Thursday, June 20, 2013


It has been thirty three years since Walter Rodney was killed and finally an international commission of inquiry is being set up.  Rodney was co founder of the Working People's Alliance in Guyana and was a well know activist and theoretician world wide.  At the time of his death, Rodney was the third senior member of the WPA to have been killed in seven months, the others having been killed by the police.

A letter published in the New York Review of books from a number of scholars reads in part:

The killing took place while Rodney and others were on trial for a variety of political charges, which centered on charges of arson. Independent observers at the trial have asserted that the proceedings were clearly going against the government of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and the trial had been suspended for a two-month period in order to give the government opportunity to “improve” its case. At the same time the government had indicted seventeen people associated with the WPA on a charge of treason. All of this occurred after Prime Minister Burnham had personally vetoed the appointment of Dr. Rodney to a position at the University of Guyana. A representative of Amnesty International present in the court during the preliminary examination on these charges declared that Amnesty International will formally adopt the case as a subject of its inquiry into political repression in Guyana.

A true investigation at this late date won't be easy.  Many key players are dead. They include former Guyana Defence Force (GDF) electronics expert Sergeant Gregory Smith who had allegedly planted the bomb in a walkie-talkie that blew up on Rodney's pelvic region on June 13, 1980 on John Street near the Georgetown Prison.

The Jamaica Observer reports: 

WPA executive member, Dr Rupert Roopnaraine welcomed the announcement but acknowledged that it would not be easy.

"I think it's going to make the work of the commission more difficult, not just Gregory Smith but there are other witnesses who would have been able to assist the commission but I don't know whether or not you are going to be able to find any of them for one reason or the other," he said.

Three decades ago the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) said there was a need for a thorough investigation of Rodney's death.

As the Walter Rodney Foundation so aptly states:

Walter Rodney is recognized as one of the Caribbean’s most brilliant minds. His scholarly works and political activism engendered a new political consciousness.  His PhD thesis, A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, illustrated his duality as an intellectual and activist as he challenged prevailing assumptions about African history and put forth his own ideas and models for analyzing the history of oppressed peoples. His seminal work, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, provided a new construct for development theory and established framework for analyzing current global socio-economic and political issues.

Earlier this year in an announcement that shocked many (but, in light of recent history should not have) the South African Government of the African National Congress said it had decided to grant an award to the former President of Guyana, who most believe was behind Rodney's murder, Forbes Burnham.  The September National Imbizo (SNI), of South Africa, wrote on its website at the time, 

Burnham’s government  murdered Dr Rodney in 1980. This is a fact recognized by all from the great scholar C.R.L. James to Professor Horace Campbell who recently asked: “Is the ANC rewarding Forbes Burnham for the assassination of Walter Rodney?”. The September National Imbizo’s  response to the question posed by Prof Campbell is an unequivocal “YES!”.  It’s the height of irony that the ANC believes a man such as Forbes Burnham is a companion of O.R. Tambo. The ANC must therefore explain to the nation and to the world as to WHY Forbes Burnham, the man who murdered Dr Walter Rodney, is being issued with an award in recognition of his “friendship shown to South Africa” and it must further explain WHY this award to Burnham is an order of “peace, co-operation and active expression of solidarity and support”.

SNI continued, 

The question ‘who was Walter Rodney’ must be answered with a clear acknowledgement that he was a black revolutionary, a scholar, a philosopher who gave his life, talents and energy to the liberation of black people the world over; that his legacy is characterized by his remarkable commitment and  ability to fuse his knowledge and analysis of history and of society especially in relation to blacks, with liberation politics. As part of his beautiful legacy he left us one of the most important book:  HOW EUROPE UNDERDEVELOPED AFRICA. This book through concise and impeccable research and argument shows us how Africa was underdeveloped by Europeans for their own comfort and progress. It is a massive myth buster that shows through detailed analysis how slavery, colonialism and imperialism have shaped and impoverished Africa and benefitted Europe. Dr Rodney also shows how these anti black forces conspired to destroy and deform Africa’s developmental trajectory. The current crisis of Africa is irrevocably linked to this history of European assault on our continent.

