By Raffique Shah
February 24, 2016
The findings of a Commission of Inquiry into the murder of Guyanese intellectual and political activist Dr Walter Rodney, 36 years ago, are an indictment not only against the Forbes Burnham dictatorship that ruled Guyana for 21 horrible years, but also other Caricom governments and countries that never condemned Burnham’s atrocities.
To alert our insular minds to occurrences other than Trinidad and Tobago’s economic woes and its runaway crime, the CoI, which comprised three eminent Caribbean jurists (Barbados’ Richard Cheltenham, T&T’s Seenath Jairam and Jamaica’s Jacqueline Samuels-Brown), after listening to evidence from scores of witnesses, concluded that the Burnham Government had been directly involved in Rodney’s assassination by a bomb on June 13, 1980.
More damning, the report implicated Guyana’s Police Service and Defence Force in the plot to kill Rodney, and afterwards to suppress investigations, destroy evidence and ex-filtrate the assassin, soldier Gregory Smith, and his family to French Guiana on a military aircraft.
Now, all that I have written thus far may seem alien to those old enough to remember Burnham and Rodney, and stranger than fiction to generations that know nothing of that period in our history or the personae in a real-life-and-death drama that stained Guyana with buckets of blood.
I make no apologies for devoting a column to it.
Rodney was a Guyanese patriot, the consummate Caribbean Man, and a leader who, had he lived, might have healed the racial divide that has haunted Guyana’s politics for much longer than it has T&T’s.
His book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is a classic in colonial and post-colonial politics and economics.
And his innovative method of imparting knowledge and stimulating the minds of the masses by leaving UWI’s Mona campus where he lectured to “ground with the brothers” in urban Kingston in 1968, which led to him being expelled from Jamaica, was one spark that helped ignite black consciousness across the Caribbean, leading to the events of 1970.
Such a man could not be allowed to live, not in Guyana where Burnham, who was installed in power in 1964 by the British and United States governments through rigged elections (I shall direct doubters to hard evidence if they wish), and whose political life depended on keeping Indo- and Afro-Guyanese at each other’s throats.
So Rodney, who attracted support across the race-divide, had to die. And Burnham thought nothing of killing him, something we, Walter’s friends, knew all along.
Why I indict other Caricom governments in Burnham’s orgy of persecution and murder of those who dared to oppose him is because they all knew he was a tyrant, even complicit in mass murder, but they tolerated his excesses, even encouraged them.
For those who may not remember or do not know, Rodney’s murder in 1980 was not an isolated incident.
In 1978, Guyana’s Burnhamesque notoriety propelled that cussed country into world headlines when Jim Jones, a maniac to whom Burnham had given a huge tract of land in the forested interior to establish “Jonestown”, murdered several high-profiled US citizens who had visited the commune.
Jones then led 918 members of his People’s Temple, among them 300 children, into the biggest collective suicide pact ever, by administering cyanide-laced Kool Aid.
The world was in shock. Burnham laughed. His Caricom colleagues, among them Dr Eric Williams, Michael Manley (Jamaica) and Errol Barrow (Barbados), did not even condemn the dictator for harbouring a mass murderer.
In fact, Dr Williams would continue to lend Burnham money, more than a billion dollars, that remains unpaid to this day.
But Burnham’s atrocities were far from finished.
There were random killings of opponents to his People’s National Congress government for which no one was arrested and charged.
Then in July 1979, another American criminal, this one called himself Rabbi Washington, who Burnham had allowed to establish the dubious House of Israel in Georgetown, pounced upon a WPA (Rodney’s party) anti-government demonstration.
The savages, who had been used by Burnham to attack strikers and political opponents, stabbed to death Jesuit Father Bernard Darke, a lecturer and writer with the Catholic Standard, who was covering the march.
After Burnham died in office in 1985, his successor, Desmond Hoyte, did authorise that some of the criminals who had acted on Burnham’s behalf, be charged with various offences. I believe a few of them were tried and jailed.
Of all Burnham’s sins, though, the victim that continues to haunt Guyana’s politics is Rodney.
His ghost stalks the incumbent government: President David Granger leads a coalition that includes the PNC and ironically, the WPA.
Also, Granger is a retired brigadier, so he must have been a junior officer in 1980 when Sergeant Smith orchestrated Rodney’s death. Did he know of the plot?
And what would Rodney make of his one-time comrades in the WPA being in alliance in government with Burnham’s PNC?
I wish I could speak with Rodney’s ghost on these and other matters.