Walter Rodney murder probe to resume

Bert Wilkinson | 6/12/2014, 10:16 a.m.

A commission of inquiry probing the June 1980 assassination of Caribbean and American civil rights activist Walter Rodney is to resume hearings after a short break later this month. However, it has become quite clear from emerging testimony that the party that Rodney had led in his native Guyana was on a collision course with the then administration of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham.

Various witnesses who have testified at the hearings have indicated that Rodney, the man best known for the book, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” had made up his mind that the only way to rid the country of Burnham and the then governing People’s National Congress (PNC) was to stage a revolution, and that might have led to his death.

Barbadian jurist Sir Richard Cheltenham is leading the three-person commission of Caribbean attorneys probing the bomb blast that killed Rodney and seriously injured his brother, Donald, as they drove near the main city jailhouse in Georgetown June 13, 1980.

The Working People’s Alliance, which Rodney had cofounded with other radical academics in the 1970s, immediately blamed the PNC and state agencies, such as the military and police, for his death, but it is unclear whether the hearings will conclusively determine how he ended up with a two-way radio bomb in his lap.

Former army sergeant Gregory Smith, aka Cyril Johnson, the man who is supposed to have best known how Rodney was killed, himself succumbed to cancer in French Guiana a few years back. He had moved there after Rodney’s death but blamed Rodney’s own party for stashing him there after realizing that the plot to bring down Burnham’s regime had gone terribly wrong.

At least three witnesses, including Walter’s older brother Eddy, have testified that he had grown increasingly disenchanted with the policies of the Burnham administration at the time and had come to the conclusion that the only way to effect change was through armed revolution, “by any means necessary.”

Smith had argued in a book he wrote before his death that he was asked to pack explosives into two-way radios to sabotage various state agencies, such as the radio station, to undermine Burnham and trigger a popular uprising.

However, others have alleged that the military and police were used to infiltrate the WPA, plant listening devices and sell them guns, and then snitch on them and, in the end, double-cross party activists on behalf of the state. The book has been accepted as evidence.

Rodney and senior party functionaries had never disputed the fact that they had possessed a stash of two-way radios but had argued that the radios were being used to build an alternative communication system to get around planted listening devices. How a bomb ended up in the radio Rodney had in his lap on that fateful night remains the big question for the commission.

Rodney had been active in the U.S. civil rights movement and had taught in East Africa and the Caribbean. Boston University has an academic chair in his name. He was only 37 years old when he died.