Dr Rodney was a fighter and understood that salvation is possible only through consistent and rigorous ideological struggle and practical battle. He questioned all and gave voice behind fighting by all means necessary, by the oppressed. He asked: “By what standard of morality can the violence used by a slave to break his chains be considered the same as the violence of a slave master?”.

Dr Walter Rodney set up some crucial tasks for a progressive agenda for the revolutionary Pan African Congress Movement.  He came back to Africa to learn and to link up with fellow revolutionaries so as to build a fighting movement back home in Guyana. He was known and loved in Tanzania as one of the brightest young professors of the 1970s. The ANC knew very well who he was, but they chose to side with the oppressor, Forbes Burnham, above Dr Rodney. 

Following an appeal from the Rodney Family to South African President Jacob Zuma, as well as an international campaign Zuma agreed to "defer" the ward indefinitely.   

Desmond Alli, as artist, who recently put together an exhibition in Guyana in remembrance of Rodney writes:

 It is unfortunate that many of our young people do not know of the contribution Walter Rodney made in the struggle for social justice and the unification of Guyanese of all classes, races and creeds. As a historian Rodney interpreted the class nature of Guyanese society in such a way that the ordinary Guyanese could easily understand it.  Walter Rodney has become a symbol of resistance all over the world. In Latin America he is immortalized alongside other revolutionaries such as Che Guevara, Fabrico Ojeda, Camillo Torres, Nelson Suarez, Benito Suarez and others.  Every time people cry out for bread and justice and defiantly stand up for what is right – Walter Rodney lives!

Both items below are from Pambazuka News.  The first is from this month.  The second is from 2010.

The death anniversary of Dr. Walter Rodney is upon us and still no closure

Oscar Ramjeet

It was on June 14, 1980, when for the first time, the BBC 7.15 Caribbean report was blocked from the Guyana Broadcasting Corporation because the powers that be did not want the public to learn of the assassination of Dr. Walter Rodney, the popular and powerful historian whose life was snuffed out the night before – Friday the 13th… ‘Black Friday’ – by a bomb which was in the form of a walkie-talkie.

Up to this day, 33 years later, the authorities still fail to bring to light who was behind the daring murder of the great leader who bridged the racial gap between Indo- and Afro-Guyanese.

The Forbes Burnham administration failed to hold an Inquiry, but the Desmond Hoyte-led government in 1988 – eight long years after the slaying – ordered an Inquest, only after Rodney’s widow, Patricia Rodney addressed a sorrowing letter, followed by protest from a group called “Women in Guyana” which sent a petition via Rodney’s mother to President Hoyte.
However that Inquest was “marred by grave defects” by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) when it visited Guyana. The finding of the Coroner “death by accident or misadventure” was said to be unsatisfactory and flawed for many reasons.
What is disturbing is that Dr. Cheddi Jagan when he took office in 1992, instead of ordering a high-powered Commission of Inquiry, threw cold water by stating that he “wondered what the conviction and imprisonment of the suspect would do for Walter Rodney”. He however conferred Guyana’s highest award – The Order of Excellence – on Walter Rodney posthumously. The Guyana Archives many years later was named after him.
Jagan’s action did not find too much favour with the historian’s son, Shaka, who held a fast and vigil which prompted Caribbean Rights and the ICJ to be involved. Steps were taken to repatriate the suspect, Gregory Smith, from Cayenne in French Guiana, after he was formerly charged with murder in 1996 and
a warrant of arrest was issued by the then Chief Magistrate, K Juman Yassin.
Smith, a former Guyana Defence Force sergeant left for French Guiana the day after the murder and was using another name, Cyril Johnson. His extradition was delayed because the French government prohibited extradition for offences involving capital punishment – the death penalty.
Smith is reported to have died in 2002 from stomach cancer. However the Rodney family and his supporters still want to know who was behind the assassination of this great man who was deemed persona non grata by Hugh Shearer, Jamaica Prime Minister, which led to student demonstration at Mona Campus of the UWI, lead by Ralph Gonsalves, who was at the time Head of the Students Union. Dr. Gonsalves is now the Prime Minister of St. Vincent and the 
After his ban in Jamaica, the Burnham administration denied Dr. Rodney a job at the University of Guyana, which forced him to move into politics. His book “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” was a best seller in the 1970s.


