An evocation of context is important to an understanding of events surrounding Walter Rodney’s death
It is interesting to read Tacuma Ogunseye’s testimony before the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Walter Rodney’s death. The report highlights that Mr Ogunseye says the party of Walter Rodney was planning a civil rebellion to overthrow the PNC.
Perhaps ten years ago I wrote a comment in this newspaper stating that it was known and said by some at the time that the WPA was planning revolt, with arms and trained men. Dr Rupert Roopnaraine was asked to comment on my letter. He acknowledged that resistance in all its forms was expected. I word this carefully. Dr Roopnaraine is still to testify.
Mr Kwayana has also, in interviews, mentioned the ferment of the epoch, with a series of mini-rebellions in the Caribbean that would characterise the seventies. It is an era brought to a close by the Grenada invasion and the capitulation of the Caribbean left that followed.
The testimony by Mr Ogunseye places the evidence received so far in a different light. Up to now, through media reports, one would conclude that the COI may be used to establish that the WPA and the Guyanese community had been simply victims of PNC/government aggression. What Ogunseye says adds a complexity to the case. It becomes clear that the adversaries had entered a spiral of mutual hostility, violence, counter-violence and defence. For the historian the question raised is whether either party, if the fact is proven, would have been justified in its recourse to arms.
I quote from a column written by Ralph Ramkarran and carried in the Mirror of January 10, 2010. The column deals with an important ideological and strategic difference between the WPA and the PPP at the time, and mentions the WPA objectives.
Mr Ramkarran writes of relations between the WPA and the PPP then that a major point of difference was precisely the nature resistance should have taken. He states, “By 1979 collaboration in political strategy slowed. By the beginning of 1979 when what the WPA called the ‘civil rebellion’ started… the PPP’s assessment at the time was that opposition forces did not together have the capacity to mount a mass insurrection. The WPA did not share its strategy with the PPP but obviously did not support the PPP’s view.”
In fact, were we to accept the implications of Mr Ramkarran’s recording of the history, the WPA made a strategic decision that would have grave consequences for many. And that includes the PNC.
But, with the remove that time allows, we permit ourselves to recall that the stress of the hour was great on all the groups and personalities involved. It was the first decade after independence and the PNC had governed an economy that it had caused to grow and started to diversify. But because of the oïl shocks and fall in commodity prices the PNC was caught in a moment of socio-political transition that was made more difficult by the economic conditions of the moment. Victims of the changes, then, included the PNC itself, distressed by a deterioration in the world economy that would lead to a lack of foreign currency, that had, in other countries resulted in street demonstrations and the removal of governments. It was a victim of the relentless propaganda of the PPP, of the disaffection of many in the country alienated from the socialistic rhetoric and nascent personality cult that formed part of the imitation of currents in the third world, victim of the recalcitrant racism of segments of the population.
Victims also included the PPP, effectively shut out of government by alignments in the Cold War order that some would interpret in reductionist racial terms. The PPP was necessarily ‘miniaturised’ institutionally, and buffeted by defections and a crumbling of its institutional pillars in the ethnic community it represented. By which is meant the existence of organisations that were Hindu or Muslim in denomination but affiliated to the PNC.
Victims would include the business class, faced with the foreign exchange problem and the withdrawal of that automatic government support to which it had historically been accustomed. It faced open doors elsewhere and would lose much of its social and material capital through migration.
But, generally, the victims were also the growing Guyanese middle class, of whatever ethnic origin and location. It was a group that had benefited greatly from the struggles of the PPP/PNC and the politics of guyanisation that allowed it social and individual career advancement and the creation of an identity that was the natural development of centuries of struggle for dignity and bread. To say that it had developed a class consciousness would not be to exaggerate, and that it held dear certain values is indisputable. It was this group, mostly well represented in the WPA and the PNC itself, that would lead the struggle against the negative political changes and that articulated the problems.
The beating up of poet Martin Carter or the death of Rodney were events that deepened the distance from the PNC and the anguish of a middle stratum of society, which in its variety, was disappointed for three reasons.
-the first, for the conservative elements, being that it considered the PNC in its departure from Caribbean orthodoxy (and yes a conservative Caribbean politics existed) to have betrayed the historical mission of the people’s parties;
-second, for the more ‘progressive,’ it considered that the PNC, led by a generation of politicians bred in the forties and fifties had failed to handle the passing of the baton to a younger generation of that intelligentsia that the masses as well as the middle class had helped create;
– at another level, the masses feared the degeneration of the country into the proto-dictatorships that had developed in Grenada, Antigua and later Suriname, as it was living a period of unprecedented social change in this decade after independence.
It needs to be noted that the WPA, whose main activists would have been born at least a generation after the original charismatic leaders we produced in Jagan and Burnham, was a reconversion, or continuation of a different type of charismatic politics that would later be labelled ‘Rodneyite’ and that operated a people-oriented social philosophy with roots in the ferment of the seventies and the awakening of a ‘black/nativist/creole’ awareness that went beyond negritude or ethnicism to encompass all racial groups.
The group essentially had no major ideological differences with either of the major parties. It was, like its predecessors, basically ‘Marxist.’ But the WPA and its leadership included activists such as Kwayana from ASCRIA and Moses Bhagwan from IPRA. Difficult to comprehend then the party’s under-estimation of the role of ethnic identification in determining election results.
What the WPA opposed, obviously, was what it saw as a deviance from the new Caribbean political current that would lead actors such as George Odlum and Tim Hector and Ralph Gonsalves and Maurice Bishop as well as Rodney to prominence. They were all anti-imperialistic, populists from a cohort better educated than the labour leaders who preceded them. They were, in fact, beneficiaries of the results of previous struggles, and in terms of our political psychology, should have waited their turn or accepted co-option by the ruling order.
The WPA of the seventies was a harbinger and
facilitator of generational change outside the ambit of the old parties and their succession tradition of nomination/designation within the political leadership. Operating outside this tradition and challenging it, was therefore more indicative of what was happening all over the region, than it was of the insistence on ‘one man one vote.’ For, like the older parties, the WPA of the seventies would support revolutionary dictatorship elsewhere once it was convinced that it existed in the interest of ‘the people.’
Essentially then, the WPA, like the PPP, objected first to the personalities at the head table than to the programme or philosophy expounded – and only as a subsidiary concern to the inadequacies of the programme of the PNC and the pace and direction of change.
What the Rodney COI reveals, is that an evocation of context is important to an understanding of the events, and we are grateful to the commissioners and all involved for the importance with which it is treated. Whether the PPP will gain by the recital of the evils and the skewed accounts expected is doubtful. What we hope for is an account of the time and context that goes beyond the existing and self-serving narratives revising our history and distorting it.
Here in Paris a year ago I reconnected with a friend from those days. He had been close to the Burnham family and recalls the Comrade Leader’s reactions when he learned that Rodney had been killed. He says Burnham was shocked and angry. He is convinced that, even if elements linked to the PNC or acting in its name were implicated in the death, Forbes Burnham would have neither ordered nor rejoiced at the killing.
It is an aspect of the drama yet to be evoked in the COI.