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Rodney’s ghost haunts Guyana; the intellectual behind Caribbean’s black consciousness

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.

Photo: Former Guyana leader Forbes Burnham. (Courtesy Guyana Graphic)
Photo: Former Guyana leader Forbes Burnham.
(Courtesy Guyana Graphic)

To alert our insular minds to occurrences other than Trinidad and Tobago’s economic woes and its runaway crime, the Commission of Inquiry—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 13 June 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 not 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.

Photo: Late Guyana intellectual Walter Rodney.
Photo: Late Guyana intellectual Walter Rodney.

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.

Photo: Late American cult leader Jim Jones.
Photo: Late American cult leader Jim Jones.

In 1978, Guyana’s Burnham-esque 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, which 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.

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago's first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams. (Courtesy Information Division)
Photo: Trinidad and Tobago’s first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams.
(Courtesy Information Division)

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?

Photo: Current Guyana prime minister David Granger. (Copyright AP)
Photo: Current Guyana prime minister David Granger.
(Copyright AP)

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.

About Raffique Shah

Raffique Shah
Raffique Shah is a columnist for over three decades, founder of the T&T International Marathon, co-founder of the ULF with Basdeo Panday and George Weekes, a former sugar cane farmers union leader and an ex-Siparia MP. He trained at the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and was arrested, court-martialled, sentenced and eventually freed on appeal after leading 300 troops in a mutiny at Teteron Barracks during the Black Power revolution of 1970.

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46 comments

  1. Dr. Williams supported Burnham.

    Burnham’s policies: Create an underdeveloped but loyal black urban underclass.
    Dr. Williams’ policy”: Create a loyal black urban underclass

    Burnham: Divide the major ethnic groups and alienate the Indians
    Dr. Williams: Divide the major ethnic groups and alienate the Indians (“recalcitrant minority”)

    Burnham: Place the negroes in the public service and fill the Police and Defence Force with this ethnic group.
    Dr. Williams: Place the negroes in the pulic service and fill the Police and Defence Force with this ethnic group.

    Burnham: Paint the Indians as corrupt, unrefined, immoral drunkards, and unsuitable to rule.
    Dr. Williams: Paint the Indians as corrupt, unrefined, immoral drunkards and unsuitable to rule.

    Burnham: Take funding from the upper class ‘whites’ and guide public policy for their profit.
    Dr. Williams: Guide policies to benefit upper class financiers…who happen to be of fairer complexion.

    We are reaping the fruits of their policies up to today, and in fact, their political ideologies, strategies and policies have changed very little.

    Dr. Rowley is carrying on these oppressive PNM policies up to today.

    Read the biography of Kamaluddin Mohommed titled ‘Kamal’, written by Dr. Hamid Ghany, and you will understand some of the racist policies of the PNM then and now.

    BTW: How can someone plant a bomb in your car, blow you up and it is not murder?

  2. Lasana I have a different perspective on Walter Rodney and it’s not nice.

    • Please share. I’m curious about this matter. I know little to nothing about either man.

    • while he indeed made significant contributions to the political landscape of Guyana and by extension the Caribbean, the WPA now; the party he formed, still don’t stand by some of his principles because it was ‘terrorist like’. Rodney’s support had started to decline by the time of his death. Indeed, I was nowhere close to being born then (I’m a 80’s baby) but growing up in a house with tough-minded politicians, I was privy to a lot of information that I later grew older to follow up at University. ..Lasana, this is a very sensitive matter and can trigger some heated discussion.

    • I’ve realised that it is a hot topic. Look forward to gleaning something from the comments.

    • yea but you’ll probably learn more from the older folks who lived through that time. I might come with some bias given the fact that my perception was drawn from my understanding of the individual and what he really wanted and stand for in Guyana.