Let your voice be heard. Comment on this article.
June 14, 1980 marks yet one more tragic day for those who seek radical social changes. Like Che and Lumumba before him, Walter Rodney also fell in the hands of reaction.

I first heard of Rodney in 1970 as an activist lecturer in Dar Es-Salaam University. He was a passionate thinker and revolutionary and encouraged Africans in particular to engage in revolutionary struggles. In the mid-70s, Rodney became one of the admirers of the radical Ethiopian student movement so much so that wherever he went to lecture and address a meeting, he had always demanded a standing ovation for the struggle of Ethiopian students. Yes, Walter Rodney still lives in our hearts, we Ethiopian revolutionaries never forget him.
Melakou Tegegn, Development Pinnacle

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Walter Rodney: Prophet of self-emancipation

Wazir Mohamed

June 13, 2010 will mark 30 years since Walter Rodney ‘the prophet of self-emancipation’ was murdered in Guyana at the hands of a brutal dictator acting in cahoots with the agents of international capital. In commemorating the life of Walter Rodney, it is our responsibility to contextualise his killing and to remind ourselves of the role of imperialism and the pivotal role of the big powers in his silencing. 

It was not the first time in the modern history of the world that a defender of the people’s right to equality was silenced, nor would it be the last time. Walter Rodney’s killing can be compared to that of Patrice Lumumba, the first elected prime minister of the Congo in 1961. It could be compared with the murder of Amilcar Cabral, leader of the African Party for the Independence and Union of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) in 1973 at the hands of Portuguese agents. It could be compared with the killing in 1983 of Maurice Bishop, prime minister of Free Grenada, at the hands of overzealous counter revolutionary agents in his party, the New Jewel Movement. It could also be compared with the murder in 1973 of Salvador Allende, prime minister of Chile, at the hands of Pinochet acting in collusion with agents of international capital. 

These and other leaders committed one single crime; they had a passion for real change. They drew their examples for change from the working people, and created new ways, new approaches for dealing with the unequal relationship between the ruling classes and the poor. These were change agents. They recognised the historical problem of racial, economic, social, and cultural inequality between the then called ‘third world’ and the ‘first world,’ and dedicated their lives to change the status quo in their respective countries. They exposed the role of local dictators who benefited from the status quo, and hence were invested in dictatorial processes that kept the working people in subjection.

These leaders, among many others, were killed by agents of foreign and local capital over the period 1960–1990 to send a message to the working people of the former colonial world. That message being that international capital and their local agents are not prepared and will not tolerate any real demands for changes in the economic, political, social, and cultural status quo of the former colonies. This accounts in part for stagnation, retrogression, and continuous deterioration today of the conditions of ordinary people in most areas of the former colonial world.

To this day, the dream of self-emancipation and real independence is still unrealised in every part of the former colonial world. Working people across the world today are further than they have ever been from realising the dream of economic, political, social, and cultural equality. This is as true for the Caribbean – the birthplace of Rodney and Bishop – as it is in Africa, the birthplace of Cabral, Lumumba, Machel, Mandela, and others. Despite majority rule and so-called political independence in Zimbabwe and South Africa, these countries are yet to implement meaningful land reform; which if dealt with democratically could produce the answer to the structure of the historical inequality colonialism created on the continent. Like Guyana, most of the former colonies in Africa, in Asia and in Latin America are yet to find solutions to deal with and turn back the historical damage of ethnic and racial divisions that threaten to consume these societies. 

