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Walter Rodney

By Zinul Bacchus

As Guyanese celebrate 32 years of independence from British rule and freedom from nearly 28 years of fraudulent government under the Peoples National Congress (PNC) which ruled Guyana from 1964 to 1992, the name of Walter Rodney is remembered immediately. This is so because he not only struggled against colonialism and imperialism but also was equally opposed to local dictatorships, many of which replaced the colonial powers, with their support, as was the case with Guyana under the PNC. In this short article, I wish to pay tribute to one of Guyana’s heroes and martyrs who was assassinated in a dastardly act on June 13, 1980 by the then PNC dictatorship. This murder deprived not only Guyana, but also the rest of the Caribbean, of one of its most brilliant sons who swept the region like a hurricane, and left an indelible mark on its history.

Scholar and Revolutionary
Walter Rodney was born in 1942 in Georgetown, Guyana where he attended Queens College before moving on to study at the University of the West Indies (U.W.I.) in Jamaica. In 1963, he graduated with a B.A. degree in History, and in that same year enrolled for a Ph.D. degree at the University of London, England. In 1966, just after completing his thesis on a History of the Upper Guinea Coast, Dr. Rodney commenced a two-year teaching assignment a the University of Tanzania in Dar-es-Salaam. In 1968, he returned to U.W.I. as a lecturer in African and Caribbean history. By this time, he had already identified with the cause for social and economic justice by poor and oppressed people in Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere. He was convinced that academics, especially in developing countries, had an urgent responsibility and obligation to share their knowledge and experience with the masses. Furthermore, he understood the relationship between theory and practice, and recognized that academics themselves can only formulate valid theories and offer reliable advice if they, in his own words, saw with the eyes of the people and heard with the ears of the people. Walter had no doubt that there was an abundance of wasted talent among the poor and oppressed masses, and he argued that, apart from the personal frustrations experienced by these people of the Caribbean, or any other region, could not afford to allow this talent to go to waste without jeopardizing the development of the society as a whole.

In his determination to struggle against exploitation and oppression Walter Rodney organized among Jamaica’s poorest people. His work was having such a tremendous impact that less than one year later, he was banned from re-entering Jamaica while attending a writer’s conference in Canada. At that time (1968-1969) Liberation Movements were sweeping Africa, Asia and Latin America; the U.S.A. was experiencing opposition to the Vietnam war at home and abroad; and the Civil Rights movement was gaining ground also. Having ‘lost’ Cuba already, the U.S. Administration was not prepared to tolerate any form of liberation in the Caribbean region which it regarded as its backyard, especially at that time when the Cold War was at its peak. Every Caribbean government understood that, and since Walter Rodney was viewed as a revolutionary in Washington, D.C., many other Caribbean governments banned him from their countries before he even expressed an interest in visiting. Realizing the extent of persecution in store for him in his own region, Walter returned to Tanzania to resume teaching at the university there. Fortunately, he had already written "Groundings With My Brothers" which served as an inspiration to those he left behind.

During the next six years, while still at the University of Tanzania, Walter traveled extensively throughout Africa, Europe, Asia and North America. He wrote many articles in academic journals, newspapers and other media. He also delivered many lectures at various universities around the world, but he became especially famous for his book "How Europe Underdeveloped Africa". In 1974, Walter Rodney made the decision to give up a highly successful academic career to be involved in the liberation of his homeland from the bondage that the PNC dictatorship, headed by Forbes Burnham, had imposed on the Guyanese people. The years, which followed this brave and selfless decision until his murder in 1980, formed an important part of Guyana’s history, and there is little doubt, if any, that the work of Walter Rodney had the most significant impact on the Guyanese peoples’ struggle for democracy and freedom between 1974 and 1980.

Arrival in Guyana
Before Walter Rodney made his decision to return home, the Burnham dictatorship had already shot Dr. Joshua Ramsammy in an attempt to assassinate him, attempted to kidnap Dr. Clive Thomas, and victimized Mr. Mohammed Insanally by terminating his contract. These were all academics at the University of Guyana. Also, Arnold Rampersaud of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) headed by Dr. Jagan, was already in prison and on his way to becoming one of Guyana’s best-known political prisoners. It was clear that the PNC regime was becoming more intolerant of any form of opposition.

While still in Tanzania, Walter applied for a position at the University of Guyana, and was offered a Professorship in History, which he accepted. However, when Burnham heard about this, he bullied the relevant authorities at the University to rescind its decision to appoint him. Notwithstanding this, Walter returned to Guyana with his wife Pat and their three children, unsure of any source of income. It was obvious that he was not to be intimidated by persecution.

On his arrival in Guyana in 1974, Walter became active immediately. He spoke at public meetings and organized education programs free at his home. His deep sense of justice crossed racial barriers. He recognized that Guyana is a multi-cultural country, but that ethnicity was a real problem. He articulated the view that Guyana’s ethnic diversity was an integral part of its richness, and that what was required was genuine respect for the various cultures and the freedom of all citizens to live without fear of victimization.