    • Walter Rodney was very popular on the University of Ghana Campus in the late 1970’s when I was a child. Flt Lt. Rawlings and his comrades, who led the coup and subsequent murderous regime, were fans of his. If Mr. Shah wants to lead the conversation down that type of path, I assure you, there are no right ways here. Violent revolution is not funny, for the young ones who live through it, or the adults displaced by it. The remedy for the poverty of the third world is not armed revolution

  3. What I find particularly astonishing of these people who are ready to dig up Burnham and lynch him, is that they do not exhibit the same level of revulsion for the party and leader under whose direction hundreds of young black men were rounded up in a vigilante like operation and summarily executed. They do not exhibit the same revulsion over the fact that two black political activists were assassinated and that there is stronger and more credible evidence that points to the PPP, than that which they are channeling to point at Burnham.

    In this Caribbean region, the strong black leader is resented and every thing is done to tear him down in a manner that is laced with an inherited aversion to the physical image he represents. The fact that the only time these moralist are perturbed over the death of a black activist is when they suspect a black man might have done it and can thus use that to rationalize their crap, but are completely detached from the more re recent events of hundreds of men being killed with credible evidence that links non e black political leaders with those deaths, clearly and inarguably exposes their hypocrisy and convenient sense of morality.

  4. We await Raffique Shah’s book on 1970 T&T which I’m sure will touch on the issues around the Caribbean at the time.

  5. ? Er….63 going on 64, Lasana, remember? In the early 80s I was in my 30s. Were you much beyond a baby, if even that? But I was quite old enough to have been aware of this – and it caused quite a stir in those days. Also, my thesis supervisor was a Guyanese lecturer who was a friend of Rodney’s. He was still telling me about it in the late 90s. It really hurt him how it was handled.

    • Clearly Raffique Shah was really moved too. Some of the comments left by Guyanese readers of a particular age show that this is a really divisive topic though.
      Not everyone is willing to accept the decision of the Commission of Inquiry.

  6. Clearly the 1970s and early 80s were swinging times eh Pat! Lol. My awareness of the world around me essentially started around 1990.

  7. Yes, the (lack of) reaction to his murder by our governments and most of our people did constitute a betrayal.

  8. How can I learn more about this? It’s so difficult to get works on modern Caribbean History.

  9. Walter Rodney-Guyanese/Caribbean Intellectual “taken out” far too soon~ Rip

  10. Oh and Granger (now President) was no junior officer at the time.. In 1979, he was commander of the Guyana Defence Force. I imagine the before that he was in fact a very senior and obedient officer of the GDF.

    Raffique was being diplomatic about a current President.

    Kala

  11. True of course. Caribbean leaders except for Eugenia Charles, who called for the head office of the CARICOM Secretariat to be moved from Georgetown, were all complicit in their support and financing of the Burnham regime. Critical were the Caribbean Council of Churches, the Catholic Review… and the Red Thread and journalists Rickey Singh and Raffique

    ( BTW those those were the only critical objectoers when Ramphal, who supported Burnham by rewriting parts of the Constitution was named Chancellor of UG/UWI or was it at COMSEC as SG …whatever).

    Our Express was unrelenting in its criticisms. Williams supplied financing and oil….for free. We were an open ATM.

    I think he meant to write that for those of us who lived through those times, Burnham’s actions were NOT alien to us.

    Raffique cites high profile killings. However, there is a sector which suffered through daily atrocities…..which included the rape of all women in a village, beatings, harassment of the highest level. Burnham on his white horse, with a long whip, nudging school children working in his gardens so that their parents could get basic food supplies stamped on their ration cards….
    And even after, with Hoyte in office, those daily acts of violence against one group continued. I lived there during those turbulent times….threats every Friday to burn down Georgetown, pulling out people of one race out of buses to rob and beat them, even, and it is not funny, cutting off the long hair of one woman while calling her racist names.
    If it were not for Jimmy Carter urging Hoyte to accept defeat at the first free and fair elections since Burnham, the change would never have happened…

    One IndoGuyanese man was set upon by some thugs. As they were beating him he called out, I am the son of XXX, who is with the “”party””. Everyone knew that of course – Bissember, I think, the name was…. The thugs stopped, picked him up, dusted him off and apologised….such was what I witnessed and saw live on TV, or had my direct contacts affected. I had to run the office from my home while I had 24 hour guard service….
    As I worked with the PNC professionally and socially ….

