Rodney is a huge part of the conscience of this idea and reality called Guyana, the Caribbean Civilization and their contribution to World Civilization.
By Dr David Hinds
An interesting political scenario is currently being played out in Guyana that could end up telling us whether we are moving politically to something qualitatively better than before. The name and the person, Walter Rodney, is at the centre of it. Dr. Rodney was assassinated in 1980 against the backdrop of a mass movement for political change in Guyana, which was being led by his party, the WPA and inspired largely by him as a symbol of the times.
After years of inaction by both the PNC and PPP governments, the Ramotar-led PPP in 2014 mounted a Commission of Inquiry into the assassination. It immediately became clear that this move was meant more as a political maneuver by the PPP than as a search for the truth. The PPP, leading a minority government, was prepared to do anything, including pimping the martyr, to regain total power. Cynical as the PPP’s move was, it initially achieved its objective. Although, it did not derail the WPA-PNC alliance, it put both parties in a spin and in the process created an uneasiness that persists to this day.
The PNC, understandably, became defensive and vowed not to participate in the proceedings. As the party which held power at the time of Rodney’s demise, it has not been able all these years to shake off charges that its leadership of that time were the intellectual authors. The WPA, on the other hand, was put in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether or not to participate in a process it knew was meant as a partisan political ploy. The party had campaigned for three decades and more for a COI, but now it came as part of a partisan package aimed at scoring political points. So, what to do?
In the end, both parties participated, with WPA members appearing before the COI in their individual capacities. But the PNC made clear that it had no confidence in the exercise. The WPA, understandably, could not take that position. It had to walk the thin line between condemning the process by which the COI was set up and ensuring that justice for its leader remains paramount. Given the PNC’s uncompromising attitude, it was not surprising that with the change of government, and the coming to power of a coalition government in which the PNC has majority influence, the COI was an early target. It was quickly dissolved and given a limited time-line to present its findings.
Rodney’s supporters protested the hasty closure, which they claimed robbed the COI of the opportunity to hear from key witnesses. The government, for its part, cited the more that $400 million spent on the exercise as a manifestation of wastage. Continued pressure by the Justice for Walter Rodney Committee, including a petition delivered to the government has not yielded any positive result—the government has refused to change its mind.
The average reader, who may be unfamiliar with the political dynamics of four decades ago may ask, why all this fuss over Walter Rodney. Why should we bother with a dead politician? Many diehard PNC supporters, including some of the youth, have succumbed to the simplistic propaganda about Rodney and in the process do not have the faintest sense how Rodney has influenced their own political praxis. Many do not and cannot make the connection between their own struggle against PPP’s domination and Rodney’s struggle to democratize our politics and society as a deterrent to the domination they suffered and eventually freed themselves from.
Dr. Walter Rodney is one of the most important Guyanese of his generation; his name and work have helped to make Guyana identifiable to the rest of the world. Coming from very humble circumstances, he rose to become a formidable intellectual whose academic and political work assumed global reach. During his relatively short life he produced a body of work, which today generates much scholarship and political critique of contemporary Guyanese, Caribbean, African and global political economy. Although described as controversial in certain quarters in Guyana, his name invokes awe and respect in many corners of the globe.
As was the case with many intellectuals of his generation, Dr. Rodney did not confine his energies to the traditional classroom. Rather, he extended the classroom to include the street corners and bottom-houses where the masses of people could be reached. Walter Rodney was the consummate public intellectual whose academic work was first and foremost a tool and avenue for socio-political change. As a product of the Caribbean decolonization and Independence moments, he saw his primary role as one of service to the wider community in aid of making independence and freedom meaningful to all citizens, especially the poor.
Born in 1942 in the then British Guiana, Rodney grew up with the decolonization movement led by the then united PPP. His high school education at Queens College in the 1950s coincided with the twists and turns of that movement; developments that would have a lasting effect on him. His move to the University of the West Indies in Jamaica brought him into contact with the wider Caribbean movement. It was at this point that he made the crucial decision to study African history, a decision that further broadened his world-view. By the time he earned a doctorate in that field in 1966 at age 24 , his reputation as a brilliant scholar was already developing.