The assassination of Walter Rodney must be contextualised from the confine of the people’s struggle against foreign domination of mind and body, against foreign domination of thought and action. Walter Rodney did not wake up one day, like so many leader types, and decide that he wanted to take the reign of power over the land. He had no such ambition; he was thrust into the sphere as the recognised leader of the working people of Guyana because in their estimation, he came closest to understanding and sharing their life of pain and suffering. Pain and suffering which abounded in part because of the shattered dream of democratic self-emancipation; a dream snatched away by the unravelling of the anti-colonial national movement of the 1950s. In the aftermath of this unravelling, political forces emerged to represent ethnic interests, and hence the outgrowth of political parties around which sections of the population coalesced because of the perception that they could provide ethnic security. Today, Guyana continues to suffer from the nightmare of ethnic politics. The unravelling of the national movement in Guyana, while it had important local players, occurred in the context of the global onslaught against such movements, a global onslaught against local self determination which began with colonialism and slavery, and which has kept independent nations in subjection for the last 200 years.

Haiti and its poverty is the most striking example. Since the revolution, the big powers not only refused to recognise the right of the Haitian people to self-determination, for over 200 years they also worked to snuff out the possibility of self-emancipation. In Haiti they, the big powers lead by the United States, imposed and supported the Duvalier family dictatorship, which ruled with an iron fist between 1957 and 1986. To this day Haiti is not free to decide on its path toward self-determination, its first freely elected President Bertrand Aristide now lives in South Africa having been banished into exile, because, to use his own words, he opposed ‘privatisation,’ the imposed prescription for small countries by the big powers. He was deposed because he wanted labour laws to regulate the working of the sweatshops in Haiti, because he wanted to impose a national minimum wage, because he wanted to protect local producers and rice farmers from the onslaught of subsidised food which the West dumps on small countries, and furthermore because he wanted to create a governmental structure to allow ordinary Haitians to self-organise in order to emancipate themselves.

Like Duvalier in Haiti, Somoza in Nicaragua, the Shah in Iran, Gairy in Grenada, and the many countless dictators who stalked and stymied the spirit of self-emancipation in Latin America, Asia and Africa, the PNC dictatorship of Guyana emerged and grew into a position of dominance with the backing and support of big powers. Big powers whose interest in the politics of these countries was firstly about access to control their economies, especially their mineral and agricultural production, and secondly about their political support in the Cold War period at the international level. As a young scholar, Walter Rodney who studied the impact of big power politics on the creation of unequal development and inequality, and the construction of the First and Third World was unsettled by the machinations of local leaders, whether they were in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, or the United States of America. In all these theatres, he was drawn into debates and discussion on local conditions as more and more people came into contact with his scholarship. Inevitably, it was the discussions and debates which his scholarship opened up that lead to his banishment from Jamaica by the Shearer government, and which lead to the denial of a teaching appointment at the University of Guyana, and subsequently his assassination in 1980.

There is no separation between Rodney’s scholarship and his activism. His scholarship calls into question all those who sat on the fence and all those who would like to continue to sit on the fence as the divide between rich and poor grows, and as the ruling classes concretise their mastery to use race, ethnicity and gender as a means of imposing varying dimensions of divide and rule in specific local settings. 

Having mastered the history of the Upper Guinea Coast in his doctoral studies, he explained that while local African leaders and ‘elites’ colluded in slave trading, students of history must come to grip with the global dimension; that is the growth of markets for slaves as European trade and commerce expanded and in this expansion varying forms of exploitation in specific local areas emerged.[1] He thus explained that ‘African agents of the Atlantic Slave Trade must be seen in a global perspective,’ that is how the profit motive which was shaped by the growth of plantations in the Americas, created the conditions which lead to internecine warfare, with the primary aim of capturing the ‘enemy’ who were then sold into slavery.[2] This work establishes his fascination with the methodology of capital in creating local lackeys, local agents through whom the tentacles of exploitation of the working people gets constructed and deepened.

