An announcement from Guyana that a commission has been sworn in to investigate the 1980 assassination of brilliant historian political activist Walter Rodney came as no surprise. The government created a secretariat since last July for that purpose.
In the absence of any new evidence related to the 38-year-old case, the surprise is that this inquiry is taking place at all.
Whatever the motivation, the inquiry will peel back the layers of blame and counter-blame surrounding a murder that happened in a period that could have become a Guyana spring, part of a flowering of anti-establishment sentiment directed against legacy politicians who steered much of the English-speaking Caribbean towards independence from Britain and entrenched themselves in power.
The period of “New Left” activism included an armed uprising in Grenada by Maurice Bishop and his New Jewel Movement that ousted the government of the idiosyncratic Eric Gairy in 1979.
It also included an earlier coup attempt by army lieutenants Rex Lassalle and Raffique Shah against the Eric Williams government in Trinidad and Tobago in 1970.
Those two extra-constitutional attempts to change government had different outcomes. Lassalle and Shah surrendered 10 days into their coup, were court-martialed and imprisoned but released on appeal to the courts.
Bishop’s party fractured four years after taking power, when the deputy prime minister, Bernard Coard, staged a counter-coup.
Bishop and some of his closest aides were executed. Claiming fears for the safety of American students at a local university and concerned about the growing presence of Cuban construction workers in Grenada, President Ronald Reagan ordered an invasion that dislodged Coard and his allies.
The militants in Guyana, of whom Rodney was the most prominent, took a different path to revolution, in the face of the stranglehold of two parties over the country’s politics.
Enter Rodney and the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), formed around 1974 by a loose coalition that included leftwing University of Guyana professors, a few disenchanted former PPP and PNC members and Afrocentric community leaders, notably the venerable Eusi Kwayana.
The WPA shunned establishment politics, seeking instead to educate people on the political realities of the day and, by its racially diverse makeup, point the way to a truly multiracial government.
Rodney, who returned to Guyana around that time, attended the now University of the West Indies in Jamaica, graduating with highest honors in History. He earned a doctorate in African History in 1966 from the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, at age 24. His dissertation focused on the slave trade in Guinea.
Rodney taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, 1966-67, where he wrote How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, which is still regarded as a classic treatise on the economic exploitation of that continent which still continues.
In his book, Rodney blamed imperialism and its local “collaborators” for Africa’s desperate economic plight and argued that ordinary Africans must understand this and work to overthrow the system.
He next got a job at the University of the West Indies, but it was not long before then Prime Minister Hugh Shearer declared him persona non grata and expelled him, angering a segment of Jamaicans and provoked the Rodney Riots. Rodney related his experience of this period in a book, The Groundings With My Brothers.
Antigua and Trinidad and Tobago also banned him and he returned to teaching History in Tanzania until 1974, when he went home to Guyana as a candidate for the chairmanship of the History Department of the University of Guyana, a state institution.
He was rejected.
The WPA functioned under a collective leadership but Rodney quickly emerged as the face of the movement. Efforts to form a coalition with the PPP collapsed because the WPA demanded “vanguard” status, because of its militancy, in any partnership.
A series of violent episodes, mainly directed toward the WPA and its leaders, by the police led the WPA to formally declare itself a political party.
The confrontation worsened when the PNC’s secretariat building was torched on July 11, 1979. Rodney and a few other WPA members were arrested and charged with arson. While they were out on bail, the one-sided confrontation continued, the small WPA against the might of the state.
Police later arrested about two dozen other WPA members on charges of plotting the armed overthrow of the government.
Rodney was killed a few days later, on June 13, 1980, by an explosive device that went off in his lap while he sat in a parked car. How it got there is expected to be central to the work of the Commission of Inquiry.
The members, all lawyers, are Richard Cheltenham of Barbados as chairman and Jacqueline Samuels-Brown of Jamaica and Guyana-born Seenath Jairam of Trinidad and Tobago.
The commission is expecting to hear from about 100 witnesses during its sessions, which will be open to the public, and submit a report within four months.
Reports have persisted over the years that put the blame for Rodney’s death on a member or former member of the Guyana Defence Force, identified as Gregory Smith. He disappeared immediately afterwards and surfaced in French Guiana, where he lived until his death in 2002.
Guyana-born journalist Rickey Singh, in an analysis published March 8 this year on the commission’s appointment, identified Smith as an army sergeant and electronics expert, who, he said, he had interviewed by phone from French Guiana.
Singh said Smith told him Rodney’s death was an accident, adding that Smith apologized but gave no further details. The explosion that killed Rodney took place outside the main prison in Georgetown, the capital.
The blast shot up from his lap to his chest and chin and must have killed him instantly. It was so precise that Rodney’s brother Donald, sitting next to him, suffered only minor injuries. He disappeared for a couple of days and, when he resurfaced, police charged him with possessing an explosive device.
News reports at the time said Donald Rodney told authorities he thought the device was a walkie-talkie. He was reported to have said that a man he believed to be a former army sergeant had offered to make communication equipment for the WPA. The device was in a brown paper bag and being tested against metal when it exploded, he said.
Other reports have suggested Walter Rodney was planning to detonate a bomb outside the metal gate of the prison to free the detained WPA members and was tricked into believing he was using a remote detonator. The government allowed journalists to view Rodney’s body in the morgue as part of a campaign to blame him for his own death. Two British forensic experts were brought in to help with the investigation.
The government finally concluded that Rodney’s death was accidental and no official inquiry on the scale now taking place was launched. While the ruling party might have good reason for not probing too deeply into a murder to which reports linked it, the PPP did not make any significant effort to do so until last year, when it was already in power for 21 years.
The probe will seek to unravel the Smith connection to the assassination, including whether anyone “counseled, procured, aided or abetted” him.
It will also investigate whether elements of the state, such as the police and the army, spied on the political opposition during Jan. 1, 1978 to and Dec. 31, 1980, the period of greatest confrontation between the PNC government and the WPA.
Basil Williams, chairman of the PNC-Reform, as the PNC is now known, believes that means the inquiry’s real goal is to put his party on trial. Whatever the motivation, the commission’s appointment is certain to be welcomed by Rodney’s widow, Pat, who has been calling for closure for more than three decades.
Other than that, it is not clear what the investigation will accomplish or whether the Guyanese people will really care, in this vastly different era, other than for some who will remember Rodney and mourn, one more time, the spring that was cut short by a death too soon.
Rodney was 34 when he was killed.