 and departed June 28, 1982 - 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 were 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).

The report and findings of the Walter Rodney Commission of Inquiry is now publicly available and we welcome public scrutiny of the evidence and the findings. It should be scrutinized by everyone including keen judicial minds in Guyana, the Caribbean 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 political goals.

Background to the inquiry and the struggle for justice

The struggle for justice for Walter Rodney does not end with this report. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry which was announced on June 13, 2013 and which concluded with handover of the report in February 2016 arose in the context and background of the unanimous resolution passed by the Guyanese parliament on June 29, 2005. The resolution voted for by representatives of the PNC and WPA, and on which representatives of the governing party the PPP abstained, reads as follows:

WHEREAS on the 13th June, 1980 Dr. Walter Rodney, a distinguished Guyanese scholar and champion of the multi-racial working people, was killed by an explosion which occurred in his car at John and Hadfield Streets, Georgetown; AND WHEREAS there have been calls for a full and impartial investigation into the death of Dr. Walter Rodney, which have received local, regional and international support. RESOLVED, That this National Assembly, in paying tribute to the memory of this illustrious son of Guyana and on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of his untimely and tragic death, support an international enquiry being conducted without delay into the circumstance surrounding the death of Dr. Walter Rodney.”

The resolution of the Guyanese parliament in 2005 and the final decision to appoint or move to appoint the commission of inquiry resulted from the pressure from the Rodney family and from forces inside and outside of Guyana. 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. The fact is that after 25 years the party in power in 1980 voted in favor of a resolution for an international inquiry. But in the years after this historic resolution, the politics of opportunism and the hustle mentality of the old politics conspired to destroy the spirit of 2005. Between 2005 and today, the inquiry became a prime bargaining chip for three political parties, including the WPA – the party of Walter Rodney. The WPA for decades placed the unfinished business of the killing of Walter Rodney before its own success as an electoral party. To fully grasp the indisputable connection between the WPA and Walter Rodney, it is necessary that you pay attention to the findings of the report that addresses “ethnic fault lines” in the Guyanese society.

While this report is by far the most complete collection, interrogation and analysis of the evidence, it is nevertheless enmeshed in the knot of the old politics as evidenced in the continued locking of horns in Guyana on what to do about the findings. As we continue to consider the findings, we must remember that all politics is local. I will only briefly address a couple of issues of note in this regard. Firstly, it should be noted that appointment of a commission of inquiry in Guyana is provided for under the constitution that gives such powers to the President without any proviso to consult with other parties in the parliament. But the constitution does not prohibit consultation. In effect the Terms of Reference of the commission were designed by the ruling party at the time (PPP). As such the inquiry was overshadowed 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 fully in the process. While the PNC did not field any witnesses, several members of the WPA gave evidence under oath and were subject to complete cross examination by the full court. Others (Andaiye and Rupert Roopnaraine) submitted statements but did not testify. 

A second point of note is the deepened political atmosphere of mistrust which had developed 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 (under the PPP) one para-military group “the Phantom Squad,” was responsible for upwards of 200 extra-judicial killings. [2] This represented a massive explosion of the number of extra-judicial killing recorded under the previous administration. 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.

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 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.

But this case should help us to see the limitations of the Terms of Reference. Let me touch on one such limitation. The commission was given a narrow path: that is “to examine and report on the actions and activity of the state, such as the Guyana Police Force, the Guyana Peoples Militia, The Guyana Defense Force, the Guyana National Service and those who were in command and supervision of these agencies to determine whether they were tasked with the surveillance of and carrying out of actions and whether they did execute those tasks and carry out those actions against the political opposition for the period 1st January 1978 to 31st December 1980.” This is reflected in the findings.

But what about the administration of justice itself? Let me express our surprise and regret and disappointment that the COI did not make any finding on the case of Donald Rodney who has suffered judicial abuse for 36 years. We invite our legal minds to examine how the narrowness of the Terms of Reference affected for instance whether or not the government’s policy towards Gregory Smith as an agent and hence a servant of the state tasked with the killing of Walter Rodney affected the administration of justice. And further what bearing this should have on the unfinished business of this process, the nullification of the conviction of Donald Rodney.

The work of justice for Walter Rodney is not over. 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 activists 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. 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 end phase of the work. There are five aspects in this end phase of this work.

First, there must be justice for Donald Rodney.

Second, there must be justice for Pat, Asha, Shaka and Kanini – the death certificate must be rectified to reflect where the evidence has led, that is that Walter Rodney was murdered. These things are not beyond the expertise of Caribbean lawyers or the jurisdiction of the courts.

Third, in spite of disagreements among the political parties in Guyana on the report, it should be published and made available to the public – the report is the result of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry which spanned two Presidencies.

Fourth, the report should be studied carefully as a template of the excesses of state power, and the exercise of such excesses by political parties, with the view of finding and developing mechanisms that serve to limit the power of governing parties over state agencies in order to create a climate of fairness in the administration of justice. The report in our view is not something to be used internally against the misguided and misled people whom it condemns, nor should be regarded by them as a condemnation from generation to generation. Political forces should aim to rise above such excesses revealed in the report during their periods of tenure.

Fifth, the report is a challenge to all citizens of goodwill, led by those with the necessary conviction, to find ways of overcoming the ethnic fault lines in Guyana which were so easily detected by the Commission.

Finally, this report should serve to remove the political caste system that has prevented the full and free circulation of the scholarly contributions of Walter Rodney in the education institutions of Guyana.

* Dr. Wazir Mohamed is currently Associate Professor of Sociology, Indiana University East. He also coordinates the work of 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.

End notes

[1] Rodney was banned from Jamaica in 1968.

[2] Stabroek News, October 5, 2008 – Is the phantom squad still lurking in Guyana



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