Rodney’s scholarship is not idle, it is a call to action. It is a call to action by the working people in local settings, be it in Africa where he was a combatant in the liberation struggle, in Jamaica where he helped students to recognise the ills of society, in the USA and Europe where he implored people on the left to get to grips with the limitations of vanguard politics and the hegemonic character of the leading socialist countries, and in Guyana where he grounded with the people and helped them to understand and identify the local agents of foreign capital, whose wealth and power is derived from their labour and misery.

Walter’s scholarship calls on people to recognise that the path to resolution of historical wrongs have to arise through the understanding of the past. It was in this context that he wrote the ‘History of the Upper Guinea Coast’, ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, and the ‘History of the Guianese Working People’. To quote from the introduction by Vincent Harding, Robert Hill and William Strickland in Walter’s ‘How Europe Undeveloped Africa’, his work is ‘imbued with the spirit, the intellect and the commitment of its author...with Rodney the life and work were one.’[3] 

Nowhere is this impassioned commitment more present, than in his ‘History of the Guianese Working People’. This work, which he completed in the final couple years of his young life, represents in his view, a small contribution to fill a huge gap, the vacuum which exists in the historiography of Guyana, what he identified as the ‘profound underdevelopment’ of the historiography of the region. Having developed on the heels of noted Caribbean nationalist historian, Elsa Goveia, he was passionate about the task that confronted nationalists’ scholars, and new scholars such as him and those to follow. The task as he identified it is to create an understanding of how our societies were constructed through an understanding of the real history of the struggles of the working people. He firmly believed and was unwavering in his commitment that history should be told from the standpoint of the people. This commitment to the truth was the hallmark of his scholarship, and this scholarship was interwoven in his activism.

He believed that real history, if explained, will eventually help the mass of working people shed the shackles which divide them against each other. He exhibited a dispassionate ability to inject the understanding of history into his work, whether he was in the classroom, or whether he was grounding with the working people in their homes, in their places of work, or in their communities. He made no effort to hide where he stood on the issues of inequality and the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in the world; he lived his life in and out of the classroom as a firm defender of the rights of all peoples to full equality. It was this resolve that lead to his banishment from Jamaica.

In responding to the ban placed on him by the Shearer government of Jamaica in 1968, he said that all he was doing was grounding with his brothers, ‘I was trying to contribute something. I was trying to contribute my experience…I went out as I said, I would go to the radio if they wanted me, I would speak on television if they allowed me…I spoke at the Extra-Mural Centre. I would go further down into West Kingston and I would speak wherever there was a possibility of our getting together. It might be in a sports club, it might be in a schoolroom, it might be in a church, it might be in a gully…I have spoken in what people call ‘dungle’, rubbish dumps…that is where the government puts people to live.’[4]

He was a firm believer that the role of the conscious (he used the word black) intellectual and academic is to move beyond the university, that the conscious academic must be able to make the connection between their scholarship and the activity of the masses of working people. Inevitably, it was the commitment to transcend the university, as he did after his return to Guyana in 1974, which lead to his banishment from the University of Guyana. The Burnham government was of the view that if they starved him through refusal to sanction his employment at the University of Guyana, he would be forced to leave the country. But they could not kick him out of the country because he was Guyanese. 

Walter Rodney was committed to the political future of the multi-racial masses of Guyana. He was a firm believer that if the mass of working people was armed with the historical and contemporary reasons which create the misery of their lives, they would be able to emancipate themselves. He was banished from the university and subsequently killed because he dared to engage ordinary people. He was killed because he dared to bring to the people the tools that could lead to unity and combined action. He was killed because he was engaged with the masses, because he was grounding with bauxite workers, with civil servants, with sugar workers, with stevedores, with farmers, with villagers. 