Working Peoples Alliance
Although Walter regarded Dr. Jagan as a freedom fighter, he did not join the PPP primarily because he felt that the PPP was, rightly or wrongly, tainted with the feeling that it was a party that represented Indo-Guyanese interests mainly. He realized that the PNC was manipulating Afro-Guyanese by exploiting their racial insecurities to maintain itself in power and that Guyanese of all races were suffering as a result of their corrupt government. He was convinced that the Guyanese people were in desperate need of a truly national government that was acceptable to all. Walter was adamant that, while he was prepared to work with all forces opposed to the dictatorship in forming a national unity government, the PNC did not qualify. On this issue he found himself isolated from the PPP’s position which argued that the PNC had progressive individuals, and that the party would be included in a national unity government. This troubled Walter since he acknowledged that any split in the democratic movement would prove advantageous to Burnham.

By 1978 the regime had become more authoritative, and Burnham wanted to change the nation’s constitution to increase his powers and guarantee his presidency for life, by a referendum that was obviously going to be rigged as all elections under the PNC were. Although Walter was still unemployed and was barely surviving on limited honoraria he obtained for lectures delivered to universities in Europe and North America where he was respected as a distinguished scholar, he was at the forefront of the opposition to Burnham’s devious designs.

Even though the referendum was rigged and the constitution was changed, the campaign to oppose the referendum was successful in demonstrating that it was possible, even though dangerous, to challenge the PNC. Walter argued that it was imperative that we continue to destroy the myth the PNC tried to create that the party was paramount and invincible. He further stressed the need to act urgently before the dictatorship consolidated its rule and really became difficult to be removed.

Hence, shortly afterwards, the Working Peoples Alliance (WPA) was formed. Although Walter Rodney could have easily obtained the support of his colleagues to become the leader of the WPA he rejected any idea that would further aggravate the damage caused by the personality cult Burnham had so vulgarly created, but recommended instead, a shared and rotating leadership for the party.

The WPA attempted and did succeed to a great extent, in mobilizing and uniting the Guyanese people in their opposition to Burnham’s dictatorial rule. By 1979, the party had become so effective that many thought they had the capacity to restore democracy in Guyana. Walter’s charismatic style and eloquence were pivotal in winning popular support. His booklet "Peoples’ Power No Dictator" derived from one his many powerful speeches at a public meeting became a potent weapon.

The regime felt, for the first time, the possibility of losing power, and in its desperation, unleashed a level of violence and terror unprecedented in Guyana. The PNC had disgraced Guyana, and reduced the nation’s political culture to its lowest. Walter expressed publicly his feeling of shame as an Afro-Guyanese at the ignoble behavior of a regime that was run primarily by members of his own ethnic group. Their vulgarity and callousness affected his deep sense of pride and his respect for human dignity, and he regarded it as his responsibility to act firmly to restore respect for decency for his own ethnic group and the Guyanese people in general.

However, the PNC was still not satisfied, so they murdered Edward Dublin and Othene Koama, who were both closely associated with Walter in the WPA. Later, they murdered Father Darke while he was taking photographs at a rally organized to denounce the incarceration of Walter Rodney, Rupert Roopnarine and Omawale, all of whom were accused of arson to a public building used to conduct PNC affairs. These were dark days characterized by shortages of food, water, electricity, transportation and medicines and an abundance of PNC corruption and incompetence. Yet, in spite of all the pressures, Walter found time to write. He wrote short historical stories for children, but his scholarly book "A History of the Guyanese Working People, 1805-1905", which was published posthumously, was an incredible accomplishment.

By 1980, the regime had become so bankrupt and desperate, they plotted the murder of Walter himself. They planted an agent, Gregory Smith, who won his confidence by furnishing communications equipment. These equipment proved useful since the dictatorship had made it difficult and dangerous to travel around the country to organize politically. In the absence of finance, especially foreign currency, and given the fact that it was almost impossible to import anything, it is not difficult to understand how Walter, with so much to deal with, was lured into trusting Smith. Eventually, the PNC planted a bomb in a walkie-talkie given to Walter by Smith resulting in his tragic death on the evening of June 13, 1980 on a street in Georgetown near the jail.

Almost 20 years after his assassination, Guyanese still remember Walter Rodney as a distinguished scholar, and a remarkably dignified and humble person who scrupulously adhered to the belief that justice and freedom were fundamental to life. He pursued his mission honestly, fearlessly and selflessly, leading by example in a disciplined and dedicated manner. He sacrificed his own and his family’s comfort and security, and a brilliant and successful academic career, for the liberation of his homeland. Regrettably, Walter Rodney did not live to witness the restoration of democracy in his country, but the Guyanese people must celebrate his life, and acknowledge his tremendous contribution every time we celebrate our independence and anytime we have reason to pay tribute to our heroes and martyrs. We must ensure that his sacrifice was not in vain.

Zinul Bacchus lives in Toronto, Canada. He was a former Lecturer at the University of Guyana in the Department of Biology.