by dr. henry jeffery
Hours after Walter Rodney was killed and his body taken to the Georgetown Public Hospital, Forbes Burnham spoke to a well-connected young woman who was a family friend and a nurse at the hospital, saying he had heard that Rodney had been killed and wanted her to go find the body and confirm that it was indeed his. Some days ago I made contact with her, and three decades on, her story remains the same.
Two weeks ago in this column I said that I believe that the state was involved in Rodney’s death, and to many people my statement inferred that Burnham was himself personally involved in a plot to kill him. Matters not how tenuously, the above mentioned request suggests that he may not have been, it is now beyond doubt that the Burnham state was bound to take action against the WPA.
Firstly, notwithstanding Rodney’s essential commitment to nonviolence, he left sufficient theoretical room for the use of violence. ‘Civil disobedience’, he claimed, ‘goes beyond the point where the civil power breaks its own laws. One can suggest disobedience of the law because of the fundamental fact that the government is illegal. Citizens have a right to be guided not by the unjust laws of an unjust state but by what Gandhi called ‘the higher law of justice.’ ….. Attacks by PNC thugs and by thugs in uniform (calling themselves police) have so far gone down without resistance. That phase is at an end. Self-defence is an inalienable human right, and the tactics of confronting the regime will change to ensure that persons defend their right to life and limb’ (Rodney, Walter (1979) People’s Power; No Dictator. Working People’s Alliance: Georgetown).
Rodney also believed that, faced with a substantial challenge, the regime would start to brutalize ordinary citizens seeking to exercise their democratic rights and that this would give rise to even more and larger protests which would bring down the government (Ibid.). Burnham might likewise have figured that the need for the security forces to confront protestors in a manner that would lead to mass protest would be severely diminished if the leaders and activists of the opposition were to be taken out by their own illegal activities.
Secondly, I believe that it has now been clearly established that the WPA had been involved in the acquisition of arms and related materials. Some of Rodney’s closest colleagues, Dr. Rupert Roopnaraine for example, claimed that the WPA was amassing weapons and his bodyguard, Allan Robert Gates, in his evidence to the Rodney Commission of Inquiry, claimed that he was sent by Dr. Roopnaraine on several occasions to collect ammunition and that on one occasion Roopnaraine was also interested in G3 submachine guns.
WPA member Tacuma Ogunseye did not deny that his party was acquiring arms but claimed that it was not on a large scale and was for the security of its members in the context of the threats made by Burnham. When a political party committed to the overthrow of the state begins to acquire arms, I doubt if the state is going to make any differentiation between its reasons for doing so. In any case, what does defence against Burnham mean since Burnham would have most likely used the security forces and one’s actions would have amounted to taking up arms against the state?
In my presence, Burnham told the Executive Committee of the PNC (I believe he also said it publicly) that the WPA was attempting to get someone to blow up his car.
Only a few weeks ago that story was confirmed by a close friend of the individual of whom that request was made.
In this kind of context, any state would have sought to make it costly for the individuals involved in such activities. I believe that the Burnham state did just that and that Walter Rodney was caught in just this kind of net.
Yet, while on the face of it, Burnham’s request of the nurse suggests that he personally may not have been aware of a plot to kill Rodney, no matter how disfigured Rodney’s face might have been, is it plausible that in the political environment of Guyana at that time, Burnham would have had to depend on a civilian nurse to confirm that the corpse was really Rodney’s? The following story suggests otherwise.
As head of research in the Office of the General Secretary of the PNC and Ministry of National Development, it largely fell to me to do basic drafts of speeches for the political hierarchy when requests came in. To make a long story short, on one occasion, after sending Burnham some notes, he requested that I go to his office and after some small talk exclaimed, ‘What bullshit is this? This is what we paying you for?’
I had considered the draft pretty good so explained that I was trying to be more concrete on this occasion and actually attempt to show what was taking place on the streets. Looking at me somewhat intensely, Burnham said, ‘Really? You Jeffrey want to tell me what is going on in Guyana? Don’t make me laugh (and he chuckled). What do you think I have the police, army and security for?
Anyone who tells you the Leader does not know what is taking place is most likely a sycophant. You don’t know bullshit: not half of what is going on in Guyana and in all of this confusion my job is also to present the people with hope and that is what you were supposed to do: give hope!’
As the Commission of Inquiry into the death of Rodney surmised, Burnham did have and believed that he had a fairly holistic understanding of what was taking place in Guyana, but ironically, here he appears to be denying knowledge and even indicating a kind of alarm as it relates specifically to Rodney’s demise. This, together with a kind of impromptu job to get Gregory Smith out of Guyana, is the clearest indication I know of that suggests that Burnham may not have specifically targeted Rodney.
On the other hand, if only I was able to identify the nurse and her then location in the social hierarchy of Guyana, you would realise that on the issue of whether Burnham knew or did not know of a plot to kill Rodney specifically, the jury is still out.
Involved or not, by utilizing her for this favour, Burnham might have calculated that he was sending the message near and far that he was not aware of any plan to kill Rodney.