There is a historical context to the final assassination of Walter Rodney. Undaunted by the refusal to employ him, his work and contact with the mass of working people increased a hundredfold – as he would say his ‘groundings’ took on new meaning and had a new purpose. He was committed to the path of showing the working people the way forward, the path towards self-emancipation. He was committed to the path of helping the working people to sort out the problems of the country, a working people whose political, social, cultural, and economic livelihoods were threatened by a government which had seized power through rigged elections. A government, which while masquerading as ‘socialist,’ had begun to trample on the rights of workers to organise, on free speech, on the right to assemble and mobilise, etc. A minority government engaged in the process of consolidating its power. A minority government, which had begun and was in the process of laying the foundation for dictatorial rule and state sponsored corruption. A minority government, which like other foreign sponsored counterparts in that period such as Haiti, Grenada, Nicaragua, Iran and so forth, had begun to lay the basis for state-sponsored terrorism against its political opponents and the people through the reorganisation of the police force and the army to include special security apparatuses, the most notorious of these was the ‘death squad,’ as it was known at the time. A minority government, that entered into agreements with the Internal Monetary Fund, and which imposed strict austerity measures on the working people, while the elites freely dipped their hands in the treasury and dabbled with the wealth of the country.

Walter Rodney was killed because he was unwavering in his commitment to practice and teach a new kind of politics, a politics which abhors the vanguardist top down approach to decision-making. He was killed because he was a firm believer in the self-emancipation of the working, and that this will only come about when the mass of working people are united, that is when they act in unison. He was killed because his efforts to teach the working people the art of unity led to the multi-racial mobilisation never before seen in modern Guyana. He was killed because the enemies of the working people understood that multi-racial action would lead to self-emancipation, and a self-emancipated people would bring about social transformation.

The recipe for ethnic and racial healing in Guyana and the Third World was Rodney’s gift to the working people. He firmly believed in unity of the working people, and was committed to the struggle to find long-term solutions to the problems of ethnic and racial division that consumes Guyana and most of the former colonial world. He was not only committed, but placed his body and soul in the struggle for a new kind of popular politics, a new political culture of respect. He belonged to a new generation of scholar activists who saw the old political games for what they were. He did not equate liberation and development with the mere replacement of expatriate rulers with local versions. His determination as a scholar-activist propelled him to argue that transformation and true human development can only be achieved through the common struggle of all peoples to recognise the necessity for a single humanity. His life’s work of activism and scholarship stands as an exceptional example to anyone willing to think and act outside the box. As a scholar activist he led the way by showing how easy it was for one to switch between researching and writing to activism. This is attested to by his ability to switch from researching and writing about the devastation wrought by outside forces on African societies in ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, and about the history of the working people of Guyana to intervening in the Pan-African and liberation movements in Africa, the movement for racial unity and democracy in Guyana, and to his work with Rastafarians in Jamaica.

While he emphasised, promoted and defended the right of former slaves, the African peoples of the Americas, the Caribbean and Guyana to rediscover their ancestral culture, as attested to in his work ‘Grounding with My Brothers,’ he was equally concerned for the East Indian descendants of indentureship in Guyana. He was non-sectarian and did not harbour any sectarian attitude.

His non-sectarian attitude and approach to find solutions for all peoples in Guyana is established by the equal treatment he gave to Africans and East Indians in his last published book, ‘A history of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905.’ In this work he debunked the culture and popular perception among sections of the Afro-Guyanese population that East Indians in Guyana are alien to the country.

Through documentary evidence of the suffering and struggles of East Indians for survival on the plantations, he demonstrates their contribution as equal partners with other groups of people, especially Afro-Guyanese to the history Guyana. His insights and analysis of the contribution of Afro and Indo Guyanese to the history of Guyana is instructive and remains as an instrument for all of us whose life goal is the creation of a united multi-racial democracy in Guyana; a Guyana for all its sons and daughters. All of us who are imbued with this common goal owe it to our ancestors, to our and to future generations to put our shoulders to the wheel and work, through our scholarship and in our respective communities, to create such a society.


[1] Rodney, Walter: A History of the Upper Guinea Coast (Monthly Review Press, New York 1970), pp. 240-243.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Rodney, Walter: How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Howard University Press, Washington, D.C. 1982), see introduction.
[4] Rodney, Walter: Groundings with my Brothers (Bogle L’Overture P

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