Dr. Rodney spent the next eight years teaching, researching and writing in Jamaica and Tanzania. His most famous publication, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, was published in 1972. This book literally redefined African historiography; it explained African underdevelopment within the context of European expansionism and development. Today, four decades later, it remains a classic text in the study of Africa, Underdevelopment and Imperialism.
In keeping with his praxis of the responsibility of the intellectual to the wider society, Rodney became involved in the struggle for socio-political justice wherever he found himself. This activism brought him into conflict with the new post-independence government and state, which quickly became suspicious and, in some instances, intolerant of dissent. It was against this background that he was banned from Jamaica in 1968 by the then government which viewed his groundings with the poor and the powerless as a form of political destabilization.
It was not surprising, then, that when he arrived in Guyana in 1974 to take up an appointment as head of the History Department at the University of Guyana, the government of the day reacted in similar fashion to its Jamaican counterpart. Caribbean governments, despite progressive agendas in some instances, had begun to mimic the authoritarianism of the departed colonizers. Here in Guyana, a progressive foreign policy and some equally visionary domestic policies were accompanied by open erosion of human rights and paramountcy of the party.
It was in this context that Rodney’s appointment was rescinded on the grounds that he was a potential enemy of the government and state. Rodney then joined the radical revolutionary movement that had taken root in the region and that was led in Guyana by a new political alliance, the Working People’s Alliance (WPA). For the next six years he inspired a political reawakening in the country that brought him and the WPA into a collision course with the government. It was in that political mix that he was assassinated on June 13, 1980.
Since Dr. Rodney’s assassination much has changed in Guyana and the world. Many of the leading political actors in the government and state at the time of his demise are no longer alive or active. A major political realignment has occurred in which Rodney’s party, the WPA, is now part of a partnership and government with the PNC and others. As difficult as it is, PNC and WPA members have to take cognizance of these changes.
The challenge for both parties and the government to which they belong is how to isolate the PPP’s cynicism without compromising justice for Rodney. Unfortunately, the government has done a poor job in that regard. Reckless and uninformed statements by some ministers have not helped. How do we expect to build a new political culture when we pay scant respect for justice for those who suffered and when we engage in derision and dismissive rhetoric about those who sought to liberate our minds and our society from plantationhood?
Must we continue to be so blinded by partisan narrowness that we sacrifice our own cornerstones in defence of the party legacy? Rodney, Burnham Jagan and others of that ilk all came from our national womb and their politics and activism tell stories of our evolution as a society. If Rodney’s assassination tell a shameful story about part of our journey, so be it. At some point we have to confront all of our journey—the positives and the negatives. In the end this government which I voted for and support to the fullest cannot and must not stand in the way of its own historical mandate to help raise Guyana to a new and enlightened existence. This government cannot disappoint Guyana; if it does we will be forever confined to the backwaters of the political world.
The PNC has made clear it will not accept a verdict that points accusatory finger at the party. So what next—will the government mount a new COI that is bereft of partisan intentions and lavish spending? You cannot say the PPP’s COI was flawed, do not accept its findings and leave it at that; you have to present a qualitatively better alternative. In the end Walter Rodney’s spirit will not go away because, he, Rodney, was more than just a troublemaker, he was, still is and will always be a huge part of the conscience of this idea and reality called Guyana, the Caribbean Civilization and their contribution to World Civilization.
This excerpt from a statement by the Justice for Walter Rodney Committee captures what I am thinking and should alert the government to the risk it is taking by substituting justice for Rodney with partisan expediency—“Will those who conspire to deny justice to an eminent international figure like Walter Rodney, have the moral strength to guarantee justice to the average victim such as Ronald Waddell, Crum Ewing, Blackie, George Bacchus and others?”
More of Dr. Hinds ‘writings and commentaries can be found on his YouTube Channel Hinds’ Sight: Dr. David Hinds’ Guyana-Caribbean Politics and on his website www.guyanacaribbeanpolitics.com. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org