Today marks 38 years since the death of Dr. Walter Rodney, one of the most brilliant Guyanese who ever lived. This week, this column pays tribute to one of Guyana’s finest and noblest sons who, like Che Guevara, was cut down in the prime of his life.
At the end of 1979, Rodney sensed that the Burnham regime was going to kill him. Six months prior to his death, he had begun to put his affairs in order.
Dr. Walter Rodney was the co-leader of the Working People’s Alliance which was formed in opposition to the then People’s National Congress regime headed by Forbes Burnham. Rodney, an internationally renowned scholar, was assassinated on June 13, 1980, in Georgetown.
Rodney may not have foreseen the exact form his death would have taken, but he knew that he was going to be killed. Declassified documents have given details of a meeting between Rodney and a senior member of the United States Embassy in Guyana, during which Rodney conveyed the impression that he knew he was facing imminent extinction by the Burnham regime.
Rodney met with a senior official of the United States Embassy in Guyana on December 5, 1979. At the end of that meeting, the official was of the view that Rodney had a premonition of his impending death.
The purpose of the meeting was to assure the Embassy that the WPA had no bad intentions towards the United States. It was also to bring it up to date with developments in the country from the perspective of the WPA.
However, during the meeting Rodney essayed a request for the embassy to grant permanent alien status to his wife and children should he be killed. In the event of his death, Rodney wanted to make certain that his wife and children would not have to remain at the mercy of the Burnham government.
He said that he did not like to ask favours, but would do so where the welfare of his family was concerned. He emphasized that he was not seeking assistance for himself.
The US embassy official in his comments to his superiors about the meeting noted that Rodney “had the premonition of a man of imminent death. He was not shrinking from that fate, but he was trying to put a few affairs in order before it came upon him.”
At that meeting, the WPA co-leader brought to the attention of the embassy, the constant harassment, victimization and violence faced by him and his party.
His wife, who was a university graduate, could not get a job. He related that for merely attending a WPA meeting, persons could face transfer to remote areas, outright dismissal and victimization. Even some of his friends who were not politically active were subject to harassment and victimization.
Meetings of his party were broken up and activists attacked. Rodney related to the embassy official that the WPA had received information that the then Prime Minister, Forbes Burnham, had issued instructions that future confrontations with the WPA were to be fateful.
According to Rodney, his travel outside of Georgetown had to be limited, because every time he was discovered in another area, he was picked up by the police and held. The constant surveillance and attacks on the WPA had forced the party to go underground for protection, since even routine meetings about the organization of the party, its finances and political strategy, had to be clandestinely held.
Tacuma Ogunseye had given testimony during the Rodney Commission of Inquiry about that period. He had spoken, inter alia, about the unease among young activists, the strategy of the party, and its efforts to bring about regime change. What Ogunseye said was fully consistent with what Rodney told the embassy official.
Rodney had relayed to the embassy official that a great deal of time and effort was being exhausted by the party in trying to avert retaliation from young WPA activists who were tired of being pushed around by the PNC government.
Rodney also said that the plan, earlier in 1979, was to organize all opposition groups into a government of national reconstruction along the lines of the Dominican model, get the people out into the streets, and demand Burnham’s resignation.
The strategy for regime change would have been to force Burnham to succumb to the overwhelming demand of the people for him to step down. That never happened. After Rodney’s death at the age of 38, the struggle waned.
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