    But like all dictators, Burham also neglected large groups of the poor,urban Afro-Guyanese so there are equivalents of the Beetham and Laventille in Alboystown and Tiger Bay in Georgetown.
    Cannon fodder for elections only. He did support the professional ones though and the business class of all the other ethnic groups as they knew how to pay tribute…
    .
    Not ashamed to say that I wept one night when I understood how the middle class NGOs, like the Y, were also short-changing the youth residents of those depressed areas.

    Yes, Burnham and his cabal have a lot of bad things for which to accept responsibility.

  12. Not sure why Lasana is dipping into this arena but I find this a rather one sided article representing one version of events and as poorly constructed as the recent COI.

    • The column is written by Raffique Shah who made his own feelings clear. But it is an opinion piece.
      I am in no position to debate how factual it is.

    • Yes Lasana I did note the author’s name but as it appears in your publication I take it that it was your editorial decision to publish.

    • Yes that’s true. I think Raffique Shah is entitled to share his impressions of that period.
      What is your recollection? Or how does your interpretation of that period differ from his?

    • Lasana I’m sure you know that it’s a lot more complex than that and to talk of murder and plaster the face of an ex president on the article with no proof of such is abominable. When someone loses their life in the circumstances that he did it’s tragic but arguably not murder, certainly not murder as clear cut as many that have been carried out in more recent times and sanctioned by sitting politicians but I don’t suppose Shah wishes to write about that.

    • Well some of us are that old and connected to others even older. These are not the kinds of things I like to discuss on social media anyway because of connections to so many people but I was just surprised to see something like this in your publication that’s all.

    • We don’t write about the rest of the Caribbean often enough. I guess. But I have written about Jamaica and Belize before, although mainly from a sporting aspect. Jamaal Shabazz has blogged for us too.
      When it comes to opinion pieces, there will always be people with a different view point. That’s understandable.

    • Doesn’t it strike you as odd that these people can point the finger at a man long dead and make accusations in the absence of evidence on dubious recollections when they can’t even solve murders that took place in the past 10 years?

    • Interesting piece brother Lasana. The truth is stark and it is dire, and it stares us in the face mindless of our discomfort with it or our reluctance to confront it

    • There’s a lot of truth Mark and I await the truth on Courteney Crum-Ewing, Ronald Waddell and the 400 youths murdered by the so called phantom.

    • I’m going to say this: when a person is sworn to tell the truth under oath, whatever he testifies to becomes evidence. I sat several days listening to the testimonies presented, I saw the faces of the people testifying and believe me, I can sift through the bullshit. Yes it was the Burnham regime on trial, and they were found guilty. Not by WPA or PPP activists, but by an August international panel of judges. It is not enough to talk about how the regime that were responsible for convening the COI were themselves murderous, we should put them on trial as well. The lives of the innocent victims that were murdered by them are of no less moment than the life of Walter Rodney and should be treated with equal importance. I say try them, make sure they pay for their crimes. Thanks.

    • See I’m not interested in pppc bedtime stories because I know the truth given to me by people who knew the individual. Lasana admits that this was before his time and I get that but to speak of so called atrocities that would have occurred nearly 4 decades ago while ignoring atrocities that occurred in the past 20 years right up to the last election campaign seems hypocritical to me.

    • There is NO statute of limitations on murder, Roger Wilson, the COI needed to happen, I’m happy that it did, it created a precedent that cannot now be ignored. The trial of the PPP’s agents of terror and mass murder MUST happen. That’s what we need to talk about until it happens.

    • Like I said Mark Wayne Xavier it depends what you call murder. A man campaigning with a bullhorn taking three in the head is definitely murder. Based on the facts surrounding the other issue, not the testimony (which is not bulletproof) I would argue that it was not murder.

    • You can stifle your conscience all you want Roger Wilson, Walter Rodney was MURDERED!!! So was Crum Ewing.

    • Shouting doesn’t make you right Mark and I’ll keep my opinion in the absence of definitive, objective evidence.

    • If he was president during a period with such atrocities, then I can definitely justify using his picture in the piece. Just as I used a photo of Dr Eric Williams when Raffique Shah spoke of Trinidad and Tobago’s ties with Guyana at the time.
      But I’m not old enough to know anything from that era first hand.