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OUR CARIBBEAN: Rodney death probe at last

Rickey Singh

OUR CARIBBEAN: Rodney death probe at last

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FINALLY, 38 years after Dr Walter Rodney, internationally famous historian, intellectual and political activist, was tragically ripped apart in a bomb blast in his car on the night of June 13, 1980, in Georgetown, a three-member team of distinguished Caribbean legal experts has been established to begin its probe into the circumstances of his death.
“Assassination” has always been the unofficial verdict hurled by the party of which he was a founder-leader, the Working People’s Alliance (WPA), as well as from thousands of supporters, of various ethnicities and status, across Guyana. They continue to squarely blame the then prevailing “dictatorship” of the now late President Forbes Burnham for the death.
The very challenging, perhaps unenviable, task of the commission of inquiry is to unearth the truth – given the deaths, from natural causes, of some key figures – not the least being that of a secretly recruited former sergeant of the Guyana Defence Force (GDF), Gregory Smith. An electronics expert, he died some years ago in neighbouring French Guiana, to which he was facilitated in escaping and where he had started a new life.
The commission comprises Barbadian Queen’s Counsel Sir Richard Cheltenham (chairman); Jamaican QC Jacqueline Samuels-Brown, and Guyanese-born Senior Counsel Seenauth Jairam, who lives and works in Trinidad and Tobago.
The commissioners were sworn in last week by President Donald Ramotar as Guyanese were winding down from annual nationwide Mashramani celebrations of Guyana as a constitutional republic and while Trinidadians were immersed in the final stages of their carnival.
It has not gone unnoticed that during his long years as head of government and head of state, Mr Burnham’s People’s National Congress (PNC) never acquiesced to recurring calls for an independent probe into Rodney’s death from various political parties, non-government organisations as well as from the widow and children of the slain historian and charismatic advocate for fundamental human rights and social, economic and political changes in Guyana.
Efforts were made after 1992, with a change in government, led by the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) of the now late President Dr Cheddi Jagan to, among other initiatives, seek the cooperation of the government in Paris for Smith’s extradition as a key person of interest in the bombing death of Rodney. However, the French authorities made clear that it was not their policy to extradite an individual back to his country of birth to face a likely death sentence since France was opposed to the death penalty.
Earlier efforts by human rights advocates and organisations to secure the involvement in a probe into Rodney’s death by the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists were also fruitless.
In a telephone interview I did as a regional correspondent for the then Caribbean News Agency with Smith while he was still in French Guiana, he claimed that the tragedy “was an accident” and that he was “sorry” but preferred not to comment further.
It was left to Burnham’s successor as president and party leader, Desmond Hoyte, to initiate a coroner’s inquest – under pressure from, in particular, the iconic cultural/political activist and a founding figure of the WPA, Eusi Kwayana.
Eight years after Burnham’s passing, and in the absence of efforts to summon key witnesses and ensure scientific evidence, the inquest concluded that Rodney’s death had resulted “by accident or misadventure”.
There remain some political peculiarities, including passage of a parliamentary motion calling for an independent probe into Rodney’s death but only after the opposition of PNC and WPA parliamentarians had succeeded in excluding the word “assassination”, with the argument that it would prejudge the circumstances of the historian’s death.
Prior to Guyana’s last general election in November 2011, the WPA most surprisingly opted to team up with the PNC – under the leadership of retired Brigadier of the GDF, David Granger – to contest the national poll under the political umbrella of convenience known as APNU – A Partnership for National Unity.   
For this “partnership”, Granger ­– always a “comrade” of the PNC – and the WPA’s “brother” Rupert Roopnarine, academic and writer, happen to be, respectively, APNU’s chairman and deputy chairman.
You think party politics in Guyana “easy”? Readers will anxiously await the very challenging findings of the three-member commission.
Rickey Singh is a noted Caribbean journalist. Email [email protected]